The low-budget genre studios of Crown International and American International Pictures responded to the box office success of George Lucas’s American Graffiti (1973) with a glut of innocuous, teen-driven T&A comedies centered around vans, CB radios, and car cruising.
And Crown International Pictures gave self-professed Luis Bunuel and Federico Fellini-influenced writer-director William Sachs an assignment in December 1978. And he could make whatever film he wanted: provided it had a kid in a van, generous amounts of nudity with hot chicks, drag racing and cool cars, that it starred Playboy magazine 1974 Playmate of the Year, Cindy Wood, and that he shot it in 18 days.
There months later, with a script he punched out in 7 days, Van Nuys Blvd. was on Drive-In screens by March 1979. It became a box-office hit as it played to packed parking lots on double bills with fellow teen T&A flicks The Pom-Pomp Girls (1976), The Van (1977), Malibu Beach (1978), H.O.T.S, and Gas Pump Girls (both 1979).
In interviews Sachs mentions his admiration for Dr. Seuss’s 1953 musical fantasy The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, Buneul’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and Fellini’s 8 1/2 in the same sentence. So that tells you there’s no middle ground with William Sachs: He’s either is a misunderstood genius with a deep understanding of existentialism filmmaking and uses that knowledge to poke fun at the establishment and show us the ridiculousness of trends in our culture. Or he’s a B-movie hack for Crown and A.I.P.
One thing is for sure: William Sachs never gives you a predictable movie.
When the Drive-Ins were clogged with every manner of Vietnam War movie, he responded with the 1974 surrealist war drama, There Is No 13. When tabloid newspapers like The National Enquirer reached circulation milestones, and Sunn Classics struck box office gold with their conspiracy-documentaries The Outer Space Connection, In Search of Ancient Astronauts, and In Search of Noah’s Ark, he responded with the parody documentary-satire The Force Beyond. When Star Wars reignited an interest in science fiction and all manner of galactic slop appeared in the Drive-Ins, he responded with 1977’s The Incredible Melting Man and the 1980 genre homage-parody, Galaxina (again, with a Playboy Playmate of the Year as his star). Remember all of those over-the-top Death Wish-inspired revenge flicks? He made one: 1984’s Exterminator 2.
And that brings us to his car movie satire-homage that features everything that Crown International wanted—and the surrealism of a Fellini film with an underlying theme on the art of living that he wanted. So the angst-ridden kids of the Southern California’s famed “strip” drive off into night for their kicks in their “temporary lives.” And where do they go if their rebellion lacks substance: nowhere. And that’s the point of Van Nuys Blvd.
And why is a chick licking her lips? What’s this got to do with Luis Bunuel and Federico Fellini? Damned if I know. Watch the trailer and figure it out!
So, did Sachs accomplish his goal?
It depends. Van Nuys Blvd. is of a time and place. It’s time capsule of a post-sixties Americana culture filled with optimism and hope of the good old days. Anyone who was born after the mid-1960s might not be able to relate to the movie beyond its low-budget B-movie trappings. And it’ll look like just another T&A movie.
Bobby (Bill Adler, who starred in the aforementioned The Pom Pom Girls, The Van, and Malibu Beach; he also starred in the Quentin Tarantino-admired Switchblade Sisters) is a country kid who dreams of crusin’ in the big city after he sees a news report about California’s famed boulevard. So he sets off in his beat-up van. There he meets the drag-racing babe Moon (Cindy Wood) and her pal Camille (Melissa Prophet, in her acting debut; she later starred with Chuck Norris in Invasion U.S.A and in Scorsese’s Goodfellas and Casino).
When they’re arrested by Officer Albert Zass (Dana Gladstone, whose extensive TV resume led to a role alongside Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop II), a bullying cop hell bent on cleaning up the boulevard, they meet fellow ne’er-do-well van lover Greg (Dennis Bowen, Gas Pump Girls, TV’s Welcome Back Kotter) who’s filled with dreams but not the tools to achieve them. Along the way the quartet befriends “Chooch,” the requisite, brawny-older wise man and “king of the strip” (David Hayward, another extensive TV resume; he’s still acting, with three projects in production) who’s lost his dreams, and his squeeze, Wanda (Tara Strohmeier of fellow T&A’er Hollywood Boulevard and The Kentucky Fried Movie). Together the sextet stumbles through a series of goalless, plotless misadventures punctuated with non-offensive softcore sex scenes and sophomoric humor. Oh, and keep your eyes open for Renee Harmon of Frozen Scream and Night of Terror in the frames.
If you’re interested in learning more about the hot-rodding and cruising culture of the ‘70s, you may want to seek out the other films in the short-lived vansploitation cycle with the first film of the bunch: Blue Summer (1973; with Davy Jones, yes, he of the Monkees), then there’s Best Friends (1975; with Richard Hatch), the hicksploitation-hybrids C.B Hustlers (1976) and Texas Detour (1978), Supervan (1977), Mag Wheels (1978), and On the Air Live with Captain Midnight (1979). There’s also a great article by Jason Coffman of the Daily Grindhouse that goes deep into the genre that we totally recommend for a read — with even more watch suggestions.
To learn about the vansploitation era’s roots: you can travel back to the rock ‘n’ roll oriented, juvenile delinquent films of the ‘60s made in the wake of the 1955’s Blackboard Jungle and Rebel Without a Cause. Most of those films were produced by Roger Corman, such as 1958’s Hot Car Girls and 1959’s T-Bird Gang. Then there’s the wealth of ‘60s biker films that peaked with 1969’s Easy Rider, such as 1966’s The Wild Angels and 1967’s Hells Angels on Wheels.
As for the famed “Wild Cherry” van that stars in Van Nuys Blvd.: In 2018, that customized, 1975 Chevrolet G-10 made the news when the van was stolen and thrust into legal limbo. You can read more about the travels of Wild Cherry here and here. And Vansploitation got so insane during the ’70s that A&M Records gave away a Styx Van. Yes, Styx had a van you could enter to win!
About the Author: You can read the music and film reviews of R.D Francis on Medium and learn more about his work on Facebook.