Freedom, Fun and Fine Transportation: A Brief Guide to Vansploitation Cinema (Part 1)
Note: Versions of this piece were originally published by Fine Print in 2012 and on Daily Grindhouse in 2014.
Many die-hard film fans, critics and other film writers maintain that the 1970s was one of the finest decades for American film, and it is not hard to see why. Established names were on the rise, knocking out masterpieces left and right, and the expanding borders of what could be depicted in a mainstream film were redefining what could be projected onto the big screen. Exploitation films, long a staple of drive-ins and low-rent movie houses, exploded in all directions. The major studios joined in when low-budget exploitation films began showing cost-to-profit margins that put the big-budget blockbusters to shame. It seems that every possible subject that could be exploited was getting its moment in the spotlight. Even the Book of Revelations got its own low-budget contemporary adaptation in Donald W. Thompson’s A Thief in the Night films, which brought a contemporary Biblical apocalypse to drive-in screens. The possibilities open to filmmakers on any level seemed limitless.
So naturally, there was a movement of Van movies.
Where Did Vansploitation Come From?
“Vansploitation” movies were not the first and certainly not the last set of films based on a pop culture fad. The roots of the van movie reach back most obviously to the 1950s, when movies about cars became popular studio fare for the evolving teen film market. Fast cars, open roads and dangerous games of “chicken” both signified a potentially hazardous teenage freedom and (even better) they made the squares nervous. B-movies about teens driving recklessly all played expertly on the growing sense of unrest and rebellion in the youth of America. Hot Rods became a symbol of an increasingly yawning generation gap, one that only became wider in the 1960s as American youth clashed with their elders over civil rights, sexual liberation, and the Vietnam war.
By the mid-1960s, Hot Rods were being replaced with motorcycles. If the “Hot Rod” gangs in the films of the 1950s made parents nervous, the biker gangs of 1960s B-movies must have had them terrified. Roger Corman, who had produced such 50’s teen epics as Hot Car Girl (1958), Teenage Caveman (1958), and T-Bird Gang (1959), opened the floodgates for the biker movie cycle with his 1966 film The Wild Angels. The film laid out a blueprint for a legion of copy-cat films to follow, all of them giving young audiences a taste of the life that could be theirs for the taking by hopping on a bike and running roughshod — sometimes literally — over everything their parents held dear. This romantic ideal of the open road as rejection of traditional values was so powerful that biker movies continued to enjoy popularity after Easy Rider (1969), a massively successful film that nevertheless pointedly highlighted what happens if your rebellion lacks substance.
Vansploitation cinema was born in the 1970s, combining the freewheeling freedom of the motorized vehicle with a slightly more jaded understanding about its limits. The first proper “Vansplotation” movie, writer/director Chuck Vincent’s 1972 film Blue Summer (aka Love Truck) starts as a celebration of the good life on the road, but by the end of this film, this is unmasked as an illusion, a cruel lie exposed in the face of the inevitable responsibilities of adulthood. In this, Blue Summer both points toward the form and content of Vansploitation films to follow and the genre’s inevitable demise. However, the seeds were clearly planted for the crop of Vansploitation films that would follow later in the decade.
Unsurprisingly, the genre did not survive the transition into the Reagan 80’s, as its association with both hippies and blue-collar workers (most notably long haul truckers) instantly made the genre passé in the profit-driven white-collar culture that came to define that decade. In 1977, teenagers were going to the drive-in to see Bobby try to get laid in The Van; by 1987, they were going to the multiplex at the mall to watch Michael J. Fox try to jump some of the rungs on the corporate ladder in The Secret of My Success. Sure, he was also getting laid, but unlike Bobby in The Van, the sex was a means to an end and not the goal itself. 1987 was the same year Can’t Buy Me Love was released, in which a nerd (Patrick Dempsey) pays a popular cheerleader $1000 to pose as his girlfriend. It’s not hard to notice a trend in the increasing commoditization of sex and relationships in films of the 1980s, and it makes perfect sense as a capper to the decade that one of the biggest hits of 1990 was Garry Marshall’s Pretty Woman.
