Jan-Michael Vincent is dead. He passed mostly unnoticed on February 10th, his death remaining unknown to the media for almost a month. He was, once upon a time, a middling star. His looks were better than his talent, but that’s just what Hollywood wants. His career was derailed by age and substance abuse, as happens to so many in the entertainment industry. He had many roles in mainstream films, but I will always remember him for his contributions to shitty cinema and television. In remembrance of Jan-Michael Vincent, here’s a review for a Vincent star vehicle, that also happened to be a pretty good shitty movie.
From 1977, Damnation Alley is a post-apocalyptic flick directed by Jack Smight (what a name) from a screenplay by Alan Sharp and Lukas Heller.
As the film opens, we see Jan-Michael Vincent and George Peppard playing a pair of Air Force officers named Tanner and Denton. A fake moustache plays Peppard’s facial hair. The two officers have, possibly, the most morally dubious duty in the American military. They’re the launch crew in a missile silo. Should they be ordered to do so, they will launch nuclear weapons at a target on the other side of the earth and vaporize a whole bunch of people. This is a real duty. There are Air Force folks out there right now who would unleash nuclear Armageddon just because someone tells them to. That’s insane, right? And, also totally necessary for deterrence. We really are a doomed species.
They get the fateful order, and it’s missiles away. The US and the Soviets have decided to throw down, for reasons the movie doesn’t explain. It doesn’t matter why, really. It wouldn’t matter in real life any more than it matters to this flick’s plot. The final outcome of total civilizational annihilation is the same no matter who shoots first or why. What matters to this film’s shittiness is how the scene plays out. It’s a remarkably calm sequence, with all the airmen in a bunker watching World War Three unfold with hardly a bead of sweat rolling down a brow. This is the end of the world and Tanner is smoking a cigarette with a puzzled look on his face like he’s trying to decide what to play on the jukebox. The lack of dramatic urgency is a huge ding on Smight’s direction. It doesn’t do a thing to hurt this shitty movie’s watchability, however.
Inexplicably, Tanner and Denton survive, along with Sergeant Keegan (Paul Winfield), and Lieutenant Tom Perry (Kip Niven). Tanner and Keegan are taking the apocalypse in stride, shedding their military identities and spending their days killing giant radscorpions and painting landscapes. Wait, giant what?
The radiation from the war mutated animals and turned them into bloodthirsty giants. Also, all those nuclear warheads exploding at the same time knocked the planet off of its axis. North America is a baking desert from Seattle all the way to Albany.
Speaking of Albany, that’s where Denton wants to go. He’s been listening to a radio signal from there, and is convinced it’s a sanctuary. He recruits Tanner and Keegan to join he and Perry on a cross-country road trip. But, the country being an irradiated wasteland, they need more than some goddamn army jeep. It’s fortunate, then, that the old missile silo came equipped with a pair of silly-looking vehicles called Landmasters. There was only one playing both parts, and it was custom-built for the movie by Dean Jeffries. They’re hard to describe so here’s a pic:
The four set off for Albany. Along the way they lose a Landmaster, pick up woman, Janice (Dominique Sanda), rescue a boy, Billy (Jackie Earle Haley), and battle a whole host of wasteland threats. Not everyone survives, but I won’t spoil anymore.
What’s important are not the details. This film isn’t about the details. If the filmmakers cared about the details then it wouldn’t be shitty. Cheapness is spread over this film like a glaze. For over an hour, viewers are subjected to super-contrasted, colored skies and tinted, muddy outdoor shots that only enhance that metaphor. The special effects, as a whole, are a poor package, but they fit this move well.
Vincent and Peppard get the most screen time. Vincent is more like a SoCal teenager than a military man, while Peppard’s performance is a huge draw for the shitty movie fan. He was a canned ham. Every opportunity he got to overact, he took. And that moustache. I swear there were scenes where one could see it tilt when Peppard got to yelling. This is a dramatic film, but his performance would have been perfect for a spoof with the same plot. It’s exquisite.
Between the post-apocalyptic RVing, the killer bugs, and the cannibalism, Damnation Alley is a worthy shitty watch, despite some slow spots. It makes its way into the upper strata of the Index, slotting in between Beginning of the End and The Killers Edge. More action would have put it much higher. Check it out anyway.