Most camp aficionados spend too much time deciding whether or not each little cultural artifact fails or succeeds as camp to actually enjoy the ride. Being one of them, I’d rather spend time defining the three films Warner Home Video has deemed “cult camp classics” of the “terrorized travelers” variety than defending them (all three are predictably dire as movies). I hardly feel I have to make the effort, though, as this third volume already seems the least likely to qualify as camp of the four boxes (the others cover the stalwart camp subgenres of sword-and-sandal epics, atomic age sci-fi, and women-in-peril melodramas). Still, one of the tenets of camp is that it can come from the most unlikely of places.
Kicking off the set, Charlton Heston is hardly an unlikely camp headliner, especially when it comes to the 1970s disaster-movie craze. Aside from sharing screen space with the crossed eyes of Karen Black in Airport 1975, he also contended with Ava Gardner’s lopsided, living-on-the-fault-line cleavage in Earthquake. In Skyjacked, Heston, smartly trying to remain a confirmed bachelor, plays a pentagon-jawed pilot flying a packed jetliner to the shit-kicking town of Minneapolis. Because coach passengers obviously mean jack shit, the film’s exposition roves from seat to seat in the first-class section so that each character can bemoan the tragic fact that they are en route to Minneapolis. Even the senator played by Walter Pidgeon seems bummed out about it. One character, a war veteran played by James Brolin, even drinks himself unto belligerence (off “Roosevelt” Grier’s hooch) and starts writing threats all over the plane in lipstick to avoid having to touch down at MSP. After he pulls a grenade, Heston and his cockpit crew decide to skip Minneapolis and take him to Anchorage. A reasonable turn of events, one reasons, until Brolin continues to knock heads and demands Heston refuel and take them all to Moscow. Is it camp? Sure, Brolin plays crazy only one shade less broadly than would require him to smear that lipstick all over his nipples, and it eventually turns out that Heston still can’t keep his pants on (a flashback reveals he’s diddling that one stewardess who is a dead ringer for Cloris Leachman). But director John Guillermin (who helmed all but the exciting scenes of Irwin Allen’s The Towering Inferno) blows it by actually editing his action sequences with the TV-movie equivalent of brio. Skyjacked isn’t even as camp as the hopelessly square Airport it’s so clearly emulating.
Hot Rods To Hell begins on an encouraging note. It’s late December and paterfamilias Dana Andrews is on his way home from a business trip when he decides to give his family a call. Though it’s a miracle they can hear him at all what with all the Christmas muzak blaring from their stereo system, they each take turns telling him what he still needs to buy for them to keep the season bright. Of particular note is the sexy teenage daughter’s request for a pink satin teddy with removable crotch. (She’s sick of boys having to tear holes in those old flannel pants Andrews suggests she stick with.) Even more promisingly, Andrews’s wife is played by Jeanne Crain, over-emoting with such commitment you can practically annotate the inner workings of her respiratory system. Even better, Andrews gets run off the road a few minutes later and spends Christmas in the hospital and New Year’s in a truss, suddenly acting like the family paterfamilias grande. A friend suggests they move away from the big city and try to restart their lives in the quiet countryside. He sells them a motel out in the middle of the desert, requiring Andrews not just to regain his shattered confidence behind the wheel, but also to do so among drag-racing, chicken-daring, hot-rodding teens with nothing better to do than smear each other all over the pavement. Is it camp? Basically not. Tanned teens with big pouty lips were a dime a dozen this late in the game. And though the acting chops of both Andrews (eternally sweaty) and Crain (convulsing on oxygen) keep the film at a fevered pitch, they never manage to drive Hot Rods To Hell across the dividing lines between Boring Bad and Camp Bad. At least not until a frustrated Andrews decides to spank the boys’ little red car with an iron jack.
We can probably skip the question of whether or not Zero Hour! is camp right off. It’s so clearly camp that even a group of resolutely heterosexist Jewish frat boys could see it (which is exactly what the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker team were doing when they decided to reuse the script nearly verbatim in making Airplane!). The plot of Arthur “Airport” Hailey’s teleplay—jetliner’s entire crew and over half the passengers come down with a violent case of food poisoning, leaving all their lives in the shaky hands of a fighter pilot with a tragic war history—should now be familiar to everyone who has ever said “And don’t call me Shirley.” What Zero Hour! has that the other two films in Warner’s camp box do not is complete obliviousness to its own camp quotient. Chalk it up to being the only film that was made before Susan Sontag decided to collate her “notes” on the subject, but the fact remains that there was something creepy about the enthusiasm of the crew upon the arrival of a little boy into the cockpit. There was something hilarious about how much Dana Andrews (a decade younger here) perspired in times of peril. (Must’ve been all that thunder in the clouds.) There was something hysterical about the supposed veracity of Hailey’s stabs at airport politics masquerading as plot. And there was something endearingly idiotic about casting a non-actor sports legend as the flight captain (which ZAZ also lifted when they stuck Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in their crew), because nothing says charisma like insisting on keeping a nickname like “Crazylegs” in your on-screen credit.
I don't know how they do it, but Warner continues to turn out nearly flawless DVD transfers-doing so with the sort of prints it's hard to imagine anyone cared about preserving. Maybe that's exactly it. Maybe no one has touched these shitty films ever since their theatrical runs. Of the group, Hot Rods To Hell looks the most vivid. Artifacts are minimal, and some of the later scenes lit by police lights pop with bold reds and blues. Skyjacked has a much more muted '70s palette, but it too looks pretty clear. Minor print dirt on both, but probably less overall than shows up throughout Zero Hour! (which is understandable as it's both the oldest film here as well as the only one I imagine had any residual life post-Airplane!). Sound seems a tad low on Zero Hour!, but you'll still be able to surprise yourself reciting the dialogue.
Nothing on this particular set, beyond the theatrical trailers. Can't say I blame anyone.
While it is almost surely the least worthy of the moniker "Cult Camp Classics," volume three does feature one of the most enduring titles in the entire line.