“Watch Your Donkey — Skokey’s Gonna Getcha” — Advertising Tag-Line for “SuperVan”
Admit it : you miss the custom van craze. The gaudy sci-fi/western/stoner/cartoon paint jobs, the water beds in back, the CB radios and “fuzz buster” radar detectors — we hit some kind of cultural peak in the 70s with this trend that not even skyrocketing gas prices and long lines at the pump could derail for a time there. And then the “vanners” grew up — they eventually got their “van groupie” girlfriends/one-night stands pregnant in those custom-fitted waterbeds, settled down, got real jobs, traded in their vans for down payment cash on a house, and the whole thing just faded into history’s rear view mirror. Things have never been the same since, have they?
And thank God for that, because as far as vehicle trends go, there’s never been anything as mind-bendingly stupid as the van craze. Teenagers and going-nowhere 20-somethings dropping all kinds of money they didn’t have into beastly, gaudy gas-guzzlers that weren’t good for anything but showing off to fellow van-obsessed retards? When I was growing up, I had a kind of fond nostalgia for the 70s and often felt like I was born a decade too late. Funny thing is, though, everyone who came of age in the 70s would tell me that they absolutely sucked. Now that I’m older (and speaking of being older, if I had, in fact, been born a decade earlier I would now be pushing 50 instead of 40, and that would be a real drag), I can see what these veterans of the “Me decade” we’re talking about, and there’s no more glaring proof of how right they were than 1977′s ( well, released in ’77 — it was shot, and takes place, in the bicentennial year of ’76) “SuperVan.”
A cinematic tribute to all things van lensed by “Disco Fever” director Lamar Card and scripted by Neva Friedenn and Robert Easter of “The Toolbox Murders” fame (and before I forget edited by Bill Butler, who also did — I kid you not — “A Clockwork Orange”), “SuperVan” does, indeed, have a story of sorts, but it doesn’t really matter too much — aside from the fact that “Smokey and the Bandit,” which came out a year later, seems to have essentially ripped off its skeletal plot. But we’ll get to all that in a minute.
No, rather than spend too much time on formalities like plot, characterization, dramatic tension, or any of that, “SuperVan” is more concerned with just showing off van after van after fucking van, with special attention paid to long, slow, lingering takes of their paint jobs, tricked-out interiors, and all the trappings that supposedly made these living rooms on wheels so damn awesome. If you cut out all the time spent ogling the interiors and exteriors on these lumbering mechanical nightmares, the film’s barely- 90 minute runtime would be cut in half. At least.
But onto the story, or what there is of it. Morgan (Mark Schneider) is a typical 19-or-so-year-old 70s kid stuck working at his old man’s Kansas City-area service station. He’s got big dreams, though, and pumps every cent he makes, and every spare minute he’s got, into his pride-and-joy custom van. One weekend in the legendary summer of 1976, Morgan’s dreams come knocking right at his door in the form of “Freakout ’76,” an honest-to-God van-a-palooza being held right in his hometown. Enthusiasts from all over the midwest are making their way to this Sturgis-of-the-vans, and the coolest rig walks away with a prize of $5,000. With a quickie loan/gift from his dad and the old man’s reluctant blessing, Morgan makes his way to the open road, hoping to hook up with one of the van convoys we see endless shots of congesting our nation’s highways and taking “Freakout ’76″ by storm once he arrives.
There’s trouble along the way, though — at an auto salvage yard, Morgan saves a runaway girl of roughly his own age from being gang-raped by a bunch of bikers. Needless to say, these wolves aren’t too happy about our guy Morgan trying to make off with their prey and, as he attempts to escape, they crush his van in auto compactor. Morgan is forced to beat a hasty retreat in a dilapidated old truck he liberates from the yard with the girl in tow. He soon learns her name is Karen (Katie Saylor) and she’s on the run from her control-freak rich dad who’s out to cramp her style, as all parents did back then — and probably still do now. It’s kinda their job, after all.
But even though he’s now vanless and damn near penniless to boot, Morgan is still determined to be the biggest ball in the nutsack at “Freakout ’76,” and this being the 70s and all, doesn’t even seem particularly worried about his current predicament because back then shit just kind of had a way of working itself out.
It also doesn’t hurt that Morgan’s got a buddy who used to be a top-flight engineer for Mid-American Motors, the monolithic van-conversion company of the midwest owned by standard asshole-rich-guy-with-a-taste-for-younger-pussy T. B. Trenton (Morgan Woodward). He stops by to visit his techno-automotive-wizard friend at his workshop and is presented with the van to end all vans, the titular SuperVan herself, Vandora.
Equipped with computerized voice control, autopilot, a high-speed capabilities no other van can match, and even a weapons system that we’ll get to in a couple seconds here (oh, and a bed, too, of course), Vandora is sure to take “Freakout ’76″ by storm. And hey — did I mention that Vandora operates on solar power and has plenty of spare storage capacity in case it’s dark or rainy outside? There’s just one problem : Morgan’s pal can’t drive and needs somebody else to take his super-rig to the big rally/”vanner” Woodstock.
