3/11/10

Fast Company (1979): Cronenberg’s Body (Shop) Horror

When David Cronenberg’s films are brought up, people wax poetic about Videodrome, discuss how disturbing The Fly really is, or how he was the only director who could ever get close to bringing Burroughs’s Naked Lunch to life. If the conversation turns to his early work, then likely Marilyn Chambers poking people with her stinger in Rabid or Shivers general creepiness will be discussed. One film that doesn’t come up nearly as often is 1979’s Fast Company. It made its debut the same year as The Brood, but unlike that horror classic, Fast Company has been all but forgotten. In recent years, Cronenberg has gotten much critical praise for going outside the horror genre to direct films like Eastern Promises and The History of Violence, and so I thought it was high time I look back at this early non-horror curiosity. Plus it just happened to star today’s Beautiful Lady of Genre, Claudia Jennings, in her last film role.


Lonnie “The Lucky Man” Johnson (William Smith) is a huge star on the drag racing circuit, but when he gets pressured by FastCo executive Phil Adamson (John Saxon) to worry more about selling product than winning races, Johnson begins acting erratically. His girlfriend Sammy (Claudia Jennings) wants him to quit the dangerous sport, his rival “The Blacksmith” want to beat him anyway he can, and the young man who idolizes him Billy “The Kid” Broker wants to be him, but all Lonnie wants is to be his own man. When FastCo finally fires Lonnie, his friends rally behind him and they steal a car so Lonnie can have one more shot at drag racing immortality.

Although filmed primarily at the Edmonton Racetrack in Alberta, Canada, from the opening strains of the title song “Fast Company” with its pseudo-Bob Seger sound, Cronenberg’s film seems completely geared to the American drive-in audience. I can only imagine how great this film looked blown up to drive in proportions or how loud the rumble of the funny car’s engines would have been coming out of dozens of speakers. In a way the film is quite basic, the noble older racer, his younger sidekick ready for the spotlight, and the evil manager/corporation ready to make a fast buck. Fast Company plays with the classic Western formula and replaces horses with Funny Cars and shootouts with head to head drag races.

Fast Company was the first of Cronenberg’s films that he did not script himself. Instead he worked from a screenplay from Nicholas Campbell, who also stars in the film as Billy “The Kid”. Cronenberg was billed as a writer on the film though, and I have to wonder if the climax, a Cronenbergian twist that even involves some body trauma, was the director’s contribution. So while the film lacks the kind of flair that he exhibited in his early films Rabid and Shivers, it does have a style to it that definitely was the mark of the director. He filmed the races with almost a fetishistic level of detail, and some of the interior shots of the cars while they race are extremely well shot. The most interesting of these overlays a timer and we see a race, over in only 6 seconds, from the driver’s point of view. The sound is also amazing. In that same scene you hear the rumble of engines, squalling sound as the RPM’s rev, the roar as the race begins, and finally silence punctuated only by the heavy breathing of the driver. It brings the experience of drag racing to life, and even for someone like me, who could care less about car racing, I found these scenes very thrilling.

If I had just listened to this film, I would have assumed this was the work of one of many drive-in directors of the time. The script is heavily laden with clichés and ham-fisted dialog, but it seems to fit the general goofy tone of the film. However, when it turns to the more serious matters brought up in the film, the evil corporate stooge or jealousy among drivers, it quickly falls apart. It’s hard to tell if Cronenberg and Campbell thought they were making a drama with comedic moments or a serious indictment of the quest for fame. Another thing that doesn’t help the film’s uneven tone are the many songs, such as the aforementioned “Fast Company”. When singer Michael Stanley starts his crooning, it seems like the kind of thing that would have come from the minds of satirists like Trey Parker and Matt Stone for a South Park episode.

Even though the material the actors were working with was not the best, many of them rose to the occasion. William Smith (Red Dawn, CC & Company) gives a charismatic performance as “Lucky” Johnson, and it was kind of interesting to see him get to play the affable lug instead of the baddie that he usually plays. He makes for a sympathetic character, and the strength of his performance is what really brings this film together. John Saxon (you should know what The Saxon has been in) also shines as the evil representative of the oil company, and the moments he appears on the screen sliming it up are perhaps the best. Nicholas Campbell really didn’t give himself too big a part as “The Kid”, but he does pour motor oil all over a naked girl’s breasts, so take from that what you will. The most comedic moments in the film come by way of the pit crews, and in an interesting bit of trivia, rival mechanic Meatball, George Buza, would go on to voice The Beast in The X-Men animated series while unfortunately his more beastly fellow mechanic Stoner, David Graham, never appeared in another film.

Now one of the main reasons I checked out this film today was the appearance of today’s B.L.O.G, Claudia Jennings. Unfortunately, despite the large font proclaiming her name and the tagline on the back hailing this as her last film, Ms. Jennings’ appearances in the film are brief and without any real merit. If you’re a fan of the 1970 Playmate of the Year, then you’re better off checking out her 1972 starring role in the roller derby film The Unholy Rollers if you want to see more of the vivacious beauty. Fast Company was indeed her final film. She died in a tragic auto accident when she fell asleep at the wheel of her car the next year, and now beyond fans of ‘70’s genre film, she has been nearly forgotten. That kind of neatly sums up the female characters in Fast Company. They serve mainly as trophies or sex objects, and if you’re looking for strong, interesting women, something Cronenberg displayed in his earlier films, you will find it severely lacking here. While Ms. Jennings is horribly underused here, she has a lot to like on her résumé and I encourage people to check out her other films.

David Cronenberg has had a long career, but not extremely varied until his last couple of features. Most fans of the director enjoy his horror output, and I consider myself a huge fan of Videodrome, Rabid, and Naked Lunch. It would be hard for me to say if horror fans would get much out of this feature. Being a fan of ‘70’s cinema in general, I enjoyed this strange slice from Cronenberg’s career, but it is clearly not a film that will appeal to everyone. It does show off the skills of a young director still finding his way, and there are flashes of the filmmaker that he would become. Cronenberg completists will have to check this one out, and fans of car films should give it a shot. For anyone else, be warned, it might just be a drag.

Bugg Rating

4 comments:

  1. Sisters of Death is a rather cool little Claudia Jennings movie as well. A very underrated little film.

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  2. Totally forgot about that one, and I've even reviewed it

    http://www.thelightningbugslair.com/2009/01/dollar-dealicious-sisters-of-death-1977.html

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  3. T. L., I'm glad you liked Sisters of Death as well. It's a very neglected film (possibly because it's in the public domain which tends to make a lot of people assume a movie won't be any good). Most reviewers don't have a good word to say about it, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. And I thought Claudia Jennings was pretty good.

    I think you're right about the main reason it's not a bigger cult favourite - it lacks gore and it lacks nudity. But it's fun and it has a great psycho villain.

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  4. I love everything Cronenberg's done so it's odd I haven't Netflixed this one. Thanks for the post, and I'll be looking for Claudia Jennings' movies as well.

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