Cult Camp Classics Vol. 3: Terrorized Travelers
Zero Hour! (1957)/Hot Rods to Hell (1967)/Skyjacked (1972)
Zero Hour! (1957 - Bartlett-Champion - 81 minutes)
Directed By: Hal Bartlett
Starring: Dana Andrews, Linda Darnell, Sterling Hayden, Elroy 'Crazylegs' Hirsch, Geoffrey Toone, Jerry Paris, Peggy King
"Zero Hour!" tells the story of retired Canadian combat pilot Ted Stryker (Andrews). Traumatized by a tragic mission he led during World War II that resulted in the deaths of many of his comrades, he has subsequently developed an anxiety about flying and had difficulty holding onto jobs. When he learns that his wife, Ellen (Darnell), has finally given up on him and is taking their son, Joey (Raymond Ferrell), to live with her parents on the other side of the country, he rushes to the airport and buys a ticket for the cross-country flight. When a nasty bout of food poisoning takes down Joey, a number of the passengers, Captain Bill Wilson (Hirsch), and the co-pilot, Ted is forced to face his fears head-on and try to fly and land the plane in rough weather. He is assisted in flight by Ellen, stewardess Janet Turner (King), and Dr. Baird (Toone). On the ground, he is talked down by Captain Martin Treleaven (Hayden), an officer familiar with Stryker's war record and less than confident in his abilities.
If the plot above sounds familiar to you, it is more than likely because it was used as the basis for the 1980 airline disaster spoof, "Airplane!". While the latter was a spoof of the genre as a whole, "Zero Hour!" was the film most directly referenced, to the point that the producers of "Airplane!" actually paid for the remake rights. Since most people are now much more familiar with "Airplane!" than with "Zero Hour!", it is actually difficult to watch it without laughing. Elements such as the stone serious deadpan acting styles of the male leads, the pilot's enthusiastic interest in young Joey, the stewardess slapping a hysterical woman followed by another passenger offering to take a shot at calming her down, Sterling Hayden saying that he "picked the wrong week to give up smoking", the presence of an athlete-turned-actor in the cockpit, and even the exclamation point at the end of the film's title are all evocative of the subsequent parody. Heck, a few lines are so unintentionally funny on their own that the makers of "Airplane!" did not even have to embellish them for comic effect. Most notably, when the doctor says: "The survival of everyone on board depends on just one thing: finding someone on board who can not only fly this plane, but who didn't have fish for dinner."
To its credit, "Zero Hour!" is a pretty entertaining B-picture that creates a fairly compelling prolonged suspense scenario that plays out efficiently over its 81 minute running time. On a technical side, the model special effects shots involving the plane are actually pretty convincing considering the film's origin as a modestly budgeted independent production.
The melodramatic acting styles of the cast, particularly Andrews and Hayden, will strike modern viewers as funny (they probably seemed at least a decade behind the times to late 1950s audiences as well). While the Zucker-Abrams-Zucker team latched onto this notion and cast actors of a similar stripe (Robert Stack, Peter Graves, Leslie Nielsen, Lloyd Bridges) in "Airplane!", Stanley Kubrick deserves credit for catching on to the comic possibilities of Sterling Hayden's deadpan delivery first. Captain Martin Treleaven is obviously the direct antecedent for General Jack D. Ripper from "Dr. Strangelove..."
Hot Rods to Hell (1967 - Four-Leaf Productions/MGM - 100 minutes)
Directed By: John Brahm
Starring: Dana Andrews, Jeanne Crain, Mimsy Farmer, Laurie Mock, Paul Bertoya, Gene Kirkwood, Jeffrey Byron, George Ives
Poor Dana Andrews just can't catch a break. A decade after "Zero Hour!" he finds himself traumatized by his past and terrorized on a cross country trip once again. In this instance, he plays New England salesman and family man Tom Phillips. Tom finds himself in financial crisis after a debilitating car crash leaves him with mounting medical bills and with a bad back that prevents him from performing his sales job. Convinced by his brother to take ownership in a profitable hotel in a small California town, he loads his wife, Peg (Crain), teen daughter, Tina (Mock), and young son, Jamie (Byron) into his Plymouth Belvedere and heads across country. When they get within an hour of their destination, they find themselves nearly run off of the road by a group of three teenagers, Duke (Bertoya), Gloria (Farmer), and Ernie (Kirkwood) in a red 1958 Corvette convertible. When Tom objects to their reckless ways, they decide to further antagonize him with the help of some of their hot-rodding friends. Events are further complicated when Tom learns that Lank Dailey (Ives), the owner of the hotel he is purchasing, has been running his lounge as a late night hangout for teenagers including Duke and his friends.
This film is a special kind of bad. Just about everything about it does not work in a spectacular and entertaining kind of way. As much as the dated acting styles in "Zero Hour!" seemed unintentionally funny and ripe for parody, the bad acting and terrible dialog in this film is unintentionally hilarious and beyond parody. I can not decide whether the gold medal of bad acting should go to Andrews for his gritted teeth expulsions of lines like "What kind of animals are they?" or to the tandem of Farmer and Mock, who have a scene in the youth club (generic 60s blues rock provided by Mickey Rooney, Jr. and His Combo) that has to be seen to be believed. Their non-verbal reactions to each other are as bad as their actual dialog. Of all of the actors involved in this film, Jeanne Crain comes the closest to escaping with her dignity intact, a considerable feat made impossible by the dialog and actions dictated to her by the script.
Fans of classic cars will enjoy the myriad hot rods on display as well as the driving stunts. Fans of 60s fashions will similarly enjoy Mimsy Farmer's outfits, especially when they are displayed prominently as she spends a good chunk of the film holding onto a roll bar atop a speeding Corvette.
