The U.S. military releases a weaponized vapor that immediately kills everyone on the planet over 25 years-old. This is the starting point for Roger Corman’s “Gas-s-s-s” (1970), one of the movies featured this month on “Cult Classics,” a weekly double-feature of B-movies, drive-in staples, and experimental films curated from the MGM library every Friday night on MGM HD.
Although that description sounds like the plot of a grim post-apocalyptic horror-thriller, “Gas-s-s” is actually part comic satire, part contemporary social commentary, and part catalog of Baby Boomer pop culture. Drawing inspiration from the hippie-era slogan, “Don’t trust anyone over 30,” Corman’s “Gas-s-s-s” imagines exactly such a world. Made on a shoestring budget, “Gas-s-s-s” is a trippy and disjointed film that mixes hand-held experimental cinema, agitprop animation, rock show lighting effects, and a healthy dose of the Marx Brothers for a surreal counterculture road trip through the American Southwest.
Occasionally movies are made that sum up a moment in time in such a way that, in retrospect, it’s hard to believe people could have been self-aware enough at the time to realize the details around them. “Gas-s-s-s” is like a tour of 1960’s cultural references: hippies, creeps, weirdos, fascists, radicals, cops, biker gangs, cowboys and gurus all show up in the film’s journey.
Our main characters, Coel (Robert Corff) and Cilla (Elaine Giftos), a pair of student hippies (correction: “creeps”) from Dallas find themselves in a brave new world without adult supervision. As lovers seeking new experiences, they depart – in their Edsel – from Dealey Plaza, past the book depository and the grassy knoll, for an odyssey through the wildlands of West Texas and New Mexico. Along the way they hook up with a gang of fellow creeps (or, maybe they’re “weirdos”?) including a young Ben Vereen as African American revolutionary, Carlos, outfitted in a Zapata sombrero and bandoliers, and his girlfriend Marissa played by a pre- “Laverne and Shirley” Cindy Williams as a pregnant young woman who speaks only in the language of rock n’ roll and golden oldies. Rounding out the gang are a couple played by Bud Court (“Harold and Maude”) and Tally Coppola, (Francis’ sister, better known as Talia Shire).
Encouraged by a motorcycle-riding Edgar Allen Poe, complete with a raven on his shoulder, our gang of merry pranksters encounter a group of cowboys holed up in an automotive junkyard, a rock festival in the desert, a town ruled by a militaristic high school football team, and a suburban country club governed by some rather middle class Hell’s Angels. Sight gags and surreal set pieces abound: look for the girl cooking a TV dinner over an open fire. Our gang engages in a bloodless gunfight where the opposing sides wound each other by shouting out the names of the western heroes of their youth: “Tom Mix!” “William S. Heart!” The Vietnam War makes an appearance as a battle on a golf course driving range that includes protesters with handmade signs: “Suppose they held a tournament and nobody came.”
If it all sounds strange well, it is. But what else to expect from a movie that features as its heroes: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King jr., Gandhi, and Mad Magazine mascot, Alfred E. Newman. “Gas-s-s-s” was one of director Roger Corman’s last movies for American International Pictures, where he had spent much of the decade making low-budget exploitation flicks along with socially relevant films about people searching for themselves. “Gas-s-s-s,” made as the turbulent sixties came to a close, serves as an intriguing coda to an era. As the movie itself advises, “There are no answers, but keep looking anyway.”
“Gas-s-s-s” may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but part of the fun of cult movies is being one of the people who “get it”. Watch “Cult Classics” every Friday night starting at midnight eastern, 9p Pacific, on MGM HD.