King of The Mountain (1981)
Wednesday, February 20th
Film starts at 8:00pm
at Lady Jay’s: 633 Grand St, between Manhattan & Leonard, Bklyn, NY 11211
Free popcorn, Juke Box Meccanica, $2 Bingo for Prizes. PRIZES!
Don’t forget to visit the concession stand! This week’s menu of Eggplant Parmesan, Garlic Bread & Mixed Greens by Happy Homesteader and a steal at only $8 a plate. Food’s on by 7:30, so come hungry and come early!!
This week’s film review brought to us by Kerry of NYC Vin Moto. Happy Birthday, Kerry!
When I was a young kid I heard stories. Not the good kind of stories that inspire you to want to be a knight, or go on a great quest, or do good deeds. These were more like hushed whispers by vehicular ner-do-wells and other creatures of the blacktop at night about a place. A stretch of public road. An amateur race course. As a North Eastern kid in the heart of Queens, NY street racing was always a quickest line from point A to B proposition. There was a stoplight, and a straight stretch of road and a crosswalk that doubled as a finish line a 1/4 mile up. And I could hear them from my kid bedroom at night, echoing mighty at the launch fading to a whimper after the finish. It was short but frequent and there wasn’t a lot of time to digest it all in between the night flights overhead into JFK and the occasional ambulance. The 1980’s were probably the last era when it would be considered mildly socially tolerated to have an unmuffled big block American dinosaur as your street car, and for you to let it roar at night….well it was only natural for dinosaurs to roar. And then I hear this whisper. A race with turns? the hell you say, why would anybody want a race with turns? While NYC, specifically Manhattan, was at some point before the decline in the 70’s a mecca of wealth and sports cars – Queens rarely saw it. It was a land of GTOs and Shoebox Chevys. Ladder bars and pizza cutters backed by big racemasters. The closest to exotic one regularly saw in this gridded wasteland was maybe someone had a corvette. Or a Z28, or a pink dodge challenger. So this whisper was a story. A myth of guys who wanted to race longer than 1/4 mile, who saw value in what was otherwise an obstacle. It didn’t happen….did it?
And then came cable television. And Car Craft. And Hot Rod….and puberty.
Nobody races for longer than a straight quarter stretch….who has that kind of room? I was a city kid. The world was short, measured in blocks and traffic lights and houses and apartment buildings. The concept of a road without feeder roads let alone without stoplights for you to get going and hold a good clip, that wasn’t a highway, didn’t really exist. I mean, even long island had stop signs. But thanks to cable television and their desire to fill their hours with just about anything they could I saw it first hand. The whispers weren’t just true – they were better than I imagined. At least Hollywood made them seem better. Cannonball Run, Speed Zone, Banzai Racers, The Gumball Rally, The Wraith…. and on and on, street racing had been a popular genre in the 1980s and then it fizzled and places like HBO and even local channel 11 PIX picked them up cheap (or so I am told) so by the late 80’s they were on all the time. And then there was King of the Mountain. It took place on Mulholland. The whispers all mentioned Mulholland. California was the promised land of car culture and in its heart is a stripe of asphalt with only promise of high speed thrills. I saw this film probably when I was about 11 or 12, was in awe at the junky corvette, was wondering why the drunk dad from Rumble Fish was always yelling, and thought “doesn’t everybody know silver vw bugs aren’t fast, no matter how big the flares are?” (I had yet to learn of the magic that is supposedly housed within the bathtub 356 Porsche skin – but I wouldn’t be far off, the car in the movie is a fake). And then I got old enough to drive, moved to Long Island, and I forgot that the movie even existed, and I ground out what little speed one can from a terrain of stoplights and grid system roads and no room to really go anywhere. But every on off ramp taken way too fast held a little tingle of magic and I didn’t know why.
As an adult more than 20 years on, I have rediscovered this film. But more importantly I discovered all the marginally true stories behind it and it is now more fascinating than I can ever remember. I will stop and tell you dear reader that if you come to this film expecting to find the car movie masterpiece (that has yet to be made), this film does not live up to the hype. It doesn’t even really add to the hype of the Mulholland myth, other than to confirm that the place really existed and that it had names for the turns and landmarks like a professional race course would: Grandstands……Deadmans…..Carl’s…..Identicals….and so on….
But, once you know the fabric from which this film is cut, it adds so much to the car movie zeitgeist that even the Fast and Furious movie chain can’t squander with cheesey stunts and Vin Wasshisname. Rather than just tell you the plot, I am going to tell you why you should care to see this movie. To give you some more backstory the movie is based on an article entitled “Thunder Road” that appeared in now defunct New West Magazine in 1978. A reproduction can be read HERE
. Consider it a primer on the “more than you ever wanted to know but still unbelievably cool” road you are about to embark.
