Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Oddball Film Report: THE SIDEHACKERS (1969)

Despite what you see on the one sheet,
I don't recall a chick wearing a red bikini
anywhere in the picture.

   So I guess the logical first question one has going into THE SIDEHACKERS is: what in the world is sidehacking? I'm not sure how popular the sport ever became, but the film credits technical information to a legitimate sidehacking club. As explained in the movie, a sidehack is a narrow, wheeled platform bolted onto the side of a motorbike (like an open sidecar). Two man teams then race over an obstacle coarse, with one man driving the bike, and the other standing on the sidehack and shifting his weight back and forth to keep the bike level on hard turns. Doesn't sound very practical to me, nor does it look very practical in action. Aside from today's feature, I don't recall ever seeing another sidehack.

   It would seem the producers understood that sidehacking is hardly involved enough to sustain a feature film, so the sport pretty much vanishes from the film after the first 20 or so minutes. The rest of the film plays out like a mock THE BORN LOSERS. Things open like a documentary about sidehacking, though, and one doesn't really expect the direction the film takes at the mid-point. The opening is pretty cool too, showing close-ups of the men making ready their bikes as framed through a small rectangle in the center of the screen. When the credits pick up as the race begins (the camera tracking a bike moving toward the audience), the screen suddenly opens up as the frame pulls back to full FANTASCOPE proportions. This must have looked simply stunning on theater screens. Sadly, this print of the film (from Mill Creek's "Savage Cinema" collection) is cropped to regular aspect ratio. This becomes increasingly annoying as it's rather obvious that the blocking and cinematography have been formulated to take full advantage of the wide-screen format. If there's a scope version of this movie floating around out there, do let me know.

   The plot here is pretty simple (a common trait with "biker" flicks). Rommel is a sidehacker who is about to marry the girl of his dreams (and I can't remember her name for some reason, so I'll call her Peggy), and he's half owner-operator of a motorcycle repair shop (I can't remember his best friend's name either, so I'll call him Andy). One day, the leader of a group of exposition riders drops off his bike. This is the psychopathic J.C. Included in the group is his girl Paisley (see, I remember the weird names), who takes an instant shine to Rommel. J.C. notices the sidehack on Rommel's bike and asks about it. Rommel invites J.C. and his gang out to the track to see how it works.

   J.C. is quite a bit more impressed with sidehacking than you'd expect and he talks Rommel into teaching him how to sidehack. J.C. invites Rommel and Peggy to go on the road and do some sidehacking for county fairs. J.C. is a psycho, though, and its starting to show through now that he's got a few drinks in him, so Rommel turns him down. Paisley later makes an advance on Rommel, who refuses her (he's got Peggy and everything, remember? They started the film with a downright farcical 'frolic in the meadows' montage). Upset at being turned down, and knowing that J.C. will slaughter anyone else who touches his girl, Paisley claims Rommel raped her. J.C. then breaks in on Rommel and Peggy. Cut to later and Rommel wakes to find Peggy has been murdered and hung from the rafters of his cabin. Rommel spends the second half of the movie getting together some muscle so he can track J.C. down and go all Billy Jack on him (Rommel even starts wearing denim jeans and jacket over a dark shirt!).

   Rather famously, THE SIDEHACKERS is the film that changed the selection process for choosing movies to be featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000. At the time, one of the crew would watch about 15 minutes of a film and put it on the pile if it looked promising. They started watching this film, and were shocked to find a rather violent rape scene half way through. Ever since, SOP involved watching an ENTIRE movie before picking it. And indeed, the rape scene is pretty shocking. The way the film cuts from J.C. breaking in, to a badly beaten Rommel waking up the next day and finding Peggy strung up, I started to wonder if the scene had been removed from this print. No, it wasn't.

   The sequence is actually quite effective. Rommel runs to Andy's house, and Andy tries to administer aid to his friend. Rommel hears Andy's kids playing and sees the little boy and girl innocently roughhousing in the floor, the boy pinning down the girl. This triggers flashbacks to Rommel being forced to watch as Peggy was gang-raped and killed. The scene is horrific and staggeringly realistic, and its being counterpointed by the similar but wholesome actions of the children is actually quite effective. The scene is repulsive and uncomfortable, yet it works perfectly within the context of the story. The increasingly quick cuts between the attack and Rommel's pained expression before he screams and runs out of the house is an amazing trick of editing. The bulk of the film fails to match the intensity of this sequence, both artistically and emotionally, but the scene alone leaves quite an impact. (Something one might not expect is that the sequence features no nudity. In fact, the only exposed flesh in the whole film is a quick shot of Peggy's duff as Rommel grabs at her hanging body and the remains of her skirt shift to the side. Well, there is a conversation taking place in front of a wall plastered with photos pulled out of various 60's girlie mags.)

   In the end, a better than average biker movie, mostly because it has a plot and there isn't much biking involved. Truly a product of its time, the late 60's, as it features a fairly workable storyline and decent production values countered by plenty of harsh language and frank discussion of intimate matters. Not great, but not bad either.

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