Vansploitation films depended on the vans being a means to an end (most notably sex); as audiences became more “sophisticated,” sex itself became the means to more tangible, material ends. No longer did the male protagonist of the teen sex comedy need to use his awesome van to catch any girl for sex — now he needed to have sex with the right girl who could enhance his status, popularity, etc. In the 1980s, Bobby’s van would no longer be a point of pride and something he could use to impress the opposite sex, but his skill in negotiating a better interest rate on his van loan might be.
In the 1950s, one of the reasons teens wanted their own cars was so they would have a place to make out undisturbed. The van culture of the 1970s, and especially Vansploitation films, made no bones about this particular aspect of van ownership. In the 50s, kids would make out in cars because they were convenient. In the 60s, they could hop on a bike and do it anywhere, although no doubt many non-hippies found themselves uncomfortable getting naked in the great outdoors.
The van offered the perfect solution: the freedom of a motor vehicle to go anywhere combined with some of the comforts of indoor living, such as an actual bed. The vans in Vansploitation movies usually went all-out, featuring not only beds but wall-to-wall carpeting, televisions, refrigerators and all manner of creature comforts and custom styling.
The rise in popularity of custom vans also dovetailed with another 70’s craze for Citizen’s Band (or C.B.) radio and a pop culture obsession with the long-haul trucker. In response to the Arab oil embargo in 1973, the United States implemented a nationwide 55 mph speed limit and severe rationing and rules on gas consumption were commonplace. The new speed limit and skyrocketing price of fuel put long-haul truckers in a difficult position: in order to keep up their standard delivery schedules, they were all but guaranteed to run afoul of police enforcing the new speed limit, and the price of fuel made it tougher for them to get by on their pay since more and more of it had to go into their gas tanks. The C.B. radio provided a handy solution, allowing truckers to keep each other up to date on where to buy gas and where to watch out for speed traps.
Perhaps the tipping point at which the popularity of C.B. radio spilled into the public at large was the eventual strikes held by truckers in protest of the speed limits. A series of strikes across the country led to the romanticizing of the long-haul trucker as a noble post-Vietnam rogue sticking up for himself and railing against the injustices of the system, using their C.B. radios as a tool to stick it to The Man. Eventually the C.B. radio craze exploded and the airwaves became a sort of massive, anarchic proto-Internet chat room, where truckers, police, and a legion of private citizens used the radio to communicate with each other on anything and everything.
In a way, the van was an appealing way for drivers in the 70s to imitate their 18-wheeler film and television heroes. The van offered the same kind of freedom that the truckers enjoyed with two major advantages: a driver did not need a special license to drive a van, and the van was not tied (at least directly) to the responsibility of working for a living. Van trips offered people a taste of the romanticized trucker lifestyle, an illusion reinforced by the C.B. radios that were virtually standard issue in custom vans. The Vansploitation film depicts drivers playing at being idealized nomads of the highways, pretending (and/or hoping) that their van would deliver them into the same kind of lifestyle as, say, BJ and the Bear or those guys from the song “Convoy.”
What Is A Vansploitation Movie?
For the purposes of this discussion, it may be helpful to provide a more detailed definition of what constitutes a Vansploitation movie. Obviously, a van movie must have one or more vans in it, but the simple appearance of a van does not indicate that the film in question is Vansploitation. Otherwise, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre would count. The van (or vans) must fulfill certain functions relating to the plot of the film. The trailer for Van Nuys Blvd. actually spelled out the principal functions of the van in Vansploitation films perfectly: “Freedom, fun and fine transportation.” The vans in Vansploitation films are a symbol of the characters’ sense of freedom, usually their main leisure activity is driving the vans, and the customization and comfort provides the “fine transportation.”
