Gas-s-s-s 

Film history isn’t a highlight reel of universally agreed-upon classics. It’s an epic story. But some chapters of the story draw more attention than others. The Secret Cinema is a column dedicated to shining a light on compelling little-noticed, overlooked, or faded-from-memory movies from years past. Let’s talk about the films nobody’s talking about.

By 1970, it had become obvious that the world was going to end, or at least change profoundly. The fires lit by the political upheavals of 1968 had never really died down. The war in Vietnam raged on under Nixon as atrocities like My Lai came to light. The counterculture watched its promise fade with the rise of hard drugs and the blurring of utopian Woodstock ideals. But it still seemed like a better bet than the old way of doing things. The kids were louder and bolder than the opposition, and there seemed to be more of them every day. Maybe too many to control in the long run.

Released by the B-movie specialist outfit American International Pictures in 1971, Gas-s-s-s wasn’t the first movie to imagine a world run by hippies. That honor belongs to 1968’s darkly comic Wild In The Streets, another AIP release. In fact, it’s hard to imagine Gas-s-s-s without Wild In The Streets, in which the election of the first rock-star president follows the lowering of the voting age to 15. The film offered an absurd take on the generation gap, a term that took on a new currency—even landing on the cover of Life magazine—around the same time. In the world of Wild In The Streets, the gap could only widen until it became a chasm swallowing up the society that created it. Gas-s-s-s is nowhere near as entertaining, but it has a different take on the possibility of a youthful apocalypse, one spelled out in the full title that appeared onscreen in its opening credits: Gas! Or, It Became Necessary To Destroy The World In Order To Save It.

At one point in Wild In The Streets, the president implements 30 as the mandatory retirement age, and trucks everyone over 35 off to re-education camps. (“Re-education” involves massive doses of LSD). Gas-s-s-s goes a step further, wiping out the older generations via the accidental release of a gas deadly to everyone over the age of 25. This all unfolds in a pre-credits animated sequence that looks vaguely like a Jules Feiffer cartoon in which the general partly responsible for the leak has a voice similar to John Wayne’s. That should set the tone for the movie. Instead, it sets a tone for what the movie aspires to be: a freewheeling cartoonish satire about the end times, starring a cast of actors dressed up like flower children, campus radicals, and other turn-of-the-decade youth types. It never fully gets there, but that’s part of what makes the film interesting.

Gas-s-s was the last film Roger Corman directed before he left that aspect of filmmaking to others, apart from a quick return in 1990 with Frankenstein Unbound. The script came from George Armitage, who briefly wrote and directed low-budget movies for Corman in the ’70s before becoming, like Richard Rush and Monte Hellman, one of those directors with more talent than opportunities. (He directed the terrific Miami Blues in 1990, but has made only one movie—the troubled Elmore Leonard adaptation The Big Bounce—since scoring a hit in 1997 with Grosse Point Blank.) Nothing here suggests that either Corman or Armitage knew what he wanted to say, or could find the voice to say it.

Shot in Dallas and New Mexico, Gas-s-s-s begins its plot proper on the campus of Southern Methodist University, where a hippie named Coel (played by Robert Corff, now a steadily employed Hollywood vocal coach) runs amok as news of the gas (or is it gas-s-s-s?) spreads across town. Soon Coel and his girlfriend Cilla (Elaine Giftos) are hitting the road, after some weirdly affecting scenes set in the abandoned streets of Dallas.

After pointedly driving through Dealey Plaza and past the Texas School Book Depository, Coel and Cilla hit the road, gradually picking up a ragtag bunch of like-minded companions, including a black revolutionary (Ben Vereen), his rock ’n’ roll-mad girlfriend (Laverne & Shirley’s Cindy Williams), and others played by Bud Cort and Talia Shire (then going by the name Tally Coppola). Along the way, they encounter Hells Angels and a group that’s banded together around a football team whose principal interests include meat-eating and attempted rape.

All this has the makings of a grim, post-apocalyptic tale of survival. And occasionally it feels like one, too. The most striking visual moments draw from Easy Rider’s elegiac tone, especially long, lens-flare-drenched driving scenes through the American Southwest, scored to the music of Country Joe & The Fish.*

But those wistful notes feel jarringly at odds with the Mad Magazine-broad satire. Those aforementioned Hells Angels hang out at a country club and share their opinions with law-and-order, Silent Majority Nixon-voting types. When Coel and his gang try to escape their clutches, the Angels bombard them with golf balls aimed with military precision. Meanwhile, protesters march back and forth carrying signs that read “The people are getting tee-ed off!” and “Our caddies are starving at home.” The gang’s other antagonists, the football team, are painted in the broadest possible strokes as mindless Middle American sorts with a violent streak. (“You call that a rape?” one asks another as a woman eludes his clutches during a football practice reworked to teach the team the skills they’ll need to loot and pillage their opponents.)

None of this is particularly funny, but it all provides a window into the raw emotions at play as the ’60s turned into the ’70s. It captures the gestures and ideas that might have been lost to history if not for filmmakers rushing to capture history as it happened. Or were they just trying to grab what they could from it before it slipped away? In the context of a sniffy but accurate contemporaneous review of the film, The New York Times’ Vincent Canby asked a question about Gas-s-s-s, Robert Altman’s oddball Brewster McCloud (which also featured Cort and took place in Texas), and other youth-targeted films with an antic, anarchic spirit: “Are movies like Gas and Brewster McCloud spontaneous responses to the lunacies of the age or attempts to exploit them?”

Can’t they be both? Or, put another way, is it even possible for them to be one or the other? When, say, a film like Breakin’ comes along, it’s made to exploit a wave of interest in breakdancing. But it’s also swept along by that same wave until it becomes indistinguishable from it. The world at large and the counterculture both took dark turns around the time Gas-s-s-s was written, produced, and released. The same year, and the same dramatic conditions, produced Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On and the première of All In The Family. Both are more enduring—or, put another way, better—than Gas-s-s-s, but that doesn’t make it any less useful of a signpost for exploring the past. 

It also, at the time, provided a glimpse of the future. No gas wiped out the over-25ers in 1971, but in a few years, the world kind of looked as if it had, as long hair, sideburns, and relaxed attitudes became de rigueur for those who didn’t want to seem hopelessly behind the times. Corman and Armitage end the film on an optimistic note, concluding with a party scene that unites hippies, football rapists, and virtually everyone else in one big happening. It concludes with the arrival of the masked figures of Lincoln, Gandhi, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Alfred E. Neuman, suggesting that the factions at war in 1971 could all melt together into one big happy family of a society, complete with the approval of great thinkers and Mad’s mascot.

It’s an absurd finale even by the standards of the film before it, the sort of ending tacked on in the hopes that the likely audience is too stoned to care that it doesn’t make any sense. (In this case, that was probably a pretty good bet.) Even the motorcycle-riding Edgar Allan Poe who periodically comments on the action throughout the film—see above, re: potential viewers—has to approve. “Aren’t they all going to rape, lie, fight, and kill, Edgar?” asks his companion, Lenore. “Nevermore,” replies the raven on Poe’s shoulder. It’s a nice thought, even if it requires destroying the world to make it possible.

* A note about that clip: I suspect that platoon of dune buggies and the song by Country Joe—who also makes an appearance in the movie, playing a rock concert staged at an abandoned drive-in—are there for the same reason: The price was right.

Next: Man Hunt (1941)