The Nitro Joint w / "Chicago Jon" Hoffman

A Gearhead Movie Review: “The Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow”

Each year when I venture south to Indianapolis, be it for the 500 or the Nationals, one of my favorite parts of the trip through central Illinois is going through the small town of Gibson City, a non-descript little place that could have easily served as a location shoot for a typical John Couger video. The central point of my affection for this little town is its Drive-In theater.


Drive Ins used to dot the landscape back in the '50s and '60s, but now, like the rotary-phone or the public library, are becoming ever harder to find. Motion picture studios had genuine divisions of their operations directed at producing films specifically for these venues, and, admittedly, they weren't always the best of cinematic enterprises, which brings us to a 1959 film, from none other than one of the giants of this genre, one Samual A. Zarkhoff and the grindhouse classic, 'The Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow'.


Now, one thing I have to get out of the way immediately, is if you’re looking for a wealth of late '50s racing, look elsewhere. Aside from one brief duel down the canals of Los Angeles at the start of the film, between two GIRLS no less, there isn't a speck of racing in the entire film. And, since one of the girls bears a strong resemblance to a teenage Dick Sargent in drag, I can't even attest to them actually being GIRLS, but I digress. (and it’s hard to look at those canals and not think of another iconic '50s film, "THEM" -- you keep waiting for that wet-fan-belt-noise that the giant nuclear ants made.)


After this merry-misadventure, we reconvene to the gangs clubhouse, where we see that the "teenagers" (who, in the tradition of movies of this nature, are all WELL into their late twenties) are gathered about their newest Allie, a reporter by the name Mr. Hendry (veteran character actor Russ Bender) who interviews club member Tommy Ivo, being portrayed by, uh, Tommy Ivo. “T.V.” delivers all his lines with perfection, gives us the lowdown on his spring of '59 exploits with his dragster, which sets up a moment that had to have the kids back then howling -- a boob joke. One of the girls from the club hops onto the car, and announces she’s a radiator cap and asks 'how do I look'? Whereupon our reporter friend makes the observation "THEY look fine.” Gales of derisive laughter, and the peasants rejoice. Hey, it was the fifties, and that's about as pornographic as it could get.


At about this point, one suspected that the studio had this film one-half finished, sitting on a shelf somewhere, and somebody told Zarkhoff that all the kids are talking about Drag Racing, and they should put something out about that. And so, much like slathering a piece of meatloaf with frosting and re-christening it "desert", they took something that bore a strong resemblance to a Huntz Hall spook-house flick, yammered the word 'dragstrip' into the title, shoehorned a 3-minute cameo by Ivo into it to give it 'street cred', and bingo-Bonzo, coming to a Drive In near you, a racing flick, which was probably on a double-bill with "The 50-foot tall nuclear-man-eating-chimpanzee from HELL"! or some other instant classic.


But we are not here to bury the genre, but to praise it, warts and all. Before all is said and done, we get pretty much all the film-making tricks and plot-contrivances one would expect from the era, the parents sleep in separate beds, the good kids in our gang are repeatedly confronted by menacing kids (well, as menacing as '50s bad kids could get, anyway) in a series of non-confrontations, out of nowhere, and presumably for comic relief, a curmudgeonly-old broad shows up channeling some sort of Margaret Hamilton on crack, getting to drive our heroine’s hot rod, yes, while "Louis", our aforementioned 26-year-old teenager is grounded. The old broad, who professes to not even possess a DRIVERS LICENSE, is the natural choice to do the time-honored cinematic trick of driving the 'blue-screen' sequence. You've all seen this, probably in the finale of half of the Frankie & Annette films ever made, the background is dubbed in, special-effects wise, and the film of the car moving has been speeded-up, probably three times its actual speed. (And one would suspect that the trailers for this deal relied heavily on these scenes, again, aside from the drag-race-with-a-drag-queen, precious little car footage going on here.) Oh, our Margaret Hamilton wannabee owns a PARROT, who manages to get as close to profanity as a '50s movie can get, sneaking in the words 'hell' and 'dammit'. Apparently, the censors are a bit more lenient if it’s a BIRD cussing. And so,...


We build up to the big finale, where the old broad lets the kids have a big old spooky mansion to use as a clubhouse for their car club, and the first order of business is to throw a costume-themed dance to raise money for the club. Well, amidst numerous 'ghostly' happenings, such as candles going out and re-igniting, the ever-popular "secret-room-behind-the-fireplace" bit and much, much more, it becomes obvious that one of our costumed guests is not a fun-loving teenage friend of the club.


Of course, that he looks like a dollar-store version of Swamp Thing rather than a ghost of ANY shape or form just fits in with the vibe of the flick, but before our big finale we get another 'celebrity guest', in the form of none other than Jimmy Madden, who takes the stage to lip-sync his monster-hit (Hey, monster?? See what I did there?) 'Tongue-Tied.’ According to IMDB, Madden was a club owner in the LA area, and it’s just a hunch on my part that he probably was also one of the investors in this film.

Anyways, we sing, we dance, we all have fun and then, a decade before America’s favorite stoner-dog invented this particular plot contrivance, we get the ORIGINAL "Scoobie-Doo" ending (take two copies of Wayne’s World and call me in the morning) as our reporter and his newfound friends yank the mask off of swamp thing, ending the mystery of Dragstrip Hollow!


Hardly 'The Deer Hunter', but more importantly, I don't think the filmmakers were taking themselves too seriously. It’s a simple little film, from a simpler time, pounded out in workmanlike fashion, designed to entertain kids whose overall agenda -- as was the case with most American youth who flooded the drive-ins back then -- to miss the second half of the movie anyway, if you know what I mean, nudge-nudge, wink-wink, SAY NO MORE!


It’s available at Amazon.com, and it’s a fun little piece of fluff, from a time that has sadly slipped on by. Well, in a recent piece on drive-ins in the Chicago Tribune, the digitization of the film industry has the handwriting on the wall that the only films that drive-ins will be able to show AT ALL will be old films and the like, so who knows?


Maybe it will all end the way it began, and that small drive-in in Gibson City, Illinois, just might be showing "The Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow" again after all.


Besides, who in the blue-HELL wants to go to the drive-in to see "Harold and Kumar meet the Smurfs, IN 3-D" anyway?


I AM Chicago Jon, C-YAAAAAAAAAA...in 2018! 



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