Additionally, the van (or vans) must provide the engine that drives the plot forward and/or provide the stage in which the action of the plot actually takes place. Most Vansploitation movies have extremely simple plot lines that make maximum use of the large interiors of the vans depicted. The interior of a van, after all, provides a cheap, mobile set that can be easily redressed as needed. The characters in Vansploitation films generally have goals oriented toward spending as much time in their van as possible, or in putting money into improving their van’s performance and/or appearance via customization (both “under the hood” improvements and the sort of Dungeons & Dragons murals often associated with 70s vans) . In short, most van movies are about getting laid (in a van) and winning road games or other competitions (also in a van).
Finally, a Vansploitation film must meet the standard criteria for identifying all classical exploitation film as described by Eric Schaefer in his 1999 book Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!: A History of Exploitation Films 1919–1959: the film must exploit a marketable angle (in this case, obviously vans), be made with low production values, be distributed independently of the major studios, mostly play in independent venues, and have few prints in circulation at any given time. While Schaefer’s book mostly refers to the distribution model that existed in the first half of the 20th century, it is simple enough to substitute the drive-ins and grindhouses that were popular in the 70s for the non-studio owned independent theaters where classical exploitation filmmakers plied their trade. Additionally, most Vansploitation films were distributed by small independent companies rather than major studios, they were clearly made on low budgets and likely distributed regionally (playing different parts of the country as bookings and available prints permitted).
What Are the Essential Texts of Vansploitation Cinema?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Vansploitation is not a crowded genre. For purposes of this discussion, the essential texts of the Vansploitation cycle are:
Each of these films were made with low budgets and distributed independently. The film that would be the last of the Vansploitation films, On the Air Live with Captain Midnight (1979, directed by Beverly and Ferd Sebastian), was distributed by Columbia Pictures and therefore is disqualified from inclusion in the cycle. Still, the film is worth discussing here even if it technically falls outside the realm of Vansploitation cinema.
Blue Summer is entirely concerned with the adventures of two male friends spending the last weekend of summer before they go off to college in a van, bumming around and looking for action. This being 1972, the beat-up gray Dodge van is always referred to by the characters as a “bus,” and the extent of its customization is some hastily-drawn flowers and butterflies taped to its sides along with white block letters spelling out “THE MEAT WAGON” on its driver and passenger-side doors. Tracy (Darcey Hollingsworth), the van’s owner, is careful not to let his mother see the name with which he has christened his van before he leaves to pick up his best friend Gene (Bo White). The two friends set out for adventure and almost immediately run into a pair of female hitchhikers who are more than happy to trade some “action” for a ride in The Meat Wagon.
As the film progresses, Tracy and Gene find themselves in various sexual adventures between discussions of what they are going to after summer is over and they move on to college. Even the theme song of the film playing over the opening credits seems to indicate where the story is going: “Soon the leaves will be falling from the trees/ But for now the road is clear/ Would you pass another beer…” Gene seems eager to head off to college and settle into a family and career life like his (deeply unhappy, constantly bickering) parents, but Tracy feels stifled and trapped by the very idea. His father (never shown) is insisting that Tracy attend the same school he did, and since his father is paying the bills, he feels obligated to go.
The situations Tracy and Gene find themselves in range from the goofy to the ominous, with occasional stabs at social satire. Their first adventure is with a pair of kleptomaniac hitchhikers who try to make off with half their supplies. When they meet a male hippie and two women, the hippie explains that he is more than happy to share “his” girls. After Tracy and Gene join the ladies in an impromptu foursome, the hippie demands they share alike and steals all their beer and moves into their tent. While driving, the boys pick up a “Preacher” who suggests that a small donation may go a ways toward saving their souls. They meet a biker who can’t start his motorcycle because it’s out of gas; once they put gas in the bike for him, the biker follows them for the rest of the film, his intentions unclear. In a small town, Tracy and Gene are tricked into buying a case of beer in exchange for sexual favors from a very dizzy blonde, but before they get their part of the trade a group of local toughs show up and threaten to beat them up.
