After the accidental release of a toxic gas that kills everyone over the age of 25, the earth is in the hands of the young. Coel (Bob Corff), first seen running through his college campus with a crossbow, as young peaceniks were wont to do at the end of the free love era, hops into a pink Edsel and heads out on a journey with sorta-girlfriend Cilla (Elaine Giftos). Days later, they stumble across similarly generic hippie types Hooper (Bud Cort) and Coralee (Talia Shire), as well as the more interesting Carlos (Ben Vereen), a black militant, and his girlfriend Marissa (Cindy Williams), who is such a huge fan of 1960s pop that she always sounds like a K-Tel commercial. The six travelers clash with conservative groups and capitalists and other philosophical-slash-sports groups on their way to a pueblo in New Mexico, one they have heard will be the location of the new, improved, peaceful world government.
Gas-s-s-s (a.k.a. Gas! -Or- It Became Necessary to Destroy the World in Order to Save It) is a satirical, sci-fi-like hippie flick, mostly known today for being Roger Corman’s final film with American International Pictures. Corman, who wrote and directed the film, was angry with AIP for editing the film without his input, including the removal of a final scene where the comedic Jewish “voice of God” dispenses wry wisdom at the turn of events down on Earth. (An earlier joke featuring this voice of God was left in the film, however.)
The animated title screen for Gas-s-s-s. Also of interest is the poster for the film above: Jim Kelly is in the poster dressed as Carlos, the character Ben Vereen ended up playing. I’d love to know the story behind that.
Corman was in his mid-40s at the time, and though he clearly felt kinship to the then-current crop of liberals, he was also old enough to grasp the inherent hypocrisies of both right-wingers and leftist radicals (and/or “radicals”). There’s a lot of interesting commentary hidden in little bits throughout the film; the crossbow scene mentioned before, for instance, was obviously written by someone who knew damn well that there isn’t much nobility in carrying a weapon on campus, not after the University of Texas at Austin shootings or the Kent State Massacre.
One of the funniest one-liners in Scott Ashlin’s reviews on the seminal 1000 Misspent Hours is his deadpan description of the hippie era: “You kinda had to be there.”
There’s also the very timely issue of the hippie generation’s fear of aging and responsibilities as the 1970s begin, as they got older and life started to seem less in their control. All of the “youths” of the film look 25 or older, with the exception of Cindy Williams. They’re definitely old enough to know better… and to be worrying about whether the gas would still be around on their 25th birthdays, if we’re taking the plot literally, which we probably shouldn’t. Yet amidst the Edgar Allan Poe parodies and doofy football players is a very real sense of people hoping for one last fling before they have to cut their hair and turn into yuppies, as God and Greyhound intended.
At the same time, this is Roger Corman we’re talking about, and the solid points made in the film are somewhat diluted by the fact that this genre was just sloppin’ over with middle-aged (or older) mainstream folks who wanted to exploit the hippie movement for its free love and nudity and irreverence — you know, its box office appeal.
“It’s as if the producers of Laugh-In sat down and decided to write a full length film,” writes one IMDb reviewer. Nope. That would be The Maltese Bippy, and it’s far worse than Gas-s-s-s could ever be.
Gas-s-s-s is about 37% road movie, and the usual Corman-style incidental travel scenery to pad things out is all here, but it’s really well done even though there’s too much of it. A fraction of the one-liners have a solid landing, the visual gags are good, and Elaine Giftos is fantastic. She just chunks this movie right on her shoulders and carries it from beginning to end, and she almost makes it work. Her scene with the would-be rapists is hilarious, and she’s the sole reason it works.
There are a lot of colorful supporting actors, like Alan Braunstein, who looks like he was cast after being found wandering around for a few years waiting for the construction of the Rocky Horror Picture Show set, and who can’t stop chuckling at his own jokes; he would be worlds better several years later in The Warriors, but he’s still fun here. Hairy, poetic biker dude Lou Procopio puts in a fine turn as the Marshall McLuhan analogue, though unfortunately this would be his last performance, and there’s exactly zero information out there on what he went on to do after he left the acting biz.
New York Magazine referred to the “bikini-beach-party” style of the film, which sounds like a mistake until you actually watch the movie and realize that it is indeed a hippie beach party science fiction musical road film and political satire. The film’s publicity tried hard to emphasize beach party and satire — you should really check out the wacky cartoon advertisements for Gas-s-s-s, courtesy the Internet Archive. Nixon makes a cameo! The publicity also focused heavily on the fantastic music by Country Joe & the Fish. Country Joe appears in the film as “AM Radio,” a reactionary DJ, while The Fish appear as the band Johnny & the Tornadoes. The early feminist band Joy of Cooking also appear as a band called The Gourmet’s Delight.
The film isn’t very good, though at this late date it’s interesting for the cultural aspects if nothing else, and I suppose if you’re high enough — I am 100% sure I have never been high enough for this film — it could be funny. There’s a whole lot of good will toward the film though, including a surprisingly touching review from Vincent Canby, who so often could be a big grouchypants. Canby calls out Corman as wearing “a Robert Downey mask that doesn’t fit,” which is painfully accurate. Once again, what Corman wanted to do and what he achieved were two different things, and his final film for AIP may very well have been his worst; the thing is, when it comes to Roger Corman, his worst is also his most interesting.
Gas-s-s-s has recently been released on Blu-ray by Olive Films.