There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.
Sometimes, politics makes more than your bedfellows strange…
Wild in the Streets (1968)
(Dist.: American International; Dir.: Barry Shear)
There are times when the era catches up with our fiction; we’ve seen a novel from 1898 predict the sinking of the HMS Titanic, a short story from 1946 eerily predict the Internet, and watched a movie from 1969 predict the Apollo XIII disaster the next year. Not all predictions are as clean as these (i.e., most of the suppositions of Verne and Wells), but now and then, a few things have some elements that come uncomfortably close to what we get, and some of them have different sets of predictions that don’t come about all at once, but one here and then another later.
Which brings us to Wild in the Streets.
Based on Robert Thom’s short story “The Day it All Happened, Baby,” which appeared in the December 1966 issue of Esquire, the film’s premise is driven on fear of the Baby Boomers, the oldest of which were starting to vote as the picture premiered. For Shear and Thom (who converted his story into the screenplay), the prospect of 52% of the country being under the age of 25 seemed like time to panic; the fact that the numbers were actually closer to 40% in 1968 might not have let them sleep all that well, all said, as even then the Boomers were getting considerable attention from their elders.
One such youth getting a lot of attention, not all of it good, is Max Flatlow Jr. (Christopher Jones), who we watch grow up before the credits roll in a dysfunctional household alternatively terrorized and idolized by his mother (Shelley Winters), a woman who scarred Max with her outbursts but didn’t bat an eye as he made LSD in the basement before wandering off and changing his name to Max Frost.
Max makes good on his drug money, becoming a multi-millionaire with his hands in a number of divergent companies a la Steve Jobs pre-software, and getting a platform for his views with the rock band he fronts, the Troopers, which includes such wild characters as the Hook (Larry Bishop), so named because he can somehow play bass with a hook hand, boy genius Billy Cage (Kevin Coughlin) on lead, and anthropologist Stanley X (Richard Pryor) on drums, an eclectic group that hangs out at Max’s palatial pad, doing drugs, each other, and any hanger-ons who want to be part of the scene.
Which would make for a pretty standard A-I exploitation of youth film until ambitious Kennedy-esque candidate Johnny Fergus (Hal Holbrook) gets the bright idea to enlist Max to encourage the younger voters, then age 21, to support his run for Senator, with the promise that he’d enfranchise 18-to-20-year-olds. Max, getting drawn into politics and driven by a bad reunion with his mom, who he let drive his Rolls until she ran over a pre-teen in the kid’s own yard, decides to take up the cause of enfranchisement for everyone 14 and older, which sparks wild interest among the young and panic in Fergus’ patron, Senator Albright (Ed Begley).
The movement gives the vote to youngsters in California, which allows Fergus to take office, and spreads to other states in the union. Meanwhile, a Congressman dies of old age in the district of Max’s keyboardist and friend he sleeps with, Sally LeRoy (Diane Varsi, who suffered an injury on the set of the film that was the start of a long battle with pain), and he encourages his young voting followers, whom he calls “my Troops,” to elect her in the special election.
Once she takes office, she proposes on the floor of the House an amendment to the Constitution, making the age of all federal elected positions (House, Senate, and the President) 14. It’s popular with the newly enfranchised, resisted by the old guard (no pun intended), and prompts a song from Max and the Troopers, “Shapes of Things to Come,” which like all of the Troopers songs in the film was written by Mann and Weil and actually reached #22 on the Billboard Hot 100 on October 26, 1968.
Desperate to get their legislation through, Max comes up with the clever idea of lacing Washington DC’s water with LSD (just like he made back home in his youth), and with Congress now having turned off their minds, relaxed, and floated downstream, the offices are now open to people Max’s age and younger. (How it got the two-thirds of the states to ratify it so quickly isn’t discussed, but hey, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington this ain’t…)
Max, the new president, asks for extended executive powers to force everyone over 30 to retire, and then send those 35 and up to camps where they’d be forced to take LSD and bliss out while all resources go into the hands of the younger folks. The camps, a combination of a war-crimes-ready internment facility and “Tommy’s Holiday Camp,” marks a shift in fortunes for everyone over 30 (who weren’t supposed to be trusted anyway) and puts all of them on a bad trip, especially Mom.
Until recently, watching the film could be done with some smug assurance that this story had no bearing on reality. When the kids actually did collect the tribes the year after the film was released, there were not that many voter reg forms passed out, and when the 26th Amendment to the Constitution did get passed in 1971, the younger voters didn’t exactly help George McGovern against President Nixon the next year.
As Max considers his grab for power as President, he decides after some calculation that his best path to getting elected would be to go with the Republican Party. He name checks the likely “old guard” who might want the spot, Nixon and Reagan, and decides that the party would be desperate enough to welcome him to the top of the ticket.
Yes, he makes a calculated move that the Republicans would be willing to accept an outsider, a rich entertainer as their standard bearer, making a cynical ploy that he embraces as a means to an end, an end where he bullies his targets with radical proposals he hopes to execute.
A small detail from the film that, as this article goes online, seems way, way too close to recent real events. This is one of those times when you wish your era didn’t try to catch up with the fiction…
NEXT TIME: Hey, we ran out of gas; can you spot me a few bucks…?