Bite Size: The Hard Road (1970)

Was there ever a sweeter sound than a cart of aged audio visual equipment being rolled into a classroom? Whatever lesson plan that had been scheduled for the day had clearly been abandoned, in favor of watching a movie. Regardless of when or where you went to school, or whichever nominally “educational” film was about to be put before you….it still beat actual classwork by a large margin.

The Hard Road, with its cheaply made titles and quick cut, highlight reel credits sequence would be easy to mistake for a classroom film at first glance. Spinning newspaper headlines straight out of the 1930s flop into view, warning of the dangers of sex and drugs. Once the smeary live action footage kicks in, things get a bit more interesting, the mask of respectable educational aims already starting to slip.

Jailhouse footage, odd street scenes and what looks like the amazing Technicolor drug den whizz past at increasing speed, Hell’s Casio keyboard bing bong blooping on the soundtrack. By the time the traditional stinger cues start up we’ve moved on to bloody faces ground into pavement and fits of projectile vomiting into pillows. Locked and lurid, it’s obviously time for the classic “cautionary tale” exploitation rodeo, taking a long, hard, suspiciously detailed look at degeneracy for the public good.

Which brings us to 17 year old Pam Banner (Connie Nelson) who would be the all American girl if it wasn’t for her obvious pregnancy. She’s in the car on the way to the hospital, reminiscing on happier times in flashback. When she arrives at the hospital, medical illustrations and the standard white coated lecturer explains each stage of fetal development. A dash of spliced in real life live birth footage later, Pam’s baby is born and whisked away to his adoptive home, never to be of plot relevance again.

The Hard Road starts at a place where most teen transgression movies would end, so it’s obvious that Pam (and everyone she knows) must have bigger messes to make than an unplanned pregnancy. Too embarrassed to return to school, her dad gets her a job as a secretary for a booking agent, because 70s musicians are the ultimate in wholesome co-workers for teen girls seeking a fresh start. Before long the combination of pot and rock star penis are her gateway drugs to a downward spiral of promiscuous sex, hard drugs and highly impractical hairstyles.

It seems even the scriptwriter realized how long in the tooth this sort of faux educational youth scare propaganda was by 1970. Rather than just choosing one teen in trouble trope, a full 60 years worth of classical exploitation calamities and hygiene hazards are all dumped on poor Pam and her very limited circle of friends. There’s a roadshow style white coater medical lecture, Mom and Dad adjacent birthing footage, and a hippie hangover party full of those filthy long hairs and the Devil’s lettuce.

Smoking all of that marijuana makes Pam so insanely horny, she has to cop a bottle of uppers from her swinging new friend Jeanie (Catherine Howard) just to handle the full time job of her new roster of fuck buddies and her actual job as a secretary. With their blonde and brunette mixed combo of big hair and small skirts, Pam and Jeanie sloshing about smashed on pills has a distinct Valley Of The Dolls vibe. Despite the laundry list of competencies The Hard Road distinctly lacks, you have to give it to a film that has the sheer hubris to zoom from sweet kid to slattern to speed freak in the first half an hour.

Lest you think this whistle stop tour was going to end there, all of that casual sex earns Pam a call at her parents’ house from the local STD clinic. When a bit of snooping on the extension reveals to Mrs. Banner (gangster’s moll and occasional Dreamlander Liz Renay) that her wanton progeny has some combination of gonorrhea and/or syphilis she absolutely loses it. Anyone who was initially doubting the wisdom of casting a cotton candy coiffed convicted criminal as a suburban hausfrau, will promptly find their concerns vanishing when Mrs. Banner lands the soap opera slap heard round the world on her daughter before tossing her out of the house. After all, what’s a melodrama without at least a touch of weapons grade camp?

The clap opera was a staple of stage and screen during the 1910s. Here, the slight concession to modern middle class venereal panic is showing the usual parade of rotted noses and diseased genitals in crisp photographic detail. The second round of medical lectures abandons pregnancy for the far more visceral punch of unchecked STDs. If any part of the film lives up to the tagline “not a pretty picture”, it’s this one.

Given there aren’t too many tragedies that the film hasn’t already utilized, it’s time to spread the suffering around to the supporting cast. A few of Pam’s new friends shoot smack, jog erratically through road tunnels and kill a man just to watch him die, in a rather Ron Ormond ketchup packet style. Pam steals Jeanie’s heroin addict boyfriend Jimmy (John Alderman, Little Miss Innocence and The Pink Angels), but fails miserably at turning tricks for his drug money. Alderman gets nearly 20 minutes of the movie to himself as he gets arrested at his dealer’s house and goes full withdrawal wild man in jail.

The Hard Road was produced by Ed De Priest (whose credits perhaps reach even deeper than his rather packed IMDB page would suggest) and lensed by the insanely prolific, under appreciated, Gary Graver (too many credits to list, covering everything from Orson Welles’ final film to a variety of hardcore features). It’s no surprise that Jimmy —perhaps the only role in the film that requires much actual acting— goes to John Alderman. All three men had decades long careers, and while they were never exactly world famous, they never had to make their living doing anything they liked less than making movies, either.

There isn’t any redeeming the script ( by one and done screenwriter Richard Stetson, who also provided the copious medical illustrations), despite tons of expository narration and time killing illustrated slideshows. Credit must be given to Mr. De Priest for at least trying to find the best quality personnel he could (given the obvious budgetary limitations) to shore up some truly shoddy screenwriting, even judged on the scale of similar exploitation films.

In fact, Gary Graver manages to sneak in some moments of interesting cinematography, with clever use of mirrors, some surprisingly pretty close ups of Pam, and lingering long shots of vintage Los Angeles. The various drug trip sequences are also quite playful, tossing in everything from color gels to some manic Milligan style “swirl camera”. There’s even time for a quick, winking visual joke. Droning narration regarding the source of Pam’s behavioral problems is matched with quick cuts to Mrs. Banner’s vanity full of pill bottles and Mr. Banner having his third tumblr of Scotch.

As for Mr. Alderman, he does better twitchy tweaker than this film likely deserves, handling his breakdown and his gross out projectile vomiting with aplomb. Sure, he might be a bit overgrown to make a convincing teenager, but that’s nothing new. Just read the character of Jimmy as the slightly older loser who exclusively dates younger women because no one his own age can stand him, and it all sorts out in the end.

It takes a special kind of show business trouper to do your best on every project, even one as shaggy, sloppy and syphilis laden as this doomed throwback to the roadshow’s heyday. We all know where Pam is going to end up, the question is how she’ll get there (the answer is wacky enough to be best left unspoiled). As the ambulance lights flash and the dialog laments Pam’s tragic tale, it isn’t just the end of this particular movie….it’s the last gasp of this style of grindhouse film, full stop.

Decades of preachy propaganda warned those damn kids to avoid anything remotely fun, be it fast company, sex, drugs or any music that had a recognizable backbeat. With the dawn of the 70s and gradual rise of youth focused slashers’ tendency toward gorier cautionary tales —that were both infinitely more immediate and somehow less stone crushingly obvious— the old style of morality melodrama vanished basically overnight, an artifact of bygone ballyhoo. One of exploitation cinema’s longest lasting subgenres had finally gone out on its shield. Good night, sweet scare film…..and thanks for all of the occasionally terrifying, often hilarious, hysteria.

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