If you’re an exploitation film fan and you haven’t explored the work of Greydon Clark, you really ought to do so. He churned out a string of interesting low-budget flicks during the 1970’s and 1980’s that distinguished themselves by exploiting more than one trend or genre at once. For instance, Joysticks crosses the early 1980’s video arcade fad with the teen sex comedy and Satan’s Cheerleaders mixes the cheerleader-themed t&a jigglefest with witchcraft-themed horror.
One of the most unique genre-benders in the Greydon Clark filmography is Hi-Riders. This amiable quickie combines the car/van culture genre that was popular in the mid-1970’s with the biker flick and also adds in a dollop of the Macon County Line-derived “southern discomfort” flick. The finished product isn’t as brilliant as that mix of genres might suggest but it does deliver the goods by working its way through all manner of exploitable content.
Hi-Riders kicks off with car-crazy couple Mark (Darby Hinton) and Lynn (Diane Peterson) getting stiffed by hotheaded racer Billy (Brad Reardon) after they outrun him in a drag race. They chase him down the next day, only to end up in the lair of his car club, the Hi-Riders. Thankfully, Mark and Lynn prove themselves by beating him in another race and are accepted into the group by their leader, T.J. (William Beaudine, Jr.). The group adjourns to a nearby small town to indulge in a bacchanalian barrage of drinking, racing and canoodling.
Unfortunately, things take a turn for the tragic when Billy challenges a local to a drag race that ends in a fiery crash for both men. The townie victim in the crash was the son of the town’s resident wealthy control-freak, Mr. Lewis (Stephen McNally). He swears vengeance and sends out a posse of gun-toting henchmen to wipe out the gang. Lots of chases, stunts and crashes ensue.
This storyline covers a lot of exploitation-flick bases and Clark does an admirable amount of work to ensure they’re all covered. His script hits the ground running, cramming several race and/or ‘chicken’ sequences into the first half. The film’s stop-on-a-dime shift from sleazy good cheer into a more dramatic, tense style is achieved with gut-punch effectiveness. He also displays a good ear for quotable trash-talk dialogue. On the downside, the plotting stumbles a bit near the end (a head-scratching moment arrives when the heroes pause for a lakeside romantic interlude despite knowing they are being pursued by thugs). However, the finale delivers a few more fun plot twists and a bravura final stunt that caps the proceedings with an exclamation point.
Hi-Riders also boasts a strong cast for a low-budget vehicle. Hinton, who would later star in the softcore pay-cable staple Malibu Express, makes a likeable lead and Peterson (who was better known as a stuntwoman) makes a quick-witted romantic foil for him. Beaudine does solid work as the leader of the Hi-Riders and his quietly charismatic work makes it surprising that he didn’t star in other drive-in fare. As was usually the case, Clark rounds out his cast with some familiar names for the support cast: Mel Ferrer does typically professional work as the small town’s sheriff while Neville Brand cameos as a grizzled bartender and Ralph Meeker steals a few scenes as Ferrer’s boozy deputy.
However, a car-chase flick lives and dies by two things: the stunts and the visuals used to capture them. Thankfully, Hi-Riders delivers strong work on both fronts. The stunts were choreographed by Vic Rivers, who tragically died doing a final stunt at the shoot’s end, and they deliver the tire-screeching goods (the best is a truck-off-a-bridge crash that recalls Race With The Devil). All the action is beautifully lensed by Dean Cundey, who also shot Halloween for John Carpenter around the same time. Cundey uses the scope format to beautiful effect, wringing maximum production value from the scenic California locations and framing the car footage for maximum excitement.
Ultimately, Hi-Riders doesn’t quite qualify as a top-tier Clark exploitation opus (that honor goes to The Bad Bunch and Joysticks)… but it’s pretty damn close and definitely worth a look for any fan of 1970’s exploitation. It packs a few trends’ worth of exploitation into a tidy 90-minute running time and this combo-platter approach ensures it’s got something for anyone into this era of drive-in fare.