Thursday, February 27, 2014

Sidehackers (1969) – MST3K Review


Summary:
Rommel (Ross Hagen) is one of the best sidehackers in the sport. And what is sidehacking? Well it’s hanging onto a sidecar frame on a motorcycle, while the motorcycle is racing on a dirt track. Rommel fixes bikes when he isn’t hanging off them and that is how he meets J.C. (Michael Pataki) a biker who performs at rodeos and carnivals. The two hit it off, especially when Paisley (Clair Polan) takes a liking to Rommel, even though she is J.C.’s girl.

But nothing doing, Rommel is in love with Rita (Diane McBain) and they spend hours wandering in fields and snuggling under trees. All this love ends up making Paisly mad, so she tells J.C. that Rommel attacked and abused her. J.C., not the most stable guy in the first place, goes off the deep end and savagely attacks and kills Rita. Rommel is shattered, but vows revenge – and that means gathering a group of anti-heroes and taking the fight to J.C. By this point in the film you’ll be wondering where all the Sidehackers went to.

Movie Review:
It's impossible to scrape of sidehacker with kung-fu
grip!
This movie is also known as Five the Hard Way, which I think has something to do with the finale of the film where Rommel and his four pals attack J.C.’s hideout. It goes along with a character named Crapout played with hillbilly verve by Hoke Howell. Using this title may keep all the fans of sidehacking from rushing the theaters in hope of seeing a film that finally treats the sport with respect. Unfortunately Sidehackers is not that film. It’s not a sports drama about an underdog sidehacker rising above the odds to win the day. No, instead the sidehacking is just some color to what is essentially a revenge story.

Well, kinda, the movie is pretty unfocused. It starts off appearing to be a film about sidehackers, and then detours into a melodrama about two lovers named Rita and Rommel. But J.C. appears and seems to have wandered in from another movie, possibly a friend of Banjo’s from Wild Rebels. Once J.C. really takes over, the movie ends up going down the exploitation counter-culture cinema that brought about films like The Girl with Gold Boots and The Hellcats.

There is probably a decent movie in here somewhere, but the mixing of all these storylines lessens the whole film and makes it flail around like motorcycle that lost it’s sidehacker.

Sessions presents, Rommel Live at the Acropolis!
Visually the film has a grainy low budget look, which actually helps some scenes work a little better. The footage of the sidehacking race is actually pretty good and edited in an exciting way. I can see why they may have hoped that changing the name to Sidehackers would bring some focus to these scenes. But other times the editing and cinematography just don’t cut the mustard. I can’t say much about the editing, because of a certain issue I’ll mention later in the review. But I can say that frequent flashbacks to material we had just seen a few minutes ago are pretty annoying. You also get the super-imposed images when Rommel is thinking about the good times he had with Rita. It reminds me of AM Gold compilation commercials you’d see on TV back in the 80s.

The sound in the movie is atrocious. Obviously they only had one boom mic and half the time it wasn’t close enough to the action. As a result a lot of the dialogue goes by without you hearing a thing. The music is typical for this type of film, but the theme song used during the love scenes is pretty silly.

What makes the film entertaining is the acting. Well, part of the acting anyway. Ross Hagan plays your typical tough guy with the heart of gold, and he isn’t bad in the part. The goofy hat he wears takes away a bit of his tough guy edge, but maybe it some was something all the sidehackers were wearing back in the day. McBain is pretty good as Rita. She certainly doesn’t deserve her violent end. Unfortunately both of our leads seem to be smokers, because they have some craggy voices and the bad sound has trouble with some of their more intimate dialogue.

J.C. and Cooch attempt to out yell each other, while
Paisley acts as the ref.
It is the villains that bring all the fun to Sidehackers. First there is Pataki as J.C. the completely insane, but poetic biker who decides that Rommel is his mortal enemy. From Pataki’s frothing at the mouth performance we can only deduce that J.C. is on some kind of drug (probably several). Pataki chews the scenery and gets more and more over the top as the film progresses. By the end he is practically drooling and ripping his hair out. He has some of the best line delivers in the film, especially when he is interacting with his right hand man Cooch (Michael Graham) or Paisley.

