THE VAN (1977): Customized Vans And Pop Culture Anthropology

This fun quickie represents a double cash-in: not only does it capitalize on the mid-to-late 1970’s customized van trend, it also acts a pseudo-adaptation of the 1970’s hit “Chevy Van” by Sammy Johns (who also provides the film’s score).  Like other successful teensploitation flicks of its era, it devotes its time and resources to capturing a specific moment – and this makes it very valuable as a time capsule.

The hero of The Van is Bobby (Stuart Goetz), a likeable nebbish who is fresh out of high school and totally consumed with the idea of getting laid.  To achieve this ambition, he gets the mother of all customized vans: it’s got a t.v., a bar, a stereo, even a waterbed.  He sets his sights on scoring with a blond bombshell named Sally (Connie Lisa Marie).  Unfortunately, she’s the personal property of local tough-guy racer Dugan (Steve Oliver)  Bobby also finds himself inexplicably drawn to Tina (Deborah White), a temperamental but goodhearted average Jane who might be more his speed.

Simply put, The Van is what you hope for from a film like this: it’s fast, light fun that delivers the color of a unique teen-centric scene, a little dollop of raciness and an unexpected amount of heart.

The cast is appealing and everyone fits their roles nicely.  Goetz makes an instantly likeable underdog hero who is funny in an unassuming way.  Dugan is a fun villain and Oliver’s performance is savvy enough to find the humorous insecurity beneath the bluster: watch for his reaction to an unexpected insult from Bobby before the big race.   Marie and White turn in self-assured performances while delivering the right amount of eye candy.  Keep your eyes peeled for Danny Devito, who cameos as Bobby’s boss – he’s developing a schtick here that he would perfect the next year on Taxi.

Best of all, director Sam Grossman brings a colorful, kinetic style to the visuals and editing that gives the film just the right ‘pop’ feel.  The cherry atop this drive-in sundae is Sammy John’s country-ish soft-rock score, which instantly sets the mood for Californian good times: the moments where his smooth tunes soar over montages of van cruising are 70’s teensploitation heaven.

In short, The Van is an engaging programmer that is worth a look to anyone who interested in 1970’s teen comedies: and its exploration of ’70s van culture, particularly an eye-popping trip to customized van festival, appeals to the pop culture anthropologist lurking in the heart of every cult movie aficionado.

Video Availability: pops up in grey market DVD packages often.  As of this writing (3/2/18), it can be viewed via Amazon Prime’s streaming service.

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