THE ONLY WAY HOME 1972
Bo Hopkins (Orval), Steve Sandor (Billy Joe), Beth Brickell (Marcia), G.D. Spradlin (Phillip)
Directed by G.D. Spradlin
"You wanna be nothin' in a small country town the rest of your life, dontcha?!"
The Short Version: This obscure, hard to find 70s Drive In suspense drama stars Bo Hopkins and Steve Sandor as two destitute young men who want for a better life. One of them is a bit crazy carrying with him a lot of mental baggage that leads to violence and kidnapping and results in a downbeat ending typical of the decade. With shades of THE BOYS NEXT DOOR (1985), this is a quaint, somber little thriller with little in the way of extreme violence. The performances sell this one, and for some Drive In fans, that will be enough to enjoy this Southern Fried tale of desire, avarice and death.
Having lost his job as a gas station attendant in a small Oklahoma town, Orval makes friends with a young biker named Billy Joe in a local bar. The two become friends and decide to travel to California together, but not before stopping by Orval's uncle's house to borrow some money. Discovering his relative is out on a contracting job, Billie Joe plots a robbery to which Orval begrudgingly accepts. Neither man pull it off and carry on down the road. Meanwhile, Phillip and Marcia, a couple on vacation and struggling with marital issues, get a flat tire on the road. While her husband walks back to town for help, Orval and Billie Joe happen along. Upon his return, Billie Joe notices a wad of cash held by Phillip and after making a condescending remark, Billie Joe beats him with a tire iron. Leaving him for dead, the two hellraisers take off in Phillip's car taking his wife with them back to Orval's house where things take a turn for the worse.
This is yet another obscure 70s Drive In picture, one of dozens of semi-rural psycho-terrorizes-captives movies that proliferated throughout the decade. A fair number of similar movies became cult items; unfortunately, this wasn't one of them despite some fine performances and a reasonably decent script. While certain areas are fleshed out unusually well, other areas are left with some question marks. In the end, it doesn't much matter as the film isn't grim enough to cater to the diehard trash crowd looking for raw violence for kicks. It's mildly brutal in places, and has a double shock ending, but the PG rating--movies could get away with a lot on a PG during this time--never lets the proceedings stray too far outside the safety zone. Still, fans of the main cast and country fried Drive In fare are gonna wanna see it. It also brought to mind Penelope Spheeris' THE BOYS NEXT DOOR (1985) on more than a few occasions.
Famed character actor, G.D. Spradlin takes the directors chair for this one. You may remember him from his roles in upscale movies like THE GODFATHER PART 2 (1974), the massively successful television mini series event RICH MAN, POOR MAN (1976) and APOCALYPSE NOW (1979). He also had a brief role in an episode of GOMER PYLE USMC as Colonel Drischoll where Gomer is put in the kitchen and unexpectedly serves a brilliant Deep South home-cooked meal specially for the Colonel which saves the day. Spradlin also featured in the stuff we REALLY love like his role of the determined sheriff in HELL'S ANGELS '69 (also with Sandor), the gruesome excess of the gore western THE HUNTING PARTY (1971) and the rare 'Killer Animal' TV movie from 1978, MANEATERS ARE LOOSE!
His movie doesn't break any new ground, and, aside from some expletives and some salacious subject matter, this could play safely on television. The performances and certain character nuances keep things engaging. Before going into the leads themselves, it's worth noting for exploitation fans that John King III, that PSYCHO FROM TEXAS (1974) himself, was the assistant camera operator here and even pops up in the bar scene around 71 minutes in. John King also played a deceptive biker in the awful and awfully entertaining BLACK ANGELS (1970).
Bo Hopkins (THE WILD BUNCH, TENTACLES, A SMALL TOWN IN TEXAS) has always been good in everything I've seen him in. He brings a natural flow to his roles that make you forget you're watching a movie when he's onscreen.
Inexplicably losing his job, we learn Orval has moved from one employer to the next having difficulty holding down a 9 to 5'er. He wants more for himself and while having a beer in a bar, meets up with Billie Joe, another down on his luck guy looking for money in all the wrong places. While Orval goes along with his new-found friends tactics, he isn't quite as gung ho about killing people, or even robbery for that matter.