Ironically, both friends eventually find themselves in sexual situations that underline the things they most fear: Tracy sleeps with a lonely, fretful married woman who has a son who looks to be about his age, while Gene meets an anonymous girl with whom he feels a deeper connection, but who is uninterested in any semblance of attachment. These unsettling encounters end up being the last sexual experiences for each of the boys in the film, which ends on an uncomfortable note as the two friends toast all the people they met over the weekend. Tracy offers a final toast, “To Freedom!” and holds his can of beer high. Gene seems not to hear him, the silence continues for a long while, and the words “END OF BLUE SUMMER” appear on the screen as they ride along in silence.
Like the relentlessly pessimistic ending of Easy Rider, the looming spectre of adult responsibility that cast a pall over Blue Summer’s finale was blithely ignored by the films that came after it. This may at least be partially due to the fact that it was several years before the van movie genre came into being. Blue Summer, originally released with an “X” rating in 1972 was clearly way ahead of its time. By the time the rest of the van movies were released, no one called them “buses” any more.
Chuck Vincent, the writer/director of Blue Summer, was a filmmaker with an extensive career in adult films. Blue Summer was his sixth feature film as a director, and he went on to direct over 50 films before his death in 1991. Davey Jones (who played Tracy under the name Darcey Hollingsworth) had made several sex films before Blue Summer, including Carter Stevens’s The Collegiates (1973) and the amazingly titled Sexual Freedom in the Ozarks (1973). Jones appeared in over twenty films, all released in 1973 or 1974. Blue Summer was the feature film debut for Bo White, who played Gene. He went on to play in two very different films in the 1970s: Wakefield Poole’s Bible! (1974), a softcore adaptation of Bible stories, and the gay drama A Very Natural Thing (1974). White’s most recent credits were two films from the early 2000s, Urban Playground (2002) and Crazy Like a Fox (2004). Robert McLane, who played the “Preacher,” also appeared in A Very Natural Thing along with Bo White and later appeared in Russ Meyer’s Up! (1976).
Unquestionably the male cast member of Blue Summer with the most extensive filmography is Eric Edwards (who played “Fred,” one of the guys who threaten to beat up Tracy and Gene). Edwards had already starred in a number of adult films when Blue Summer was released, and would go on to appear in over three hundred films — including Wes Craven’s porn film The Fireworks Woman (1975), the hugely popular Debbie Does Dallas (1978) and Radley Metzger’s The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann (1974) and Maraschino Cherry (1978) — and direct nearly fifty films over the course of his career. Many of the female cast of Blue Summer either have this film as their only credit or made a few other adult films, with the exception of Chris Jordan, who played “Miss No Name.” Jordan appeared in nearly twenty films throughout the 70s, including two other films for Chuck Vincent (Mrs. Barrington in 1974 and Farewell Scarlet in 1975), Roberta Findlay’s The Clamdigger’s Daughter (1974), and several films by legendary sexploitation filmmaker Joe Sarno including Deep Throat Part II (1974), Abigail Leslie Is Back in Town (1975) and Misty (1976).
After Blue Summer, there was a gap of about three years before the next Vansploitation film hit drive-in screens across the country. Director Stu Segall, under the pseudonym Godfrey Daniels, made a few sex films (both softcore and hardcore) throughout the early 70s before taking the reins for C.B. Hustlers. Whether Segall was aware of it at the time or not, he managed to cast one of the most recognizable and famous actresses to ever appear in a Vansploitation film: Uschi Digard. A very popular and highly prolific adult film actress born in Sweden, Digard had already appeared in nearly one hundred movies by the time she made C.B. Hustlers, including the bizarre blaxploitation film The Black Gestapo (1975), the notorious Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS (1975), and three films by Russ Meyer (1970's Cherry, Harry & Raquel, 1971's The Seven Minutes, and 1975's Supervixens!). Digard, despite working under the name Elke Vann, is immediately identifiable by her incredibly thick accent and classic Russ Meyer physique. Unfortunately, she is not in the film enough to make it a worthwhile viewing experience.