There’s just a few problems to be negotiated along the way (and after they already get there, since truth be told while you’d think the quest of getting to the big “freakout” would form the backbone of the story here and the plot “obstacles” I’m about to detail would be rolled out in such a way as to (almost, at least) prevent them from getting to their destination, they actually get their relatively quickly and unscathed and most of their nearly drama-free “troubles” hit after they arrive on the scene) — Trenton is determined to stop Vandora from getting into the contest, he claims to actually own Vandora since Morgan’s genius buddy was working for him when he designed the inital (gas-guzzling at the time, I’m guessing) prototype, he’s got all the cops and highway patrol (and avoiding “smokeys” is a big occupational hazard for any “vanner”) in the area in his back pocket , and oh — sweet young runaway Karen is his daughter.
The kind of hijinks you can predict pretty easily ensue — Vandora wins some of the contests at “Freakout ’76″ and loses a couple of others, our two young dreamers fall in love, the “fuzz” give Morgan and the other “vanners” all kinds of problems, including tossing our hero’s ass in jail right before the big “mudslide” contest that will determine the winner of the whole weekend “freakout,” and eventually Trenton is lured to his demise by his taste for young flesh.
I hope I didn’t give too much away there, but honestly “SuperVan” is one of those movies you can leave playing while you take a 30-minute phone call and not even have to bother backtracking once you get off the horn. Trust me when I say you probably haven’t missed a thing.
Our two young leads are pretty much wooden in terms of their delivery and screen presence, but that doesn’t really matter much — the real star here in Vandora. Designed by legendary customizer George Barris, who gave us the original Batmobile from the 1960s “Batman” TV series and the Beverly Hillbilles’ truck, among other legendary cinematic vehicles, there’s never any doubt from the word go that she’s the real star of the show here, everything else is just window dressing. Evidently the cinematic marketeers of 1976/77 saw some potential for Vandora beyond the silver screen, as well, as evidenced by the SuperVan model kit that I don’t think burned the shelves off too many toy and hobby stores upon its release, but nevertheless released it was —
A flick like “SuerVan” is one you’d guess would be pretty heavy in the T&A department, but in all honesty this is strictly PG fare all the way. Oh, sure, plenty of the “van groupie” chicks like to show off their goods in tight shorts and even tighter t-shirts, so there’s a hint of big saggy 70s knockers here and there, but they all stay more or less covered, if minimally. The quest to show off the best chest (relatively speaking) at “Freakout ’76″ does lead to one of the film’s more surreal moments, though — one of the judges at the van-stravaganza’s wet t-shirt contest is none other than an obviously (as usual) debilitatingly inebbriated Charles Bukowski! Don’t ask how or why he ended up here, because I seriously don’t know.
There are a few other moments of “what the fuck was that”-ness along the way, as well, such as when Vandora busts Morgan out of jail by firing a solar-powered laser at the wall (remember the weapons system I said I’d get to “in a few seconds” about five minutes ago?) and when she makes a police radio explode essentially just out of thin air, but beyond that it’s pretty much just one endless display of footage from a custom van show of the sort you’d probably find on the evening news at the time if there happened to be one going on in your town — -except then you’d only be subjected to it for a couple of minutes at most.
One conclusion is inescapable from watching this flick — Kansas City must have been one boring-ass place to live back in the 70s. I say this because “Freakout ’76″ is all the radio DJs talk about while Morgan is driving his bizarre-humming-noise-emitting SuperVan. Literally. It’s like it’s the only thing going on in town (they even refer to their fair hamlet as “Vansas City”). Here in Minneapolis we’re damn proud, for reasons I can’t quite fathom, of the old Mary Tyler Moore show putting on “on the map,” so to speak, in that decade, even though they only shot about five seconds of intro footage for it here (there’s even a statue of her downtown on the very spot where she threw her hat in the air — people think I’m kidding about this, but sadly I’m not). If the makers of “SuperVan” where hoping to achieve a similar public relations coup for their hometown (and for St. Joseph, Missouri, where the “freakout” segments of this “epic” were filmed), it’s safe to say that it didn’t happen. But somehow I doubt that anything beyond showing off their solar-powered supermachine and all the other custom rigs wasn’t really even on their radar screen (now there’s one thing Vandora didn’t have).
“SuperVan” has just been released on DVD from Cheezy Flicks, and it’s a pretty bare-bones package. It’s an obvious direct-from-VHS transfer presented in full frame that even has a couple of visible tape-damage spots. The sound is unremastered mono that you need to turn up a few notches beyond your normal setting if you want to, you know, actually hear what the fuck is going on. The only extras are a selection of other Cheezy Flicks trailers (that they put together themselves — I’ve seen the real trailer for “Convoy,” for instance, and this ain’t it) and some admittedly cool but hardly close to rare intermission “let’s all go to the lobby”-type drive-in loops. A commentary would have been nice if only to find out exactly what the hell Charles Bukowski is doing in this thing and what ever ended up happening to the SuperVan itself, but somehow I doubt the folks at Cheezy Flicks even let the people who made this movie know they were putting it out on DVD, much less try to actually assemble them in order to put a commentary track together.
Admittedly “SuperVan” is a curious relic of a bygone era. But you’ve seen enough of it and then some by the time it’s over, and whatever nostalgia value it has will give way to just plain old fashioned boredom and restlessness long before the end credits roll. Still, if you’re feeling brave and/or sadistic, it’s worth a (and I use the singular very specifically here) look. Just don’t worry if the phone rings and you end up taking a lengthy call from soebody you haven’t from in a long time.
And now I gotta go, smokey’s on my ass!