Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Trip With the Teacher (1974)

Trip With the Teacher is probably one of the more notorious Crown International titles, with its mixture of bikers, school girls, rape, sexual assault, violence and murder.  Indeed, these sensational plot elements, combined with poor sound, grainy film stock and production values which would have disgraced even the average seventies TV movie, Trip With the Teacher is the epitomy of US low budget, low rent drive-in fodder.  Arguably both reprehensible and indefensible, the film nevertheless has some points of interest.  Undoubtedly inspired by Wes Craven's Last House on the Left, Trip With the Teacher seeks to exploit the same basic formula of nice middle clas people being menaced by degenerate scumbag psychopaths.  In this case, the nice middle class victims are four (somewhat overage) school girls on a field trip to the desert with their teacher, whilst the degenerates are a group of bikers they have the misfortune to cross paths with at a gas station.  After their bus subsequently breaks down in the middle of nowhere, the school party makes the mistake of seeking help from the bikers, who have followed them from the gas station.  Instead of towing them to safety, the bikers take the bus and its passengers to a remote abandoned cabin.  After killing the male bus driver, they proceed to menace, brutalise, rape and murder various of the women, until the tables are turned.  That's it, plot wise.

Any tension this scenario might have generated is fatally undermined by its fundamentally misogynistic approach.  The fact is that the psycho scumbags are always outnumbered by their victims.  Even after the bus driver is killed and the nice biker tied up, there are still five women - all unrestrtained - confronting only two degenerate bikers.  Moreover, these two bikers seem to be armed only with a small knife.  Realistically, the women could easily have overpowered them.  Except that the film's scenario clearly perceives women as fundamentally weak, indecisive and passive.  Whilst the film's publicity might talk up the idea that theteacher will go to extraordinary lengths to protect her students, in actuality, she remains essentially passive, being raped and spending most of the film locked in a room away from the students.  It is only at the film's climax that she actually acts and stabs the surviving biker with a conveniently handy wooden stake.  Even then, she only acts after he has been distracted by the good biker.  The sudents likewise don't seem to grasp the fact that they outnumber their captors, instead employing their 'feminine wiles' to try and overpower them, (which provides more excuses for nudity), rather than simply beating the shit out of them.  Not only does this situation rob the film of any real suspense or tension, it also prevents it from being anything more than a cheap sexploitation flick.  The point of its inspiration, Last House on the Left, was to show the violent lengths to which ordinary, decent people will go if pushed far enough.  Trip With the Teacher, however, denies its 'decent' characters any such reaction, assuming they will remain passive in the face of extreme sexual violence.  Worse still, it implies that they provoked the assaults against them, (some of the girls openly flirt with the bikers early on and the film clearly feels that this makes them at least partially responsible for what follows), and that, to some extent, they are prepared to willingly participate in the sexual violence.

The film's greatest strength is the performance of Zalman King as the lead biker, Al.  Clearly modelled on  David Hess' portrayal of Krug in Last House on the Left, King's Al is a truly unhinged character: sniggering, leering and sometimes rolling around on the floor, clutching his head and howling in bouts of existential angst.  He is also prone to unpredictablr outbursts of violence, usually directed at women although, when it comes to the crunch, he is a ruthless and cold-blooded when despatching his victims, (he crushes the elderly gas station owner, who has refused to be intimidated by Al, under a car by calmly kicking away the jack and later cooly drowns one of the girls in a stream).  King provides the only real menace and tension in the film - the sequence when he chases an escaping girl through the forest is, in contrast to the cabin scenes, genuinely tense as he inexorably comes after her, never appearing to change his slow, deliberate pace.  Al's relationship with the other nasty biker - his brother Pete - is also intererstingly drawn.  When away from Al, Pete seems reasonably normal and relatively harmless, but when under his brother's influence, isapparently prepared to sink to any depraved depths in order to please Al. 

Arguably, King's performance alone makes Trip With the Teacher worth watching - it almosts lifts it above being simply a piece of sleazy seventies sexploitation.  But not quite.  Nonetheless, it remains an outstanding example of the genre and is worthy of a viewing for that reason alone.  It really is commercial exploitation film-making in the raw, the absolute bare bones of low budget movie making.  Trip With the Teacher also stands as a fascinating time capsule of many of the attitudes of its era - particularly with regard to women.  Sure, it's scuzzy and you'll feel dirty after watching it, but Trip With the Teacher will give you the real seventies schlock experience.



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