The film was originally produced as a television movie, but the producers recognized the commercial potential of the combination of teenagers and fast cars, trimmed it by about eight minutes, and released it to theaters. The DVD presents the full unedited 100 minute version.
Skyjacked (1972 - MGM - 101 minutes)
Directed By: John Guillermin
Starring: Charlton Heston, Yvette Mimieux, James Brolin, Claude Akins, Susan Dey, Roosevelt Grier, Mariette Hartley, Walter Pidgeon, Ken Swofford, Jeanne Crain, Mike Henry
Poor Jeanne Crain just can't catch a break, either! Five years after being terrorized on a California highway, she is "skyjacked" by a terrorist on a commercial airliner. Charlton Heston plays Captain Hank O'Hara, the pilot of a Boeing 707 who is made aware of a series of anonymous notes indicating that a passenger on board has a bomb and will detonate it unless they redirect to Anchorage, Alaska. By the time they attempt a dangerous landing in severe weather in Anchorage, the identity of the terrorist and his ultimate destination for the plane and its first class passengers he has taken hostage is revealed.
"Skyjacked" was a 1972 entry in the recently resurgent airline in jeopardy genre in the wake of Universal's successful "Airport". It also was on the crest of the disaster film wave that would arguably peak with director Guillermin's "Towering Inferno" a couple of years later. The film does a lot of things right, most notably getting the plane off the ground and the skyjacker's terrorist threat established quickly. It only falters when it tries to establish unnecessary subplots that do not enhance, deepen, or even connect to the main story. Worst among these is a romance angle, told almost completely through flashbacks, that involves Heston, Mimieux, and Henry's characters. The movie shows every indication of being conceived as a lean efficient thriller only to have unwieldy soap opera elements grafted on as afterthoughts. Fortunately, these subplots do not amount to very much screen time. They do, however, contribute disproportionately to the film's qualification to be included in a "Cult Camp Classics" collection
The film touches on a lot of the cliches associated with the airline in jeopardy genre, but in most cases, they are well handled: The gratuitous athlete-actor is the charismatic Rosey Grier (playing a jazz cellist, no less); the pregnant woman who inevitably goes into labor gives birth mercifully quickly; the pilot's announcements from the cockpit are greeted with grim acceptance rather than hysteria; the military air traffic controller who talks them down through a difficult landing is played as a pleasant and competent professional by Claude Akins; the incompletely developed characters are used effectively as red herrings; etc.
The supporting cast is generally very good, with actors ranging in age and experience from Dey and Grier in their theatrical feature film debuts to studio system veterans Jeanne Crain and Walter Pidgeon.
On the technical side, the in-flight footage of the 707 is spectacular, with much of it consisting of actual aerial footage rather than the typical model-based special effects photography. Also, the quick cut editing and tight shot framing during the foul weather Anchorage landing sequence are employed extremely effectively, squeezing every possible drop of suspense out of the situation. My only qualm is that this sequence in the middle of the film is more exciting than the actual climax in the final reel.
Note: A lot of press materials and online descriptions reveal the identity of the "skyjacker", as do the synopsis on the back of the DVD case and the main menu screen. Since the film takes the trouble of keeping it a secret for at least the first forty minutes or so, I would recommend avoiding this potential spoiler if possible before watching it. Perhaps you can close you eyes until you have selected "play" on the menu.
The outstanding black and white video transfer for "Zero Hour!" fills the whole 16:9 enhanced frame. The source element appears to have been in excellent shape, and the transfer and compression do it full justice. The image has excellent detail and deep greyscale. Second unit and special effects shots show more damage and contrast build-up than the rest of the film, but this is completely understandable.
The transfer for "Hot Rods to Hell" fills the whole 16:9 enhanced frame with eye-popping color that dances on the edge of oversaturation. Contrast and shadow detail are excellent, handling the sunny desert vistas of the early part of the film as well as the night-time exteriors of the film's second half.
The 2.35:1 aspect ratio 16:9 enhanced transfer for "Skyjacked" renders a somewhat muted typical 1970s-style color palette exceptionally well with very good sharpness and detail. Even the footage of the passenger jet in flight is only a slight step down from the studio interiors. Sporadic light film damage appears, and some scenes are grainier than others, but I found little to complain about in this very solid presentation.
"Zero Hour!" and "Hot Rods to Hell" both come with a Dolby Digital 1.0 mono track encoded at 192kbps with decent fidelity and little audible noise. Both soundtracks have dialog way forward in the mix and dynamic compression that results in very clear speaker intelligibility, but a less-than immersive mix.
"Skyjacked" is the only film in this collection with a stereo soundtrack. It is presented on disc via a Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track encoded at a 192kbps bitrate and is not flagged for Pro-Logic surround. The somewhat bland music score sounds very nice and was well-recorded. The dialog and sound effects do not fare quite so well. While they are spread nicely across the stereo sound field and frequently match with visual cues on the screen, they have a harsh, clipped sound to them that does not always blend well with the higher fidelity music score.
The only extras in this set are theatrical trailer for "Zero Hour!" and "Hot Rods to Hell". The "Hot Rods to Hell" trailer, like the movie itself, is campy fun, with a lot of the key overacting moments emphasized. It also has the faded look that I expected from the actual feature based on previous clips I have seen on television. This further emphasizes what a revelation the visual presentation of the film on disc is.
All of the films are packaged in standard Amaray-style cases with cover art derived from vintage promotional art. The cases are in turn enclosed in a thin cardboard case with a cover image showing a montage of the film cover art.
Warner brings us the DVD debuts of three tales of stiff-jawed terrorized travellers from three distinct decades for one discounted price. While there are no extras beyond a couple of theatrical trailers, the audio-video transfers for all three films are simply outstanding.