Dancer (John Alderman) runs a brothel out of a pair of vans. They roam the highways, stopping at truck stops and van rallies, picking up work wherever they can get it. Life seems pretty much ideal for these nomadic hookers until one day they ride into a small town where the local paper is run by frustrated newspaper man Mountain Dean (Richard Kennedy) and his dim-witted assistant Boots Clayborn (John F. Goff). Dean, desperate for a big story to break his career, decides to investigate some unusual C.B. chatter he hears on the office radio: talk of “fruits” and “tunnels,” and unfamiliar C.B. handles (notably “Hot Box 1” and “Hot Box 2”) that mean somebody new is in town. Meanwhile, Sheriff Elrod P. Ramsey (Bruce Kimball) is on the trail of Dancer and his girls as well, stacking the odds against the C.B. hustlers that they will be able to get out of town before they get thrown in the slammer.
C.B. Hustlers quickly establishes that Dancer is unsatisfied with life on the road. Despite making a lot of tax-free money and having two awesome vans, Dancer has dreams of settling down somewhere with his number one girl, Scuzz (Jacqueline Giroux). The hassles from Mountain Dean and Sheriff Ramsey seem to be the last straw, as Dancer finally makes a deal with the other girls that he will give them a chunk of money he has saved up and one of the vans to continue their work. Dancer hands over the operation to Boots Clayborn, who is tricked into running the show through an elaborate hoax in which Boots thinks he has been caught having sex with an underage girl. At the end of the film, Boots picks up right where Dancer left off, informing all drivers in range that the C.B. Hustlers are doing business as usual as he drives out of Sheriff Ramsey’s jurisdiction. This ending seems to indicate that Dancer could not be happy without leaving the life of the road behind him, although he does keep one of the vans.
While the vans in the film are not as prominently featured as in other Vansploitation films, they are the stage in which many scenes are set. Obviously, there are sex scenes that take place in the vans, but a few key dialogue scenes are also shot in the vans. In addition to “Hot Box 1” and “Hot Box 2,” there is an extended sequence where the Hustlers crash a van rally out in the middle of nowhere. The rally in this film is made up of about six or eight vans in a field, which is very likely the saddest van rally in film history. Still, the vans in C.B. Hustlers are an important enough aspect of the production that there is an acknowledgement in the opening credits for “CUSTOM TOUCH of Van Nuys, California, for their cooperation in the Making (sic) of this film.”
While Uschi Digard may be the biggest star in the cast, she is hardly the only cast member with an impressive list of exploitation film credits. John Alderman (“Dancer”) appeared in dozens of notable adult and exploitation films from the 60s through the 80s, including Love Camp 7 (1969), Cleopatra Jones (1973), and three films directed by Andy Sidaris (1973's Stacey, 1979's Seven, and 1985's Malibu Express). Bruce Kimball (“Sheriff Ramsey”) appeared in Crown International Pictures’ The Pink Angels in 1972, and was in other Crown films and movies by Al Adamson and Bethel Buckalew (who went on to direct Mag Wheels in 1978) from the late 60s through the early 70s. Weirdly, both Richard Kennedy and John F. Goff had also appeared in Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS (along with Uschi Digard) and Matt Cimber’s The Witch Who Came from the Sea. Tiffany Jones and Catherine Barkley, the actresses playing the other girls from “Hot Box 2,” each have only two film credits to their names: C.B. Hustlers and Stu Segall’s 1977 horror film Drive-In Massacre (1977). Jacqueline Giroux also appeared in Ilsa, She-Wolf of SS and Drive-In Massacre, and has since gone on to a long career in film as an actress, producer, writer, and director. Perhaps unsurprisingly, “The 18 Wheelers of Interstate 5” have yet to make any further film appearances.
