Senile old fools like myself often bask in rosy reminiscence of the mid-'70s, daydreaming about the passions unique to that period that few under the age of 35 could even begin to comprehend. For some, it was Saturday afternoon Godzilla flicks at the downtown bijou. For others, maybe it was the local TV weatherman's Friday-night transformation into a cackling, leering horror host, or the chilling aura of a glow-in-the-dark Aurora monster kit. I loved 'em all, like family. But standing most proudly in the mind of a certain brain-damaged 7-year-old in the outskirts of Omaha was the awesome majesty of the only real superheroes to walk the earth. Brave knights who rolled into town on thundering steeds of steel and fiberglass, who challenged one another to explosive jousting matches at 240 miles per hour. I'm talking about a tournament that began as an industrial-age art form, only to be swallowed up by splashy commercialism like every other organized sport in the past 30 years. That noble undertaking, of course, is... SUNDAY! SUNDAY! SUNDAY! GROUND-POUNDING, HEART-STOPPING, NITRO-BLASTING FUNNY CARS! 2000-HORSEPOWER SUICIDE MACHINES SHAKING HANDS WITH THE DEVIL AS THEY SCREAM THROUGH THE GATES OF HELL!
Right. For those in the know, certain names recall moments of this brief but indelible mark in racing history, shimmering like a new Ed Pink block. Don "The Snake" Prudhomme and his longtime rival, Tom "The Mongoose" McEwen. "Big Jim" Dunn. Child star-turned-racer "T.V." Tommy Ivo. Shirley "Cha Cha" Muldowney. "Jungle Jim" Liberman and his sex-on-wheels partner, "Jungle Pam." And lots of other people with "Nicknames in Quotation Marks." The honor roll is longer than my johnson at a Bettie Page nude lookalike contest. But there's one name you'd probably be safe to assume would NOT be on this list: David Cronenberg.
The hell, you say. And you're not alone. For decades, fans of Canada's "Lord of the New Flesh" (see, Dave gets quotation marks too) have been shaking their bio-mechanical noggins in consternation over this crispy creative conundrum: namely, Cronenberg - an avid road racer, but not really an aficionado of the quarter-mile showdown - took a little vacation between RABID (medical experiment spawns bloodthirsty mutant) and THE BROOD (psychology experiment spawns bloodthirsty mutants) to shoot a little drive-in exploitation flick about hard-drinkin', fun-lovin', rubber-burnin' nitro-junkies (who aren't really thirsty for blood, but like to pour motor oil on ladies' boobies before doing a three-way motor-home mambo and punching out John Saxon). No one has offered a reasonable explanation - not even Cronenberg himself - but FAST COMPANY is no mere urban myth, and thanks to our dear fuzzy friends at Blue Underground (whom I could just kiss right on the mouth, with extra tongue), it's been rescued from the catacombs of near-complete obscurity, probably looking ten times better than it did when it made its teeny blip of a debut 25 years ago.
Shot entirely in Edmonton (but steadfastly all-American), FAST COMPANY stars legendary B-movie character actor William Smith ("Big Bill" to those who love him, and we do) in one of his rare heroic roles as veteran top-fueler Lonnie Johnson, dubbed "Lucky Man" for his ability to emerge from cataclysmic crashes unscathed. At Lonnie's side is gangly up-and-coming driver Billy "The Kid" Brocker (Cronenberg regular Nicholas Campbell), who pilots the team's funny car and aspires to follow in the boss's footsteps. At his other side, and occasionally near his crotch area, is his svelte girlfriend Sammy (Claudia Jennings, another drive-in icon who alas shuffled off her mortal hot-pants shortly after the film was completed), who has been trying for years to get him to ditch the ciruit. As we join our gang, it looks like Sammy might get her wish, since Lonnie's been knockin' heads with the team's sponsor - a high-profile oil-product distributor named FastCo, headed by uber-sleazy Phil Adamson (John Saxon, somehow looking wicked cool despite nightmare-inducing leisure suits).
Always scoping the next opportunity to butter his muffin, Phil puts a plan in motion to unseat Lonnie as the FastCo driver and replace him with longtime rival Gary "The Blacksmith" Black, appealing first to his hunger for a swankier trailer, then igniting the rather vague hostility simmering within Gary's aptly-named mechanic "Meatball" (George Buza) toward Lonnie's crew. Things get nasty; Lonnie loses his gig; people drink beer and hit each other with tire irons; skinny women take their shirts off; Smith tools his rig down main street; and Saxon (or his stunt double, I couldn't quite tell) takes one of the most hilarious asphalt nose-dives in the history of exploitation cinema. (Seriously, this fall is a work of art, and must have hurt like a cactus butt-plug.) Race fans with '70s flopper fever, this is your miracle cure.
