Though it prominently features the immortal Gene Vincent and his rockin' Blue Caps, a slew of souped-up rods and dreamy teen fave John Ashley, Hot Rod Gang is a film which invariably disappoints upon first viewing. Nearly undone by its sodden slapstick elements and cloyingly obvious corn, it nonetheless possesses enough tattered charm to pass cult-film muster.

Its plot, detailing Ashley's bid to convince his wealthy dowager aunts that he is indeed deserving of the family inheritance, is the most fragile of skeletons upon which to hang the rockabilly respites and tired banter. Ashley wears his chutzpah on his sleeve, undulating through a warmed-over Elvis emulation with Gene Vincent right there on the premises. Truth be told, he doesn't sing badly, but his preppy coif and Hollywood cheekbones come off as hollow glitz alongside Vincent's genuine article.

It is, in fact, Gene's idea that Ashley don a fake beard and string tie, "like one of those Greenwich Village cats," so that John might clandestinely further his singing career, raising sorely-needed dough with which to fund his rubber-burning shenanigans.

Perky rich chick Jody Fair is the gang's unlikely rockabilly connection. As an old pal of Vincent's, she sets up shop as Ashley's ostensible agent. In the end, John guiltily reveals the secret of his meteoric rise to his pixilated aunts, who girlishly endorse his bid for stardom and end up playing a major role in humiliating the bad boys from the wrong side of the tracks when they threaten to disrupt Vincent's gymnasium fundraiser.

Obviously, Vincent is the film's main attraction. Hot Rod Gang is a rare opportunity to catch a genuine rock legend in his prime on celluloid. Of the thousand redneck kids frantically grabbing at Elvis' coattails, Vincent was just about the best. Hardly a slavish Presley impersonator, Gene emerged as one of a handful of contemporaries forging a style of some individuality amid a frenzied pantheon of hiccuping country boys.

He and close friend Eddie Cochran scored impressively with appearances in The Girl Can't Help It, a Jayne Mansfield vehicle peppered with vital rock-and-roll cameos. It's been said that Cochran, who nailed a substantial supporting part in Untamed Youth that same year, appears unbilled in Hot Rod Gang, but my trained eyes have yet to spot him.

Gussying up the Gang cast to little effect are character veterans Dub Taylor and Doodles Weaver along with AIP's house 'grown-up,' the redoubtable Russ Bender in one of his lovably craggy performances.

John Ashley transitioned gracefully into American International's beach film scene a few years later, showing no signs of age and appearing in four blockbuster sand sagas. Following an embarrassing appearance in the shamelessy irredeemable, The Eye Creatures, he moved behind the camera, producing a fistful of Philippino horror films. Aimed squarely at the U.S. drive-in market, he teamed with director Eddie Romero on titles like Twilight People and Mad Doctor of Blood Island. Once back in the states, Ashley turned to television , producing several series in the mid-1980s.

Ashley must recall his salad days with affection. For a time, he was among the most sought after juvenile leads in the business, dominating AIP's rapacious roster of good-lookin' kids. Highlighted below are a pair of teen-film classics that demonstrate what Ashley could do with a decent role.

High School Caesar (1958)
Unloved and spoiled rotten by rich elders, Ashley appears as a class-cutting Capone, manipulating a network of homeroom thugs who carry out his dirty work. 'Mob rule in a High School,' crowed the posters. The theme song rocks.

Acting: B-
Atmosphere: C-
Fun: B-

Dragstrip Girl (1957)
Ashley works hard to outshine sexy Fay Spain, whose well-to-do parents just don't understand her need for speed. Steve Terrell, slayer of Saucer-Men, is the good kid. The ubiquitous Russ Bender is on hand and Frank Gorshin mugs without shame.

Acting: B-
Atmosphere: B+
Fun: A-

"The sidewalk is their finishing school!"
Girls in the Night

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High School Hellcats

"The shocking drama of today's teenage terror"
Teenage Crime Wave

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