Movies

It’s a Gas-s-s-s, gas, gas…

oracle

The news of the apocalypse breaks at Texas’ Southern Methodist University, where a young hippie named Coel (Robert Corff), on the run from the cops, disguises himself as a priest and hides out in a confessional booth.  That’s where he meets Cilla (Elaine Giftos), an assistant to a team of scientists, who informs Coel that an experimental nerve gas was accidentally released from an Alaskan defense facility…and it’s killing off everyone over the age of 25.

Observing that Dallas is becoming a police state run by reactionary elements, Coel and Cilla decide to hightail it (they drive through Dealey Plaza and past the Texas School Book Depository) to a New Mexico pueblo they’ve heard about, utilizing various modes of transportation along the way including an Edsel and a backhoe.  They also pick up four like-minded strangers—Carlos (Ben Vereen), Marissa (Cindy Williams), Hooper (Bud Cort), and Coralee (Talia Shire)—and tangle with Armageddon-created enemies (including The Warriors, a fascistic gang comprised of football players and cheerleaders) in their quest to locate a commune that promises a new beginning.

gasdvd1Gas-s-s-s…or It Became Necessary to Destroy the World in Order to Save It! (1970) was Roger Corman’s penultimate motion picture directorial effort for American International Pictures (he did Von Richthofen and Brown [1971] for United Artists) before he decided he’d stick to producing (he wouldn’t direct another film until 1990’s Frankenstein Unbound).  A jet-black holocaust comedy penned by George Armitage (who also assistant produced and plays “Billy the Kid,” the gent who steals Coel and Cilla’s Edsel), Gas-s-s-s has long been a favorite here in Rancho Yesteryear; I once owned the original MGM/UA “Midnite Movies” DVD release (it was paired with the similar teens-take-over Wild in the Streets [1968]) but that was sacrificed in the Great eBay DVD Purge of 2007…so when I saw the Olive Films re-release on sale at HamiltonBook.com I thought…what the hey?

posterThis counterculture comedy won’t be everybody’s meat—I’ll just put that out there.  Corman himself later admitted of Armitage’s initial draft that “the points I was trying to make in the script either did not come through or came through too obviously different parts, and it became less science fiction and more and more a direct liberal left wing statement picture.  I didn’t want to be quite that obvious about what I was doing.  So I then decided to switch to a comedy, thinking back to Bucket of Blood and Little Shop of Horrors.”  Since both of those Corman features are firm TDOY favorites (I’m more partial to Bucket of Blood, you may recall), I dig Gas-s-s-s’ offbeat humor and surrealism (it plays like a Firesign Theatre album come to life) even though I’ll readily admit some of the content doesn’t always hit the mark (the scenes with the Warriors and the Edgar Allan Poe in-jokes come off best).  It has a loosey-goosey, improvisational feel (“There was some sense of disorganization and experimentation as we went along,” Rog acknowledges) and I really admire the low-budget economy of the film (it was made for $300,000–as befitting the man known as “The Pope of Pop Cinema”).

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The cast of Gas-s-s-s (L-R): Ben Vereen, Bud Cort, Cindy Williams, Elaine Giftos, and Robert Corff.

With a price tag like that…you’d think that Gas-s-s-s would have made a little bit of money; most sources acknowledge it was a financial flop (Corman noted that AIP limited the film’s bookings to drive-ins because they didn’t want to pony up the gitas for a New York opening) and it was one of two reasons why Rog became disillusioned with AIP (though he continued to produce a few films for the company—Boxcar Bertha [1972], Caged Heat [1974], etc.).  The other was that the studio edited the film against his wishes:

I ended the film with a spectacular shot from on top of the mesa, with a view sixty, seventy miles to the horizon… God, who was a running character throughout the film, made his final comments on what went on…There must have been three hundred people on top of that mesa. It was one of the greatest shots I ever achieved in my life. And AIP cut out the entire shot. They ended the picture on the couple’s cliched kiss – because they didn’t like what God was saying. The picture ended and made no sense… Final cut approval had never been put in writing at AIP. It was more a tacit agreement… AIP had grown into the biggest independent in the U.S. It was now a publicly held company. The more irreverent the film, the greater the financial risk… Jim [Nicholson] had grown conservative and it was his objections to my work that led to the cuts. Jim had done this on four films in a row. [Gas-s-s-s was] the one that really did it for me.

williams-vereen
“Listen, I just can’t bring a child into this kind of a world. Maybe later.”

The edits made to Gas-s-s-s make the movie a little disjointed at times, but if you’re game I’d highly recommend the finished product.  You’ll recognize future TV faces like Cindy Williams (her feature film debut–she’s a hoot as a manic rock ‘n’ roll oldies fan) and Ben Vereen, and up-and-comers like Bud Cort (a year before his cult icon status with Harold and Maude) and Talia Shire (billed here as “Tally Coppola”).  (Whatever happened to Elaine Giftos, anyway?) It’s the end of the world as we know it…and I feel fine.

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2 thoughts on “It’s a Gas-s-s-s, gas, gas…

  1. Ivan, perhaps this is where I should suggest we start a campaign to award Roger Corman the Irving Thalberg Award. I know that sounds like a spoof, but think about it – not only has the man made countless movies and been an influence on many filmmakers, he has an obvious love for the cinema and has shared that with millions over the years. Maybe the Academy would find him hopelessly lowbrow, but I can’t think of a better man to typify what we all love about movies than him. Thoughts?

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    1. Oh, I would totally be on board with this…and I would also add that Corman’s New World Pictures made a lot of those hoity-toity foreign films accessible to American audiences! (I remember that a few people sniffed when they gave Rog that honorary Oscar a few years back, and their reaction really chapped me.)

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