Dennis Hopper. This movie premiered in 1981 to almost empty movie houses nationwide. However what those poor souls missed was the chance to see Dennis Hopper at the height of his bender. Filming of this movie would have run back to back with Hopper’s role in Apoclaypse Now. It first blush it just looks like Hopper is stuck in character. Instead of being a burned out, obsessive, overzealous, half crazed photojournalist he is a burned out, overzealous, obsessive, half crazed southern California street racer post traumatic accident. This isn’t post downfall rehab mellow drunk Rumble Fish Hopper. And it isn’t pseudo mellow on the way to the top of drug mountain Easy Rider Hopper. This is 3 grams a day, 30 beers, a couple of lids, and Cuba Libre’s for breakfast King of the (drug) Mountain Hopper. It is one of his best performances because the role called for Dennis Hopper, not a person pretending to be what he was living, and he delivered in full force and complete honesty. But remember this is a true story, Hopper is supposed to be someone else, right? Meet “Crazy” Charlie Woit. “Crazy Charley”….”Mulholland Charlie”…. like any good myth there are bound to be variations, even in nicknames. But there are always the same details. Charley worked out of a garage in Hollywood, nothing all that spectacular about it other than Bud Ekins and his van was a sometimes client in the 1970s. I wish I could tell you it was a finely tuned race shop that only turned out special cars but by all accounts I have read – it was tune ups and brake linings for be-curlered Hollywood housewives. Charley began making fast trips down Mulholland sometime in the 1960’s using a 1951 GMC pickup – giving sports-car guys hell at the time. Not just because they had to suffer the indignity of losing to an bead up second hand pickup but that they had to dodge beer cans being tossed out of his window the entire time. Not the easy to open pull top cans but the kind of cans one has to open with a can opener making two triangle shaped openings before the nectar flows. You heard me, dodge MULTIPLE beer cans. Dennis did a fair number of his own stunts and the method actor he is meant a sixxer riding shotgun. At one point Hopper disappeared in the Big Block tire shredder Vette with only a few minutes of film loaded in the in car cameras to shoot some B roll and didn’t return for over an hour or however long it took him to drain the fresh sixpack he grabbed before he got in the car – the legends from just his filming of this movie almost rival that of Charley……almost.
Harry Hamlin. A month after King of the Mountain came out Hamlin would become famous for his role as Perseus in that juggernaut of terrible cult movies “Clash of the Titans”. Prior to that his only other big screen appearance had been in “Movie Movie”, a spoof of 1930’s films. I am not sure what I can say here about Hamlin himself except that he is beautiful cardboard. Everything from his hair to his ‘roos screams 1979 hasn’t gotten the message that it is 1981 yet. The real legend on which he is based is far more interesting than Hamlin has acting ability to convey. This is one of those rare times where Hollywood doesn’t go far enough, where it waters down the truth to make is sale-able to a market that doesn’t understand why someone would spend the amount of money most would spend on a house to build a car that doesn’t win any trophies, doesn’t “compete” on a race course, and if it does its job properly makes sure the driver stays an unknown. The man “Steve” (Hamlin’s character) is loosely based on is Chris Banning. The car he built is a silver chopped top Porsche 911 RSR, basically a full boat competition race car with headlights and license plates and little else. To put this in perspective Porsche RSRs were responsible for almost all sports car championships Porsche won in the 1970’s that didn’t go to exotica like the 917. But that is too radical, too “gearhead” for a mainstream audience so Hamlin drives a (fake) 356 speedster with “California” wheel flares and wide Centerline autodrags. A VW kit car as a pale stand-in for a real competition bred machine built solely for the enjoyment of the driver (and whatever hapless victim come passenger dared pass through the right side door hole)….It just makes you feel cheap once you know. Chris Banning once said “To be the fastest on the hill, it requires three prerequisites, a high performance car set up for Mul, being an excellent driver who knows the road backwards, forwards, and upside-down, and a devil-may-care attitude about living. There were only a select few who met these requirements.” Hamlin is none of those things. But he is entertaining.
