Friday, November 11, 2016

MOONSHINE COUNTY EXPRESS - BLU-RAY REVIEW

Made at a time when feuding kinfolk, car chases and scantily clad “100 Proof Women” dominated the box office, Gus Trikonis’ MOONSHINE COUNTY EXPRESS (1977) is yet another film adhering to the specific template set out by many of its contemporaries, and as such is a well-made, well-acted “hicksploitation” film – as they are now more commonly referred to.  While it hasn’t been seen on video since the early days of VHS, Code Red has finally made this “drive-in classic” available once again via a limited edition Blu-ray.

When ambitious moonshiner Pap Hammer (Fred Foresman) is ruthlessly killed by a rival, local outfit led by Jack Starkey (William Conrad), who is eager to monopolize Pap’s highly illegal but financially prosperous “shine” business, he didn’t expect Pap’s three daughter’s Dot (Susan Howard), Betty (Claudia Jennings) and Sissy (Maureen McCormick) to continue in their father’s footsteps.  Of course, this leads to the inevitable conflict, so they enlist the help of J.B. Johnson (John Saxon), an aspiring stock car driver and former moonshine runner.

Although Arthur Ripley’s THUNDER ROAD (1958), with Robert Mitchum, seemed to set the template for this particular genre of filmmaking, it was during the ’70s that it gained more momentum, with such early forerunners as Richard Quine’s The MOONSHINE WAR (1970), co-starring Patrick McGoohan and Alan Alda; Lamont Johnson’s highly-underrated The LAST AMERICAN HERO (1973); Joseph Sargent’s WHITE LIGHTNING (1973) and Gy Waldron’s MOONRUNNERS (1975) – latter of which served as the basis for The DUKES OF HAZZARD (1979 – 1985) TV show.  Financed by Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, MOONSHINE COUNTY EXPRESS was filmed concurrently with Hal Needham’s SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT (1977) and, given Corman’s penchant for taking advantage of any particular trend, MOONSHINE premiered a week after BANDIT’s enormous box office success; it too reaped sizable box office returns.  In a rather brazen bit of marketing, Corman’s poster art also features the very same – and now-iconic – 1977 black Pontiac Firebird Trans-Am from SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT, even though it never actually appears in the present film!

Taking a cue from Lamont Johnson’s aforementioned film with Jeff Bridges, writers Hubert Smith (who also wrote Bob Kelljan’s BLACK OAK CONSPIRACY the same year) and David Ansley, “borrow” quite a bit from Lamont’s film, and much like Elroy Jackson as played by Bridges, John Saxon for all intents and purposes plays the same character right down to driving a Ford Mustang.  Although he doesn’t have a personal vendetta to pursue, Saxon rather begrudgingly agrees to help out Dot and her sisters (“I knew the minute Dotty brought me out here, I’d end up in a blaze o’ shit!).  The Brooklyn-born Saxon would seem to be rather cast against type as a “good ol’ boy”, but as the overconfident ex-bootlegger with bigger aspirations, he pulls off the role quite well while veering between alliances with Starkey and Dot, who refers to him as a (quote) “smilin’ skunk”.  Future DALLAS (1979-1987) star Susan Howard is also excellent as the tough and equally-resilient Dot (or Dotty), who simply won’t give-in to the demands of Starkey and his ruthless henchmen, led by the sadistic Sweetwater (Morgan Woodward).  She rallies her kid sisses Betty and Sissy, who are pretty handy with a shotgun themselves. While Jennings was already a veteran of such drive-in fare as Ferd and Beverly Sebastian’s ’GATOR BAIT (1974) and Mark L. Lester’s TRUCK STOP WOMEN (1974), she really gets an opportunity to show off her acting chops here without having to resort to any of her customary nudity; she went on to star in David Cronenberg’s race car drama FAST COMPANY (1978) – again with Saxon – before her untimely death in 1979.  Ex-BRADY BUNCH (1969-1974) star McCormick is also cast against type, but unlike her more revealing role in Gary Graver’s TEXAS LIGHTNING (1981), she does keeps her clothes on for the duration, but it’s still certainly a long way from The BRADY BUNCH! 

William Conrad, who had recently wrapped-up a five-year stretch on the popular TV series CANNON (1971-1976), virtually oozes slime as Starkey, the hateful and all-controlling boss, who has everyone in his pocket, including the local deceitful preacher, Hagen (Jeff Corey) and just about anyone else who crosses his path.  When Scoggins (Len Lesser), a local business owner, endorses Dotty’s new shine, he’s promptly delivered a message via a well-concealed bomb, which seems rather extreme, but Starkey rules with an iron hand, which even leaves Sheriff Larkin (Albert Salmi) at a loss; that is, until he connives a deal with J.B. and the girls.

Gus Trikonis began his long and varied career as an actor, and is probably best-known for his role as Indio in Robert Wise’s WEST SIDE STORY (1961).  He would later appear in Wise’s The SAND PEBBLES (1966) before moving onto lower-budgeted fare, such as Robert F. Slatzer’s The HELLCATS (1968).  He would eventually move into directing, and would helm a number of memorable films during the ’70s and ’80s, including The SWINGING BARMAIDS (1975), NASHVILLE GIRL (1976), The EVIL (1978), and TAKE THIS JOB AND SHOVE IT (1981), one of his most-popular titles, whose smash success propelled him into the mainstream.  Like most directors of the period, he eventually settled into television work, directing numerous shows, including episodes of BAYWATCH (1989-2000).

Taken from the “only surviving vault elements”, Code Red’s All Region Blu-ray sports a “brand new HD master” in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio, and, while this is never going to be demo material, it’s a nice sharp transfer nonetheless, and miles better than that seen on Warner’s muddy old VHS tape.  While some of the colours are a tad muted, it’s all very naturalistic.  The English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 sound comes through loud and clear, accentuating Jeff Werner’s exciting score (full of typical C&W instruments like banjo, fiddle, dobro and pedal steel guitar).  There are no real extras to speak of included with the MCE package other than a few trailers for some of Code Red’s other current and upcoming titles, including David Winters’ MISSION KILL (1986), Burt Brinckerhoff’s ACAPULCO GOLD (1976), Richard Compton’s MANIAC (a.k.a. ASSAULT ON PARADISE, 1977), Sergio Martino’s HANDS OF STEEL (1986) and Paul Glickler’s RUNNING SCARED (1980).  Check DiabolikDVD for their current stock of Code Red titles or for you lucky U.S. based readers, order directly from Code Red’s Big Cartel site.

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