Last week’s film, The Oscar, represents a common type of cult film: the bad movie that reaches such a sublime level of awfulness that it transcends its quality and achieves a level of entertainment on its own. (I hesitate to use the common phrase “so bad it’s good” because I don’t think these movies ever become “good” by any measure of quality–they are still bad movies, but they do become entertaining in their own special way). These are the types of movies featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000, and they especially lend themselves to the kind of communal viewing experience popularized by that show. In fact, the first time I saw The Oscar, I was with a small group of friends, and the movie was definitely more entertaining than it has been in my subsequent viewings.
Another subset of the cult movie, however, is the movie that transcends audience expectations and its own limitations–a genuinely good movie where the viewer wasn’t expecting to find one. The movie may transcend limitations based on genre, budget, or means of distribution. Such movies were prevalent in the B-movie era–Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour being the primary example–and in the grindhouse/drive-in distribution system where Roger Corman’s movies thrived. When a viewer stumbles across such a film by accident, it can be an exciting moment of discovery.
One such movie–and you’ll have to trust me on this–is the 1976 teen sex comedy The Pom Pom Girls (also known as Joyride and Palisades High), a Crown International Pictures release directed by Joseph Ruben and co-written by Ruben and Robert J. Rosenthal, who would later write and direct Malibu Beach (1978), which shares some striking similarities with the earlier film, including recycled sets and soundtrack. On the surface, The Pom Pom Girls looks like a typical ’70s teen sex comedy: it has fast cars, copious amounts of nudity, ridiculously inept adult authority figures combined with abusive ones, and lots of teenage shenanigans. What it doesn’t have, though, is a lot of comedy–it’s not a very funny movie.
The Pom Pom Girls also doesn’t have much of a plot. It takes place during the first few weeks of senior year for a handful of main characters: Johnnie (Robert Carradine), Jesse (Michael Mullins), Laurie (Jennifer Ashley), and Sally (Lisa Reeves). Romantic relationships amongst the four leads develop, and a football rivalry between their school, Rosedale, and Hardin High escalates from typical pranks to criminal vandalism and climaxes with a fistfight between teams at the big game. But these developments only mark the passage of time in the film; they don’t drive the movie forward in any real way. Instead, the movie focuses on how Johnnie and Jesse deal with their adolescent existential angst. Johnnie picks fights, performs increasingly dangerous stunts, and steals hot rod enthusiast Duane’s (Bill Adler) girlfriend. Jesse has casual and meaningless sex with random girls in the back of his van (complete with 8-track player) and throws temper tantrums when the world does not conform to his capricious needs.
And, in a form of bait-and-switch typical of Crown’s output, the movie has almost nothing to do with pom pom girls. The titular cheerleaders only appear a few times in the movie: once, at the very beginning, where we see the bikini-clad girls engage in a rather ineffective practice on the beach; later, during the obligatory try-out montage; and finally, at the big game where the fight breaks out. In the latter scene, we get the classic cheer, “Our team is on the ball! / Your team needs Geritol! / Drink it up!”–a cheer I distinctly remember from high school, which makes me feel old.
Jesse and Johnnie constantly test the limits of moral authority in their world, only to find that their actions have no consequences. In one prank, they steal a firetruck from the local fire station, drive it onto the Hardin High football field during practice, and spray the team and coaches with the water hoses. When done, they simply abandon the stolen truck and return to their lives.
The principal tries to enact some kind of punishment, but his weak attempts to elicit a confession only leads to the entire senior class admitting guilt, Spartacus-style. While pursuing virginal Laurie, Jesse continues to have sex with other girls in the back of his boss van (including one scene where he does it with a carhop at the local drive-in while she’s on the job, causing mass chaos among the customers who are demanding service), and he still ends up with her without expressing any willingness to change. Later, Jesse punches out his coach, and both the coach and the principal decide that no punishment is necessary.
It should also be noted that parents are virtually absent from this movie. Laurie’s parents only appear in one scene, and they are good-natured, trusting, and oblivious to the fact that Jesse spent the night in their daughter’s room. Thus, Jesse and Johnnie confront a corrupt and ineffective system and push against it to reveal an absence of true authority. This leads to a rather nihilistic conclusion more in line with the punk movement of the day than the surfer ethos one would expect from the film’s Southern California mileau.
The Pom Pom Girls is, in effect, to ’70s teen sex comedies what Two-Lane Blacktop and Vanishing Point are to the ’70s hot rod movies–all three movies embrace a kind of devastating nihilism in their climaxes that belies the lightheartedness of their respective genres.
At the end of The Pom Pom Girls, Duane decides to end his rivalry with Johnnie once and for all by challenging him to “suicide chicken,” where they are to switch cars and race toward a cliff, the first to swerve losing. Johnnie “beats” Duane by driving the car off the cliff, and the film ends with the remaining characters literally gazing into the abyss as they look over the cliff to view the fiery explosion. This is a brilliant shot choice by director Ruben: the camera is positioned over the edge of the cliff, looking up on the teenagers as they look down. Thus, the abyss they gaze on is the audience. Then, Johnnie shows up, covered in dust and laughing about how he ditched Duane’s car at the last second. The four main characters walk away laughing, the frame freezes, and the credits roll. After confronting the abyss, they celebrate what Milan Kundera refers to as “the unbearable lightness of being”: the unlimited freedom that comes with the awareness that there is no moral authority controlling their actions.
Or, on second thought, I may be reading too much into a plotless and relatively unfunny ’70s teen sex comedy. But I don’t think I am.