I continue my mission to find strange and forgotten films in the Amazon Prime Dungeon. I will say this about Amazon, they have the oldest movies, strangest movies. A couple weeks ago, I found the Giant Killer Crab suck-tacular Island Claws and now I find this diamond in the rough, released the same year as Star Wars. It’s a forgotten Moonshiner Classic starring John Saxon and in her prime Maureen McCormick AKA Marcia Brady from The Brady Bunch as a jailbait Hillbilly chick. Yeah, I need to check this out.
Moonshine County Express (1977)
Moonshine movies usually starring Burt Reynolds were a big deal in the ’70s with Smokey and the Bandit and culminating with The Dukes of Hazzard TV Series. I guess the allure of hot cars and hotter babes was enough to draw in the drive-in crowds. What’s most surprising about Moonshine County Express is that this is less exploitative than most of them. Sure, the evil thugs threaten Marcia Brady with rape several times, but you can tell their hearts are not really in it. This has a lighter tone but plenty of shootin’ and drivin’ scenes. And it’s not nearly as tawdry as the half-naked babes in overalls on the poster would have you believe. In fact, the most intriguing aspect of this movie is the strong feminist theme, rare for Moonshine movies in particular and exploitation films in general. It’s fun to see Susan Howard, Maureen McCormick, and cult film actress Claudia Jennings kicking butts and taking names in the chauvinistic world of moonshine runners. They are tough, single-minded, and not afraid to use their feminine charms to score a good sale on their moonshine stash.
In the pre-title sequence, the male members of the Hammer moonshine clan are wiped out in a pretty good gunfight. The Hammer women rush to help but are too late. Now, as the tough survivors of the clan, they discover Grandpappy Hammer’s legendary moonshine stash and decide to make their fortunes, taking on William Conrad’s evil clan with toughness, gumption, and the help of bumbling chauvinist race car driver John Saxon.
All of the actors are much better than in your standard moonshiner movie, and are light years better than the typical VOD dreck I’ve been watching lately. John Freaking Saxon starred in hundreds of low-budget exploitation films and understands the genre requirements. He’s channeling Burt Reynolds with his down-home Lothario character, driving a car named Candy Apple and he even looks like ’70s-era Burt with his receding hairline. Saxon is great as the dim-witted driver, always playing the comic foil to Susan Howard and the ladies and never driving the story. He’s in their movie and he’s okay with that, something that Burt never could’ve pulled off.
William “TV’s Cannon” Conrad is doing his Touch of Evil Orson Welles impression as a bloated, sweaty, and thoroughly corrupt businessman, who’s got the local police in his pocket and his eyes on the ladies. At one point, he gets a slide whistle take when he goes fishing for the naked blonde in his shower. He’s actually funny and it takes away a level of gross exploitation from the movie. Conrad never seems to be a threat to the Hammer women but has all the advantages to win the moonshine war with them.
Marcia Brady is great. She’s young and sassy wearing the latest in ’70s era Hillbilly chic, including rocking Daisy Dukes in several scenes. But being that this movie predates Dukes of Hazzard by two years, we really should be calling them Marcia Bradys, or Sissy Hammers. Yes, her character is named Sissy. And sure, she gets captured and menaced by the villainous moonshiners, that’s kind of standard for these kinds of movies. But she keeps her cool and shows such remarkable charisma that it’s sad she never became a bigger star. But as Betty Hammer, Claudia Jennings steals the movie. She’s sinewy and tough, but more rough around the edges than Susan Howard. She’s terrific. Jennings was a veteran of dozens of exploitation films with titles like Gator Bait, Deathsport, and The Great Texas Dynamite Chase before she tragically died in a car accident at the age of 29. I’ll have to keep an eye on Amazon to see if any of these drive-in classics show up.
Naturally for a moonshine movie, there’s several Dukes of Hazzard quality car chases, including a goofy one where the bad guy’s car jumps a tree stump and gets cut in half. The bad guys continue to harass the Hammer women and then Dot, Betty, and Sissy fight back. This movie even features Hall of Fame coot Dub Taylor, star of over 256 movies including The Wild Bunch, Back to the Future III, and the Burt Reynolds semi-classic Gator where he plays characters named Cottonmouth Gorch, Rattler S. Gravely, and Grandpaw Bridges. A true legend and his character is appropriately drunk and scuzzy in this one.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Sure this isn’t a Moonshine classic like Burt Reynold’s White Lightning or Gator, but it’s entertaining enough if you’re in the mood for a countrified Moonshiner movie featuring lots of bluegrass tunes and jaw harp on the soundtrack, muscle cars, sweaty hillbillies, moonshine drinking, and Maureen McCormick sporting her Marcia Bradys. Actually, I’ve never seen those Burt movies, so this very well may be as good as they are. I can’t say for certain, but I’ll keep an eye out for them on my streaming services.
While researching Moonshine films, I was reminded that The Dukes of Hazzard was based on a movie called The Moonshiners which came out in 1975, two years before this one and which features Waylon Jennings as the narrator. I’ll have to keep an eye out for that one as well.