Billie Joe (played by Steve Sandor) is the most interesting of the two. We learn little about his past outside of his mentioning trouble with the police keeping him from escaping his lowly existence. He, too, wants out of his dead end life, but doesn't seem to want to work for it, preferring the easier, more dangerous way out. In a curious character trait, we learn Billie Joe likes the music of Beethoven!
The 'changing of the tire' scene is the turning point for the two leads. Billie Joe sees the wad of cash in Phillip's hand and when the man offers them a dollar for their trouble, the camera cuts to Billie, who obviously thinks he could fork over a few more bucks.
The setting off moment is when Phillip tells Billie to make sure he's putting the tire on right. Angry and evidently disturbed, our intrepid Beethoven biker wails on Phillip with a tire iron presumably killing him. It's here where we see Orval displaying violent tendencies when pushed in that direction, although he is the sane, level-headed member of this two man travelin' band.
Once they've returned to Orval's uncle's house, all hot and sweaty, Billie Joe gets turned on ogling Marcia and decides to rape her, keeping Orval at bay with Phillip's gun. Orval exits, but finds out later that Billie Joe didn't rape Marcia seeing how he's impotent!
This leads to another scene that results in a violent eruption from Billy Joe after Marcia, seeing him cleaning his bike, asks him, "Is something wrong with it?" Billie imagines an empty bed while a female voiceover laughs loudly. Then we see him in bed with a past girlfriend asking what's wrong with him.
Steve Sandor balances just the right amount of sorrow with the psychotic. In a few scenes he successfully evokes audience sympathy through mere facial expressions alone. The following year, Sandor would play an equally disturbed, but more heroic figure in the likewise obscure THE NO MERCY MAN (1973). Sandor acted in a handful of movies and was a familiar face on television programs, but never seemed to attain the level of notoriety of some of his exploitation/Drive In movie colleagues, which was a true shame.
"I don't even know your name."
With two fairly well drawn leads this leaves us with the third kink in the chain of this twisted love triangle, the wife, Marcia. The opening scene shows her walking outside of her comfy, well to do home in some suburban neighborhood.
This contrasts sharply with the lives led by our two young anti-protagonists. Marcia's had a rocky marriage and in the scenes of their travels to make it to some remote lake, we see their sex life is a major subject of contention. Phillip is anxious for intimacy, but Marcia seems a bit cold towards the proposition.
Later in the film, she tries to escape and Orval catches her. The two embrace and this leads to a sexual dalliance in a creek bed. Despite obviously playing psychological head games with her captors earlier, it would seem Marcia is caught in the moment and welcomes the act.
Afterward, she claims Orval was able to give her her first orgasm! This leads to a bizarre relationship that takes place over the course of the time that Billie Joe is in town getting things in order; him thinking Orval will have taken care of the woman by the time he returns; never expecting him to have taken care of her in an entirely different way.
The two plan to take off together starting a new life in California; Marcia apparently having forgotten about her husband whom she doesn't even know is really dead or not.
Back in town, Billy Joe is given one truly poignant instance of humanity when one of his younger friends enters a bar to tell him the police are looking for him.
Realizing there's no way out, he hands over his prized baseball cards that his friend wanted so much at the start of the picture. Billie Joe gets up and exits the establishment believing it will be the last time he will see his buddy.
I won't go into the ending as you may, or may not guess how it will all go, but there's a double twist during the final minutes. One of the shock moments coincides, and reflects visually with the way the film opens--the idyllic comfortability of suburbanites versus the struggle to make a living of the lower class establishment.
Even if it never pushes the envelope as much as it easily could have, the film finishes on a strong note, and possibly that may have been Spradlin's intention to avoid the sleazy excess of so many other movies of the time period.
It's not an imperative addition to your collection, but lovers of 70s Drive In movies will be the audience most appreciative of this one. In its favor there's some stand out performances, some nice aerial photographic shots and a typically 70s road movie style score with songs that extrapolate and convey what transpires onscreen whether through character actions, or their emotions. It's not on DVD, and, sadly, likely won't be any time soon.