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Fantasia Obscura: ‘Gas-s-s-s’

There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.

Sometimes, you turn up evidence that humor is a lot like the 1960’s: you had to be there, man…

Gas-s-s-s (Subtitle: -Or- It Became Necessary to Destroy the World in Order to Save It)  (1970)
Distributed by: American International Pictures
Directed by: Roger Corman

The late 1960s are well remembered for the hippie movement and anti-war protests. The best way to understand the mindset of those against the way things had gone is from one the slogan coined among them, “Don’t trust anyone over 30.”

After seeing this, though, the other group seems a little sketchy, themselves:

We have a cold open on a crudely animated scene, done by the animators who would form Fred Wolf Films. There is a ceremony being held by the US Army to dedicate Fort Typhoid Mary, their new chemical-biological weapon proving ground up in Cholera, Alaska. The general in charge of the facility, channeling John Wayne, welcomes a US Senator who’s credited with being “the architect of the military-industrial complex,” an older senator from a southern state with a thick accent who probably stands to the right of his constituents on-

No, must. Resist. Obvious. Comment…

The Senator is handed what he believes is a bottle of campaign to christen the lab building with. Unfortunately, it’s actually one of the facilities’ chemical weapons. We watch under the credit roll as the contents of the vial, a green gas, spews forth across the entire globe.

Quick cut to the campus of Southern Methodist University, where Cole (Robert Craft) is on the run from two cops. Normally, you’d assume that in a film like this, the cops harass the hippies just for being themselves, but that huge crossbow Cole’s carrying makes it hard to sympathize with him.

He ducks into a church, where he dresses as a priest and sports an Irish brogue to get away from the police. While he’s doing that, giving confession to one of the officers, into the other side of the booth comes Cilla (Elaine Giftos), who has to share what went down in Alaska with somebody.

And boy, does she share: Cilla was the mistress-lab assistant for a scientist who was working on the aging process in humans. The government took over his work and weaponized his findings: The gas we saw released ages and kills anyone over the age of 25.

And then she shares a lot more, ifyouknowwhatImean… We get a quick cut to sometime after he drops the priest disguise as the two of them spend very little time watching the withered wither, before going to the drive-in to make out. While there, they cement their relationship by trying to find poetic-sounding euphemisms for sleeping together, which they tightly bond over.

What follows, after a few brief seconds to mourn the 56% or so of the world’s population who die from the gas’ release, is not so much a coherent story as a quick bunch of set-ups for set pieces. Some of these pieces pop a little, but most of them consist of dark cheap digs relying on shock value in case they can’t amuse the audience. (A perfect example of this is the film’s subtitle, which was based on a quote an American officer made about the Battle of Bến Tre.)

One scene sets up an overreaching arc for the film from that point forward when Cole and Cilla decide to hang with four new acquaintances, Marissa (Cindy Willams), Carlos (Ben Vereen), Hooper (Bud Cort), and Coralee (Talia Shire, credited under her original name “Talia Coppola”):

Along the way, the group meet up with further extreme eccentrics:

  • A high school football team who under their team captain Jason (Alex Wilson in his first feature) pillages the countryside while treating it as a continuous football season
  • A whacked-out Doctor Drake (Alan Braunstein in his first credited role) for whom the phrase “Physician, heal thyself” was invented
  • A Texas Ranger (David Osterhaut) who faces an existential crisis when he realizes he’s out of his jurisdiction
  • Edgar Alan, probably “Poe” from the way he’s dressed (Bruce Karcher in his only acting credit) who rolls in now and then on a motorcycle…

And these are the more memorable encounters that on some level actually make sense in what passes for the story, as the characters make their way to the Oracle at the pueblo, which we’re reminded about as advertising signs for the goal pop up throughout the pic:

The one who could have really used a roadmap to get anywhere was the script writer. When George Armitage met Corman on the 20th Century Fox lot, he offered the director a script he was trying to sell, about cartoons coming to life. Corman liked the screenplay, but when he couldn’t get financing behind the project, he encouraged Armitage to try again with another one.

The initial treatment for this film had a more serious approach. Corman, probably realizing he’d already made a serious gas-kills-off-everyone pic when he did The Last Woman on Earth, tried to make it a comedy, ending up with a script that seemed to be entirely random, confusing, and discordant.

Kinda-sorta like this…

Even if you were all in with a film doing George Schlatter’s Laugh-In (or at least appreciated how it was structured), the film still has a lot of flaws. The quality of the acting fluctuates between I’m-really-trying-here and Uh-was-I-supposed-to-be-on-set-this-morning? The soundtrack by Country Joe & the Fish (their sixth iteration, according to their official hagiography) is pretty listenable, but their time on screen playing a fictitious band with a different name was disposable.

The big surprise is the directing. Normally a Roger Corman film should not be this sloppy, especially this late on in his career. (This would be his 52nd time behind the camera.) There is just no flow to the film, and it keeps losing momentum at random points.

It’s hard to put the blame solely on Corman, though. After he delivered the film to AIP, producers Sam Arkoff and Jim Nicholson would oversee edits to the film. Corman claimed API made radical changes in the edit room that left a confused mess without consulting him, while Arkoff claimed the edit team Corman picked made all their changes with the director’s tacit approval.

Whoever made the decisions about the edits not only could not fix what was handed in, they contributed to Corman breaking with American International Pictures. It was an ugly parting, with both sides claiming the other was at fault for a film that just didn’t work. The compelling competing accounts left no clear idea as to what really took place during edit that hampered the final cut.

It looks like we’ll never get to know the truth.

Funny, guess you had to be there, man…


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