For those who still refuse to believe that a hyper-intellectual horror auteur from the Great White North could ever have been capable of popping the top of the gritty, ear-melting world of Top Fuel, let this serve as edification. Cronenberg and cinematographer Mark Irwin (who shot several of Dave's early to mid-period features) put you right in the middle of the action from the get-go. Mounting the camera in the cockpit on real-life runs (often driven by Smith himself), capturing the cherry glow of the headers during night meets, and getting up-close and personal with the pit crews as they lovingly caress every piston and finger every valve. Figures this guy would eventually make a movie in which people rub their genitals on the wreckage of a 535i.
Authenticity and sexual metaphors aside, the colorful characters are another jewel in this cold-rolled crown. Cronenberg and his co-writers wisely draw on the conventions of the classic Western by painting Lonnie as a world-weary gunslinger, always wondering if his next duel will be his last, and the ruggedly handsome Smith (too often relegated to bad-guy roles for most of his career) captures the spirit of cowboy heroism. Saxon, on a "thug" spoke of his '70s "thug/cop/thug" career wheel, sleazes it up proper as the a corporate slimeball who's oilier than his products, and has a ball doing it. Only Jennings suffers in an underwritten role which would sadly be her last. Nevertheless, her charm shines through, demonstrating her ease in portraying gentler, more refined characters, instead of the gun-totin' skank roles which made her an exploitation legend.
I'll take off the rose-colored racing glasses for a moment to point out FAST COMPANY's only significant flaw... and it's a real weenie-shrinker. That would be the... well... let's call it "music." Note that the quotations used in the previous sentence are not intended to connote coolness in any way - like, say, Mike "Music" McGee. No, there's nothing cool about the wide-awake nightmare that is the lyrical accompaniment to our feature presentation. Imagine if you can, Thursday open-mike night at a small-town Holiday Inn. Then imagine the night's amateur acts all conformed to a Bruce Springsteen "Nebraska"-era theme. Now imagine that all of the aforementioned artists subsisted on nothing but Jagermeister, whippets and honey-roasted peanuts for three days prior to their performance. Then attach a medium-sized visegrip to your left eyelid and pull. Hard. Now you will understand a little bit of what the "music" in this film is like.
[Okay, I'm kidding about the visegrip part, mostly because I don't want to get sued. So don't do it. But believe me... these "songs" will eat your soul.]
Okay, where was I... oh yeah, GUT-RIPPING, NUT-BUSTING FUNNY CAR MAYHEM! THE FIRST 500 KIDS GET A FREE RAT FINK T-SHIRT! HAVE YOUR PICTURE TAKEN WITH MISS SUPERCHARGER!
Sorry, got carried away there. Aside from that one negative, there's so much to love here... and believe it or not, thanks to Blue Underground, the love just keeps on rolling. Not only have they beautifully restored the print to near-perfect condition, they've seen fit to crank up the energy level with a blistering surround mix, in both 5.1 (which just about blew my doors off) and 6.1 DTS-ES (which, sadly, I am ill-equipped to appreciate). The high- and low-ends are well represented: engines roaring like thunder and cheers from the grandstand blow up the race scenes to an impressive scale. And to think, the original release wasn't even in stereo! If not for that damned music... ah, fuck it. Just feel the love.
Now for the extras. Blue U's double-disc limited edition assigns the feature-related supplements on disc 1, including an interview with Smith and Saxon (a fun, laid-back reunion), a highly revealing interview with Mark Irwin, the theatrical trailer (which features Saxon's aformentioned fall, as well as uncorrected versions of the climactic day-for-night shots), still gallery, Claudia Jennings bio, and a detailed, informative commentary from Cronenberg. Disc 2 contains the director's earliest films, STEREO and CRIMES OF THE FUTURE, and frankly makes for a pretty schizoid triple-bill. In fact, I'd recommend putting a bit of distance between viewing the two discs, since they don't go together in any frame of mind other than that of an ether addict. On their own, the early films are an interesting study of the concepts the director would revisit in nearly all of his subsequent films - ironically, all except FAST COMPANY. Hmm.
Both shorts (around an hour each) were shot silent, then dubbed with cold, clinical narration and sparse sound effects. STEREO, in black and white, is designed to resemble a scientific documentary examining the behavior patterns of a group of telepaths (kind of a dry run for SCANNERS) as they learn to communicate in new ways, often through "symbolic gestures." This is another word for "mime." If that concept frightens you - and it should - then this is a horror film. CRIMES, shot in color, seems like a remake of STEREO - even reusing the same lead actor - but focuses instead on the victims of "Rouge's Malady," a viral plague brought about by the use of modern cosmetics. It's definitely creepier, evincing the director's career obsession with strange organs, purposeful diseases and slimy fluids, and concludes with a suggestion of pedophilia that's just plain gross.
But really, forget all that. Buy the 2-disc set, then remove disc 2 and place in a separate location for viewing on a later date. Because this is all about BLISTERING BURNOUTS ON A JET-BLACK STRIP OF HIGH-DECIBEL DEATH! DON'T YOU DARE MISS IT!
I think I need to lie down now.