Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Trip with the Teacher (1975)

 As far as your midnight movie plots go, there's nothing inherently unique about Trip with the Teacher. On the surface, this is your standard "mad motorcycle maniacs terrorize the innocent" plot, but it's done with so much style and at least one particularly stunning performance that it easily stands out against similar films.

Brenda Fogarty (The Beach Bunnies) is a prim and proper teacher who is leading a handful of her female students (including Cathy Worthington in her debut) on an expedition into the desert to observe some Native American artifacts. Jack Driscoll (Garden of the Dead) is their bus driver, a stout man who is the spitting image of Sterling Hayden (The Godfather), circa 1957. Elsewhere in the desert, two motorcyclists, played by Zalman King (Galaxy of Terror) and Robert Porter (Mackenna's Gold), are broken down on the side of the road. Another motorcyclist happens upon them, played by Robert Gribbin (Hitch Hike to Hell), and when he offers to help, we quickly learn that he's a nice guy with a job and responsibilities while the other two are simply looking for trouble. Before long, they find that trouble when everyone's paths cross and the two crazy cyclists begin terrorizing the girls and their bus driver in the middle of nowhere. Our upstanding heroic male lead waits for just the right time to spring into action as the game turns into a fight for survival.


What really makes this film work--and boy does it work--is the performance from Zalman King. His acting early in the movie is understated to the point of lethargy. He lays around like some psycho slacker, devoid of expression and keeping his movements small. But by the middle of the film, he's completely unhinged, chewing scenery left and right, and using his face as a canvas for wicked sneers, unbridled rage, and shocking psychosis. At the same time, we're drawn to him because he's magnetic. Sometimes he looks like Jim Morrison, and other times he looks like Sean Penn. Early in the movie when he's wearing this huge wrap-around shades, he looks like Bono from the band U2. The common denominator among all three of those people is that they are magnetic personalities, and Zalman King is impossible not to watch because he has that "it" factor that makes him a fantastic choice for this role. You get the impression that, if he weren't trolling around in the desert, he could be fronting a band at the Whisky or hanging out upstairs at the Rainbow on Sunset.
Robert Gribbin does a great job by offering a performance that shows contrast to King's madness, meaning he's slightly more grounded in reality, though perhaps no less dangerous. When he stands aside and watches the terrible things King does, he's allowing it all to happen; he even joins in from time to time. there's an interesting psychology at work here because Zalman King's character is clearly guano crazy in the most obvious of ways, but there's a lot of evidence to support that Gribbin's character is equally deranged, he just doesn't have the aggression and rage that his brother exhibits.

All the elements that you want from a movie like this are present. There are a couple of outstanding chases, one on motorcycle and the other on foot. There are bursts of action, brutal murder, tons of suspense, and a big helping of sweet revenge. The desert cinematography--presumably south-east California, is beautiful and expansive, and it really feels like anything could happen in this desolate landscape where not a single car can be seen for miles on the horizon.
Earl Barton (Seven Brides for Seven Brothers) directs this thing with SO MUCH STYLE. From Robert Gribbin's fringe leather jacket to the funky seventies soundtrack that might as well be obligatory, this thing has a rock and roll swagger that makes it really fun to watch, even when some unsavory things are happening. He has the decency to cut away during a sexual assault scene instead of putting us through it, and he keeps the flesh to a minimum, making it feel uncomfortable--like a violation--when it comes, rather than something titillating. Because the gritty frame of the story is covered in such compelling skin, this movie quickly speeds to its climax, and we're invested in seeing how justice is going to rear its head. I think of other "gritty" movies that offer revenge, such as Hostel, which wears me out so much that I'm numb by the end. Maybe it was just the way movies were made in the seventies, but this film never feels exhausting or tedious, and lends itself to repeat viewings in ways that I really appreciate. In short, this is a movie, not an endurance test. As far as I'm concerned, this story could have played out in one of those black and white comic book magazines from the 1970s. If one of the bikers had made a deal with the devil, this could have appeared in Ghost Rider.

HOWEVER: in the course of researching this movie before I wrote about it, I discovered via some online discussion groups that there are a lot of people who disagree with my stance completely and find this movie very disturbing and difficult to watch. I found more than one person admitting that this film really upset them and was a challenge to finish. Obviously, that's not my take on it at all, so you're mileage may vary. I actually struggled with publishing this review (I've sat on it for nearly two months) because I wasn't sure I wanted to "go there" with Cereal At Midnight. This is a home for all things goofy and fun, but I've decided that there's ultimately room for stuff like this, too. After all, I have as much of a passion for the exploitation movement as I do for classic Hollywood and genre movies from the fifties and sixties. Just be aware that this is a harder brand of cinema with nothing commercial about it.
I watched this gem from Crown International via my OOP "Drive-In Cult Classics" set (since absorbed into Mill Creek's 200-film "Drive-In Cult Cinema Collection." The anamorphic widescreen print was worn and scratched, but full of character that added to the viewing experience. It seriously looks like it was taken straight from a drive-in theater's storage room after lots of use, and I'm A-OK with that. Vinegar Syndrome has prepared and released a new transfer for Blu-ray from a 2K scan of the original 16mm negative, and they've got the director and two of the surviving cast members on an audio commentary. Their disc is limited to 3000, and it's going to be hard to resist picking that up (I'm sure I will), but I might still find myself watching the old, worn print with the cigarette burns in the corners because it just feels so right. Should grindhouse movies be beautifully restored and presented? I'm pretty torn on that subject, and we may revisit the topic at some point. Until then, consider checking out Trip with the Teacher if revenge exploitation flicks are your cup of tea. It's worth a look just for Zalman King's B-movie tour de force alone, but when you add in all the other fun elements, I give this my highest recommendation. In fact, I'm awarding it the coveted Golden Spoon Award for low-budget excellence. This is how you do a biker/survival/revenge movie.

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