I’m going to call it – 1977 was the year of the van movie. I’m guessing that 1977 was about the height of the short-lived custom van craze, because both “The Van” and “Supervan” were released during that year.
“Supervan” begins with the hero Clint, a small town guy who owns a custom van, cutting out of town so he can attend a Van “Freak Out” gathering, where he hopes to win $5,000 in a van competition. His father, the owner of the auto repair shop where Clint works, is none too pleased by this development, but begrudgingly lets Clint go with his blessing. They must have a pretty weird idea of adulthood, because the actor playing Clint (Mark Schneider) looks like he’s at least 30 in this film.
Soon after hitting the road, Clint hears what sounds like a sexual assault in progress over his trusty CB radio, and heads to the rescue, jumping a group of would be rapist bikers trying to have their way with a woman in a junkyard.
Clint manages to beat the bikers, but his van is destroyed in the yard’s car crusher for his troubles. He escapes the junkyard with his new companion Karen (Katie Saylor) who seems to have a fairly casual attitude about the close call with gang rape, even making jokes about it. I guess the 1970’s were just a weird decade.
The two journey to Clint’s friend Bosley’s workshop, a huge high tech place, where he’s been secretly developing a SuperVan called “Vandora” instead of designing a new gas guzzling vehicle for his boss, the evil oilman and owner of Mid American Motors, T.B. Trenton.
It’s obvious that Trenton is evil the moment we’re introduced to him, and he’s the kind of guy that smokes big cigars and sets up trysts with much younger women that have a thing for whipped cream.
The plot essentially boils down to Clint, Boz, and Karen getting the super high-tech Vandora to the Freak Out Fest, and besting T.B. and his henchmen. It’s one of those films where a lot of stuff happens, but not much of it seems to really be connected. There are lots of admittedly awesome custom vans throughout, and some scenes look like they may have been shot at an actual gathering of van enthusiasts. It’s also all very 70’s, peppered with lots of crude sexual humor and casual drug use, but no actual nudity. It was a kinder gentler decade, where a wet t-shirt contest with kids watching, and a creepy cameo by Charles Bukowski was just good clean fun. I’m not sure that anything can get more quintessentially 1970’s than the shenanigans on display in this film.
Anyway, Trenton is worried that when Vandora is discovered by the press, he’ll be ruined. Vandora is a high-tech wonder – it’s solar powered, and has inboard computers and lasers. Yes, lasers. The van was designed by legendary car builder George Barris, and it’s pretty dumb looking. The more traditional custom vans it’s supposed to be better than, are way cooler. It also makes an irritating sound, sort of a constant UFO sound instead of the regular engine noises that a typical van would make. That gets old pretty fast. Inside, the sound is accompanied by bleeping computer noises as well.
I’m sure it’s no surprise that Clint and company eventually best Trenton and his toadies, and manage to win the $5,000 in prize money. How that happens involves a lot of not very exciting chase footage, and a drugged out 1970’s van party that’s probably the best part of the film. There are some ridiculous moments in “SuperVan,” although that’s probably to be expected. For instance, we discover that Vandora has a laser gun capable of blowing up a car, but that’s never used to try to disable the cops who are chasing SuperVan for much of the film.
There’s something about this movie that rides a line between two worlds. On one hand, there’s plenty of references to sex and over the top characters. A van full of gay stereotypes comes to mind, as well as scenes involving drug use, but the film almost feels like a late 70’s television movie. Contrast that with “The Van” from the same year, which had ample nude scenes scattered throughout its equally rambling story, and “SuperVan” almost seems innocent in comparison. And let’s face it, that’s weird, because it’s pretty obvious that most people with these custom vans had them outfitted as rolling orgy rooms.
I should point out that I discovered that there are more than one print of “The Van” in circulation, and one has almost all nudity excised from it, really rendering the film pointless. That’s just the kind of film it is. So it’s possible that there’s a sleazier cut of “SuperVan” floating around out there. As it is, the film could have been an ABC Movie of the Week if they cut a few lines of dialogue and some drug use. With the exception of that pervasive 70s era casual treatment of sex and drugs, SuperVan almost seems like the PG kid friendly film companion to “The Van”s R rated horny teenagers.
So did I like “SuperVan?” It’s an interesting look at 70’s-era fads in much the same way a film like “Roller Boogie” is. We know people liked custom vans and roller disco, so it’s cool to see movies trying to exploit interest in those things, but in the case of “SuperVan,” the plot is taken to an almost Sci-Fi extreme, since no vehicle like the high-tech van ever existed.
On the other hand, I kept finding myself not caring about the plot, or the SuperVan itself, but wanting to see more footage of the Van gathering and the actual custom vans used throughout the film.
So it’s fun to see as a study of 1970’s custom van culture, but the actual film is pretty silly. Without more exploitative material, nudity or whatever, it’s hard to see why anyone would watch this movie today unless they’re interested in old vans, or the weirder aspects of 70’s culture. I’m interested in both of those things however, so if I gave out ratings, which I don’t, I’d give “SuperVan” 5 van lasers out of 10.
The uncut version of “The Van” is still a more sleazy and entertaining van movie though.