The Plot. Something about a music career, blah, blah, blah…..who cares. This is a cult car movie, you didn’t come here for the plot you came to see cars and women. Speaking of which….about the only cool quirk is Deborah Van Valkenburg’s character’s choice of a Citroen DS as her ride, suggesting a deeper sadomasochistic dark side that doesn’t come through at all in her portrayal….I mean every Citroen DS I have ever seen, heard about, thought of, dreamed about, or read about in a magazine has all suffered the same fate of sitting on the shoulder of some road or highway bleeding out deep red hydraulic fluid like a deer whose last thought was “I wonder if those headlights are friendly”. I mean you really have to like pain to cast even one positive synapse in the direction of a Citroen DS. Also she has probably the second best line of the movie where she infers that Hamlin’s character is kind of a mewling little pussy bitch….in a playful way. Love it.
The Cars. This is what is great about the movie. Forget for a second that half the racing scenes could be recreated with four flashlights and a dark room….the cars are where you really get a feel for what illegal road racing was like in the early 1980s in California. Sure there are your staple American Muscle screaming chickens and GT ponies, but….. here there be Datsuns!!!!! of the 240 and 510 variety. Sure there is a yelling yellow Ferrari but there are also Capri’s, RX3s, Fiat X1/9s, VWs, lots of Porsches (914, 356, 911s, RSRs, etc)…..you know the really weird stuff that doesn’t get its due unless your mom circa 1981 makes an onscreen appearance. What is great is that with the exception of the hero cars and the yellow Ferrari, most of the vehicles are actual canyon racers. There were many groups that frequented the mountain in those days MRA, SCCRA, TVL, etc….and the Southern California Canyon Racers Association were the scenery. What is also hilarious is that the stunt crew for this film are also scenery, comprising most of the musicians in the plot stuff we don’t really care about. See if you can spot William Forsythe, I never can. Awesomely Elvira’s alter ego of Cassandra Peterson is the neighbor…..ah the awesome randomness of bad 1980s movie magic. But yeah….cars, it is what we are here for. The final chase scene makes it all worth it, I’m not going to ruin it for you but it is “surprise” Vette vs Porsche. But all the other scenes – the shop scenes, the other cars…the speed parts, oh the speed parts – seeing a chromed out Sun Tach in action is something I have missed since Autometer dominated the market with their modern mat silver and black monster tachs. The Vette, it is almost a character in its own right. By all accounts, if the internet is to be believed, Charlie’s actual vette wasn’t that far off from the red and primer monster you see on the screen, except it was Marina blue and primer and a 1966 model instead of the 67 used for the movie. Part time stunt man Jeff Robbins (whose handiwork you can partially see in the car chase in Ronin) supposedly sold Charlie the ’66 vette in the early 70’s. Charlie then began making passes in the car modding it slowly until a chance conversation in one of the Mulholland turnoffs lead to him getting an impromptu education on how to build a Grand Sport from the man who spearheaded the program in the early 60’s – Dick Guldstrand. From that point on it was flares and primer, tires as wide as a steamroller’s press, and a howling big block facing no restriction. Hopper’s red 67 does a pretty good job of standing in for the legendary vette, so much so that many think old promo shots and screen captures are often mistaken for the legend maker itself, since no pics of the legend have surfaced to date (but are rumored to be out there). The real car is long gone, its fate another hazy legend. All agree Charlie perished in it just like Hopper’s character Cal does in the ’67 (roughly 4 years before Charlie’s actual death supposedly), but each time the story is told the how and where get fuzzy. Some say he went over in a different canyon, others that he was testing it out on the freeway and hit a wall when the suspension failed, but few only know the truth and they ain’t saying. Either way, that junky red ’67 inspires bad thoughts, lots of bad thoughts, about the lateral g forces that can be generated by a land based vehicle.
Well that about covers it, I guess. Except one last thing. And I caution you dear reader, don’t open this door if you have obsessive compulsive habits regarding vehicular awesomeness and like seeing sunlight but check out this thread on the pelicanparts forums: (Porsche 911)
It is nothing more than actual racers (Including Banning himself) sharing stories, resurecting the 911 RSR, a deep history lesson on the Mulholland canyon, awesome pics of rare weird shit, a brief discussion of how a bunch of guys who used to race Lola T70s on the street became the film Bonza Runners about a cop seeking revenge for his brother’s murder and featuring NO lola T70s at all, a forensic analysis of the garbage that lies at the foot of the canyon upon which Mulholland is perched (spoiler it is a lot of Porsche 911 parts and motorcycles – most either abandoned or maybe just misjudged the turn), and so…..much……more……Again I caution you, you may begin to surf ebay motors while reading the thread for Datsun 510s or 240z cars – or maybe a BMW 2002 or some other bit of 1970’s handling awesomeness.
Also check out Chris Banning’s book “The Mulholand Experience”. All the best parts of the Movie, 99% less Hamlin.