The Van is notable for several reasons, not least of which is the appearance of Danny DeVito in a small role and the fact that the film’s theme song is the 70s light-rock hit “Chevy Van” by Sammy Johns. The plot of The Van is very simple: Bobby (Stuart Goetz) is a teenager who works at a car wash and as the film begins he has a big day. First he graduates from high school and then he makes the down payment on his brand-new custom van, for which he has been saving up instead of setting aside money for college. Bobby leaves no question as to why he wants the van: girls like vans, and if he has a van he might get girls to come have sex with him in it. So begins a series of misadventures in which Bobby tries to use his new van to convince some girl, any girl, to have sex with him.
At first, it seems that his plan is not working. After his attempt to forcibly undress her drives away the first girl he picks up, Bobby’s next choice turns out to be a prostitute, although whether he pays her for sex or not is unclear. It is probably safe to assume that he does not, as he continues his quest unabated. In at least one case the van works too well, as Bobby catches the eye of Sally (Connie Hoffman), girlfriend of local tough-guy Dugan (Steve Oliver, who later played the same character in the 1978 film Malibu Beach). As tempting as Sally is, the beating Dugan is sure to dish out is incentive enough to stay away from her, at least for a while. While his friends try to set him up with smart, nice Tina (Deborah White), her reluctance to get involved with a sex-and-van-obsessed jackass prevents her from falling for Bobby’s dubious charms. Utterly frustrated, Bobby finally makes a play for Sally, only to discover that his feelings for Tina may not entirely come from below his belt (although they probably mostly do). Even after this realization, Bobby is unwilling to give up his dream of no-ties sex in his awesome van, which for some reason makes Tina really angry. She storms off and leaves him to his precious van.
Bobby’s van is, admittedly, pretty sweet. Named “Straight Arrow,” it is yellow with large black, red and blue arrows painted down its length, with a huge circular window near the back. It has thick white carpeting, a waterbed, a card table, a CB radio, an 8-track, “AND MORE!” It is no wonder he is so excited about it, and no wonder that his square dad hates it. His mom seems to like it well enough, which the audience can assume means she also really wants her son to get laid. The only other van of note in the film is Dugan’s “Van Killer,” which makes a few quick appearances. Despite its intimidating name, it is probably safe to assume “Van Killer” is inferior to “Straight Arrow” in almost every way. It is certainly less interesting to look at, mostly just flat black with its name painted on the side in highly stylized letters.
The Van ends with a climactic race between Bobby and Dugan that ends with Bobby’s van flipped and presumably totaled. The viewer must assume that Bobby has learned important lessons about what really matters in life, or possibly just one: do not to get in a van race when you’re really drunk. Still, the ending of The Van seems to indicate that its main character’s life can move forward only at the cost of the thing which has come to define him most, a fate similar to that of Dancer in C.B. Hustlers and echoed in both On the Air Live with Captain Midnight and Van Nuys Blvd. In other words, the overriding message of The Van seems to be: “Yes, vans are awesome, but eventually you have to get over that and grow the hell up.”
Despite its apparent success, The Van was director Sam Grossman’s only feature film as director. Co-writer Celia Susan Cotelo went on to write Malibu Beach (a sort of sequel to The Van featuring Dugan and a new crew of youngsters) with co-writer Robert J. Rosenthal, who also wrote both Zapped! films and had a story credit on Crown International’s The Pom Pom Girls. Bill Adler, an actor playing the part of one of Bobby’s co-workers at the car wash, would go on to appear as a “Vanner” in Malibu Beach and as one of the outlaw mechanics in 1977's Love and the Midnight Auto Supply (co-starring with Michael Parks) before landing the lead role in Van Nuys Blvd., arguably making him the most iconic actor in Vansploitation cinema.