Sunday, December 30, 2012

Juvenile Jungle (1958)

Directed by William Whitney
Starring Corey Allen, Anne Whitfield, Rebecca Welles

"One word and her head goes through a windshield!" 

Man, people were terrified of teenagers in the 50's. And no wonder, really. According to Hollywood, every single time you got more than two or three of 'em together, they'd cook up some kind of crime spree. And so it is with the motley crew of Juvenile Jungle. Gang boss Monte (Joe Di Reda) and resident toadie Tic-Tac (instantly recognizable character actor Richard Bakalyan) have a nice little operation. They wait until payday and case the local drugstore for ineffectual looking shmoes to cash their checks. On the way out, they drag them into the alley, fleece them, and leave them there, bloody and bruised. Then they buy a few cases of beer and join the rest of the gang (including an uncredited Yvette Vickers) for boozy make-out parties on the beach.

So that was the summer of '58: violent and crime-riddled, but breezy enough. And then, Hal McQueen (Corey Allen) shows up. A square-jawed drifter from parts unknown, Hal woos fiery diner waitress Glory (Rebecca Welles) to ingratiate himself into the pack of punks. Once he's in, he devises a sinister plan that'll net the whole gang a cool 50 grand. All they have to do is kidnap the daughter of the dude who runs the drugstore.

Well, “Kidnap without the kidnapping”, as Hal explains. To be honest, I had no idea what the fuck he was talking about, except that it involved him tricking innocent Carolyn (Anne Whitfield) into liking him so he can pretend to kidnap her later and score the sweet ransom loot. But here's the problem – and you're probably way ahead of me – he starts falling for saucer-eyed Carolyn and her simpleton ways. So much so, that he wants out of the deal.

But here's the thing: he forgot about Glory. She's the jealous type. And Hal was her guy first. Glory is not losing her man AND her ransom dough, that's for sure. So in a remarkable display of spite and blind rage, Glory slaps, punches, and threatens any member of the gang who tries to queer the deal, dragging everyone into a vortex of ugly scenes and bloodshed. Who will survive Glory's inglorious tantrum, and will true love win over a woman (extremely) scorned?

Well, it was the 50's, so I'm sure you can figure that out.

Prolific director William Whitney's resume is mostly jammed with TV projects,  but it's also dotted with notable b-flicks through the decades. He had his JD trilogy in the late 50's (this one, The Cool and the Crazy, Young and Wild), squeezed out a Beach Party rip-off in the mid 60's (The Girls on the Beach), and even helmed an exceptionally bizarre post-Blaxploitation flick (1982's Darktown Strutters).  The thread that holds all of his films together is his penchant for whiplash pacing. Whitney likes to keep shit moving, and even with its brief running time (69 minutes!), Juvenile Jungle feels like it's racing to the finish line. There's not a lot of yapping on deck, it's mostly shouting, slapping, drinking, and scheming. And while the eye-rolling morality play washes ashore during the last act – a necessity to getting films released back then – for most of Juvenile Jungle, everyone's an opportunistic asshole. Which is fun. But really, everything else pales in comparison to Rebecca Welles' amazing performance. With her blazing eyes, micro-waist, and jet-black hair, she's a cool ghoul out for blood, and you never doubt for a minute that she'll chop anybody's head off who crosses her. This is Rebecca's only film appearance – she otherwise worked in TV for her entire career – which might explain the intensity of her performance. If you're relegated to damsels in distress on TV westerns all the time, a meaty role like this must feel mighty refreshing.

At any rate, fans of JD film will definitely enjoy this one. Quick, mean, lotsa snappy dialogue, a berserk villainess, and bonus Yvette Vickers dancing drunkenly on the beach in skin-tight stretchpants. What's not to love?

- Ken McIntyre

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