Cooch is no slacker when it comes to acting. When J.C. sends him to act as a double agent in Rommel’s gang, the whole exchange is filled with mugging, escalating volume and eye popping on both sides. But even better is the scenes where Cooch fears that Rommel’s buddies are on to him. I’m not sure what the actor was going for but it is sad to say he missed.

Finally there is our femme fatale, Paisley. She is actually the most grounded of the three, but she has her moments of over acting. Mostly she gets to looks sexy and slink around, then insult J.C. so he slaps her around again.

Crapout shows us his big stick.
I also have to mention Crapout, one of the most aptly named characters in Sidehackers. I’m guessing Howell was supposed to play an annoying country bumpkin who is also a biker, but man, does he just ramp up that stereotype meter to 11. Luckily he only appears in the final third of the film, but between his horrible jokes and mugging you begin to yearn for Paul Gilbert of Women of the Prehistoric Planet fame. Ok, maybe that’s going to far, but you get the idea.

Unfortunately, nothing really works in this movie. The sidehacking scenes are kinda interesting, only because I’ve never heard of the sport or seen it performed before. But the love story is tedious, and only around so the impact of Rita’s death can drive Rommel’s revenge. So it turns out that the revenge story is the focus of the whole film. But the execution doesn’t really make it worth your time to watch. I’m wondering if there is a whole subtext with characters named Rommel, Nero and Crapout as our heroes and a man with the same initials as Jesus Christ as the deranged rapist and killer. But that might be giving the film too much credit. Instead, Sidehakers serves as fodder for Joel and the Bots as the first of the 60s biker flick triad they tackled in Season Two.

Episode Review:

A sidehacker gets snuggly with his driver.
So here is an episode that includes a few firsts, and a few lessons for the folks behind Mystery Science Theater 3000. According to the writers, this was the film where they learned to screen the entire movie before giving Comedy Central the OK to pick up the rights for the show. Before this episode, they would watch a bit of the film to get an idea about it and then go forward. Well the crew only watched the first half or so of Sidehackers and saw the long love story scenes and the sidehacking and thought there was enough for them to work with, as well as providing a new genre for the writers to tackle.

When they sat down in the writing room to work on the first pass they were horrified by the increasing levels of violence and the disturbing rape and murder of Rita. It was obvious they would have to heavily edit the film to make an episode that was family friendly (something they prided themselves on). It would be less work to just pick a different movie and not use this one at all. Unfortunately, Comedy Central had spent the money and expected the crew to use it. Keep in mind, the show was popular enough to get a second season, but they didn’t have the clout yet to push back too much, so the writing team sat down and got to work.

Crapout, Nero and Rommel confront Cooch. I can't
believe I just wrote that sentence.
The result is a film that was heavily edited for content, something Best Brains was always loathe to do. They would edit for time, but in most cases they were able to keep all the key scenes in the film, and only snip a few moments here and there. For Sidehackers, whole plot points would have to be removed, and they would just have to work with it. While this didn’t render Sidehackers unintelligible, it did end up hurting the bad film even more, and created some really odd edits and moments in the final product. I have to say the fact that the writers were able to get some quality riffing out of this mess is impressive.

Cambot makes his first and only visual riff.
The movie opens with credits over footage of sidehackers racing around a dirt track. Tom notes that “They can’t be very good, they need training wheels.” When the film declares that it was filmed in Fantavision, Joel responds that he prefers “Orange Julius-vision.” When the motorcycles take a tight turn, the sidehackers have to lean close to the driver. During one of these moments, Crow blurts out “Hold me!” in a panicky voice.  The sidehacking scenes in general provide a ton of joke opportunities for the boys, making fun of color commentary, the sidehacker rigs and just about everything in sight. You also get the only time Cambot (the robot who is filming the whole experiment for the mad scientists) providing a visual riff.

