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Rebel Highway

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It is the whimsical notion behind the Rebel Highway series to take a group of mostly grade-D exploitation films from the ’50s and remake them, with good actors and directors, in the ’90s. Now, it’s one thing to pay homage to first-rate film noir movies, as Showtime did last summer with its series of Fallen Angels suspense pastiches. It’s another thing entirely to try to make something worthy out of a piece of junk like Motorcycle Gang (1957) — which was directed by Edward L. Cahn (who?), starred Anne Neyland (who?), and shamelessly ripped off Marlon Brando’s The Wild One (1954).

As it turns out, Rebel Highway‘s version of Motorcycle Gang is one of the better entries in this determinedly offbeat series of 10 films, scheduled to be broadcast twice weekly through Sept. 29. In Motorcycle Gang, Major Dad‘s Gerald McRaney stars as a retired soldier forced to defend his family — and in particular his overripe teenage daughter (Carla Gugino, from This Boy’s Life) — against a group of drooling bikers. Gang is the finest thing director John Milius (who wrote Geronimo) has overseen in years: taut, unpredictable, and well-performed.

One of the producers of Rebel Highway is Lou Arkoff, son of Samuel Z. Arkoff, who was, in his 1950s and ’60s heyday, the cofounder and producer of American International Pictures (AIP). His line consisted primarily of cheaply made exploitation films, Motorcycle Gang among them. Arkoff fils bought the rights to a raft of AIP titles, appealed to the nostalgia for such earnest mediocrity felt by filmmakers ranging from William Friedkin (The Exorcist) to Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi), and enlisted them to direct these updated versions.

Rodriguez directed Rebel Highway‘s first entry, last week’s Roadracers, an oddly off-balance teen film with a terrific performance from David Arquette (he’s in the upcoming feature Airheads) as a sensitive hood who wants to be a rockabilly star. Most of the time Roadracers plays it straight as a variation on the James Dean classic Rebel Without a Cause. Periodically though, it slips into loony surrealism, as when Arquette escapes some pursuers by rubbing his greased-back pompadour on a roller-rink floor, creating a surface so oily that his attackers slip and fall.

Much weaker is Confessions of a Sorority Girl, in which alluring but evil Sabrina (Jamie Luner) joins a ’50s college sorority and proceeds to ruin the lives of virtually everyone around her. The problem with the script by Gigi Vorgan and producer Debra Hill is that Sabrina is such a cartoonishly deceitful tramp, you won’t believe for a minute that she could make friends with all the girls and seduce all the boys.

The best of the Rebel bunch I’ve seen so far is Runaway Daughters, directed by Joe Dante and written by Charlie Haas, the team that made last year’s underrated feature-film spoof of the same era, Matinee. In Daughters, three friends (Holly Fields, Julie Bowen, and Jenny Lewis) band together when one of them thinks she’s pregnant by a boyfriend who’s run off to join the Navy. Then girls resolve to track him down before he can enlist: As one of them says, ”The only thing he’s going to sign up for is a china pattern.”

Haas’ script is at once exciting and extremely funny, and he remakes the original story into a feminist fable: Any woman the trio of girls encounters helps them out, because our protagonists are surrounded by Neanderthal guys.

Upcoming Rebel Highways include Shannen Doherty and Antonio Sabato Jr. in Jailbreakers, and cult star Alicia Silverstone (The Crush) in a totally new version of The Cool and the Crazy overseen by animator Ralph Bakshi (Cool World). And if you really get hooked, there’s a witty soundtrack from the series titled Fast Track to Nowhere, with appropriately jittery versions of ’50s tunes by contemporary acts ranging from the Meat Puppets to Sheryl Crow. Dig it all. Roadracers: B Confessions of a Sorority Girl: C Motorcycle Gang: A- Runaway Daughters: A

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