Quick, what do H. B. Halicki and Louis B. Mayer have in common? They both went "from junk cars to movie stars" as the poster for The Junkman put it; both were scrap merchants who got into the film business. Wrecking shop owner turned auteur Halicki's homebrewed hit Gone in 60 Seconds led the 1999 remake by Dominic Sena, who reputedly worked on the original The Junkman as a camera man. The Junkman, the follow-up to the original 1974 Gone in 60 Seconds, is an even more extravagant car-cruncher. It's a film that makes Tarantino's great car chase in Death Proof look like an also-ran. (QT refers to this original by having Kurt Russell's character keep a row of sunglasses on his dashboard, just like Halicki did.) The Junkman is an all-out demolition derby with Hoyt Axton providing the vocals, a co-starring role by a pet pig named Farah and a finale with the Goodyear Blimp buzzing the Cinerama Dome. As the price of a gallon of gas reaches the inevitable $5 mark, let us return to this uniquely decadent actioner.
After a title sequence displaying a fine collection of Halicki's wind-up toys, we see a video history with home-movies of cinematic auteur "Harlan Hollis" and his rise to fame. At the peak of his success, Hollis lost his wife to a drunk driver. This sad part of the tale intercuts a flashing scrapbook photo of the late lamented with her funeral. To heal, Hollis concentrates on his work, by starring in and directing a car-cruncher set in the concrete-lined L. A. River. He plays a car thief, and Hoyt Axton is the sheriff who croons to him on a CB radio: "Ah'm a wild bull rider...you can't get out of this here river, bwah!"
It's a wrap. This is good, since today is also the 16th birthday of Harlan's now-motherless daughter Kelly (Kelly Busia). She already got her pony, but the big Sweet Sixteen party is scheduled for this evening. Unfortunately, it's also the same evening as the gala Hollywood premiere of Harlan Hollis' latest film...Gone in 60 Seconds. (You see, this is one of those films that blurs the line between autobiography and fiction.) So much for Time's much-vaunted ability to keep everything from happening at once. There are no night scenes until the end; everything appears to be occurring during the course of one hot action-packed day.
Today also, Harlan has to fly upstate to Central California to attend a memorial festival in the town of Cholame, for the 25th anniversary of the car crash that killed James Dean. The fest has live music and interviews of eyewitnesses to the aftermath of the Dean crash. On the scene, custom car king George Barris tells the camera "James Dean was a personal friend of mine." Freddy Cannon and the Belmonts (the ever-changing line up of this band is chronicled here) perform on stage. Later on the soundtrack, with the late Bo Diddley, they do their minor hit "Shake It Sally". You won't hear that on the DVD version, thanks to rights clearances. Viva VHS.
An LA-based reporter (Susan Shaw) drives around over the rural routes and gets lost while her cameramen complain "A big time news woman like Barbara Walters would have known not to drive over these bumpy roads."
But soon there's news enough for all, with a long car chase through the burnt California hills. Soon scads of 1980s behemoths are tumbling end over end, and dominoing other parked vehicles when they land. One moment is a J. G. Ballard worthy moment of excess: a sandwich made up of a luxury car, a speedboat and a big-rig. If only Halicki had sprung for an extra camera to get more angles on the impact.
In come stunt planes, raining hand grenades on Hollis. Foreigners getting caught up in the mess: beret-wearing Frenchies with little tri-colored flags waving on the hoods of their vintage Citroens, and so does a fuzzy-dice and deedle-ball laden lowrider car called "Mexican Rose". During one crunch, a hillbilly loses his ride; he was taking his prize pig to the county fair on its own personal waterbed. Halicki addresses the problem of fitting woman into the car cruncher scheme by cutting repeatedly to hot-looking policewomen in tight blouses and short skirts.
About the time that Hollis scoops up a 500 gallon propane tank on the hood of his Cadillac and careens into a single-wide trailer, it seems as if it's curtains for him. The burnt, bullet-riddled Cad is towed back to Hollis' headquarters, played by Halicki's football-field sized compound, his one-man museum full of thousands of toys, dozens of cars, (some rostered here) and his famous desk that he could drive right up to. Surely, the "Harlan Hollis Death Car" would find some place in this museum.
But Hollis survives the inferno, and is rescued by the newslady. Back in LA, our hero finishes up things with a borrowed car and a pistol scored from Hoyt Axton himself in the parking lot of the Palomino Club (RIP). Then, a fist fight, oddly scored to Axton's hit "Joy to the World (Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog)." Hollis leads a quick multi-car chase through most of Los Angeles County, complete with one especially memorable stunt: a yellow Corvette using a row of cars parked nose-to-nose as a getaway ramp. Hollis' final escape vehicle is the Goodyear Blimp Columbia (here, seen being christened by Miss America 1963). In the finale, the blimp is blinking out "Let's Party!"
Except for the hand-grenades and the chases, The Junkman follows the detail of Halicki's life closely. He was a self-made man from a family of 13 from the Erie-coast town of Dunkirk, New York. As director and fearless stunt man, he made these two influential indie films before being killed in 1989 during a stunt for the uncompleted Gone in Sixty Seconds Part II. Denice Halicki has kept up the cinematic end of her husband's legacy. She claims that The Junkman still holds the Guinness book Record for most car-crashes in a movie.
It's very much the end of an era, this film; it's a piece of the old drive-in movie world, really meant to be seen when sitting in a car. The fetish for cars, loving them when they speed, and loving them most when they crash, makes this the work of one obsessive filmmaker. It couldn't be done now. People get nervous when they see cameras nowadays. This nervousness has spelled the end of Halicki's way of low-budget filmmaking, when you could hire a mayor, a chief of police, or the pilot of the Goodyear Blimp to play themselves. Halicki lived off the land as a filmmaker, casting friends, neighbors, and loads and loads of relatives--"If you were his banker, you were in the film. If you were his next door neighbor, you were in the film," remembered Denice, interviewed in Stumped Magazine.
The downbeat and inexpensive Los Angeles on in Halicki's camera is a city that had working class neighborhoods, instead of either estates or slums, with nothing in between. There was, as we can see, room in it to drive around. There was lots of space for amiable slouches of both gender. They wandered through these kind of films in a never changing outfit of sky-blue French-cut t-shirts and designer jeans that fit like the skin on a sausage. As I'm not particularly a gearhead, I take as much pleasure in the ambiance of The Junkyard as in the amazing caroming of these oversized cars.