This gulch is alive with the sound of Moog-sic.
Since you’ve got a character named Rommel in the film, the boys turn it into a running joke focusing on George C. Scott’s performance in Patton yelling, “Rommel you magnificent bastard! I read your book!” I found these pretty darn funny, and all three of the boys do a pretty good imitation of Scott’s take on Patton. They managed to work some of these in at the most unexpected moments. Another running joke takes place during the final third of the movie. Our heroes are sneaking around in a night raid of J.C.s camp, but it is all filmed as day for night – only with one of the worst filters I’ve ever seen. In fact there might not even be a filter, just a vain hope that other shots happening at the same time and obviously shot at night will convince the audience that the whole thing is taking place in the dark. The boys start arguing over if this is all happening at the same time, or if it really is night, or If there is a supernova illuminating everything. Your mileage may vary with those comments.

Sidehackers riffing moves in fits and starts for me. Sometimes you get some great lines. When J.C. slaps Paisley around after she implies he is lousy lover, he snarls the line, “But baby, what a great team we are!” to which Joel replies, “Like Punch and Judy.” Or during a long scene in a bar where the characters are negotiating hiring prices over a game of pool. Crow groans and says, “Since this film isn’t going anywhere, why don’t we all play pool!” But the long scenes of Rommel wandering around with Rita showing how in love they are, or the scenes with Rommel wandering around remembering Rita feel endless. There’s only so much riffing the boys can come up with and it ends up hurting the final product.

Joel and the bots model Rommel style head gear.
Because the movie was edited to hell, this episode actually has some pretty long host segments. They end up being a bit hit and miss for me as well. It starts off with Joel washing up the bots and getting them ready for the movie. He wants them to calm down and not utter another peep. Of course they start peeping and he loses it. For the invention exchange, Joel shows off his sentient slinky, Gretchen. She eats lint and does a funny impression of the 1960s. The mad scientists use Slinky technology to allow Dr. Forrester to be in two places at once. Looks painful. When we come back from the first movie segment, Joel and bots sing a song about sidehacking, which may or may not imply that you have to be stupid to take this sport on. At the next break, the boys try their hand at creating some sidehacking terminology to help color commentary. This gets crazier and more ridiculous but does go on a bit too long. I will give them props for working Electra-woman and Dyna-girl into the mix. When we come back to the boys they are dressed in Rommel’s stupid hat and trying to think of ways to imitate him. But whenever they mention Rita, the Moog music sting occurs and they break down in tears. It’s pretty silly, but then the skit keeps going when J.C. and Cooch show up (Mike and Frank dressed accordingly) and they berate Joel and the bots for not wanting to emulate J.C. When the movie ends the boys sing another song about how love pads the film. It is based on a riff they make during the long love sequence. The song is pretty funny, one of the best from Season Two.

Sidehackers does have its fans, and I have to say, I given this episode several viewings hoping to see the magic that others have caught. But honestly the whole thing never really works for me. The poor sound make catching the dialogue a real pain, the movie is a slog, and the riffing moves in patches. This is an early Season Two episode, and I think the boys got better as the season progressed. They would return to this genre with Wild Rebels and that riffing session was a lot better on all counts. But the best episode for these types of films would be The Girl with Gold Boots. I would recommend either of those films first, before tackling Sidehackers.

I give it two sidehackers out of five.

J.C. is disappointed with my rating.

This episode is available on the Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection, Vol. 3

2 comments:

  1. You know, I have to agree with the songsters. There are some sports which -- even though a spectator can appreciate the bravery and physical prowess of the participants -- are nonetheless really stupid. This is one of them. Why do we do this? Because racing motorcycles the normal way is just too damn safe!

    One wonders if the filmmakers simply were searching for any unusual sport on which to hang a story. I can hear them discuss it Airplane racing? Uh-uh: "Wings of Fire" 1967. Skydiving? Nope: "The Skydivers" '63. Boat Racing? Uh uh: Elvis in "Clambake." Sidehacking? Never heard of it. Perfect!

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    1. I love your glimpse into the writing room. I get the strong feeling it is very accurate.

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