Fabian kills another stock car racer in “Thunder Alley.” Annette Funicello plays the woman who tries to understand. They’re a long way from musical romps like “Beach Blanket Bingo”…
The two pop icons appear in this “serious” American-International movie – a racing exploitation film aimed at more sophisticated audiences of the late 60s. Fabian’s character explains that he blacks out momentarily while driving, and when he wakes up he discovers he’s inadvertently crowded another car into fatal accident. But the other drivers insist he’s a murderous glory hound, and Fabian’s character is banned from the racing circuit. As the movie opens, he’s a banished race car drive with nowhere to go.
Low-budget movies survive by creating unusually intense scripts, and the story in “Thunder Alley” is almost existential. This is deliberate – the opening theme song recognizes the almost futile danger in the racing life, culminating with an open-ended question that’s repeated twice.
“I wonder if he’ll make it through…Thunder Alley.”
It’s sung by a group identified as “The Band With No Name,” as Fabian himself searches for a place he’ll belong. After another death on the race track, he wanders into a novelty auto show (run by comedian Jan Murray). They clash over wages and the danger levels for his stunts, but Fabian’s found a way to continue his love of driving. Yet he still dreams of returning to the professional stock car circuit.
This movie is remarkably dark, even for an “exploitation” film. The man running the show is no savior, but a conniving businessman, and Annette Funicello plays his exasperated daughter. And when Fabian rejects her interests, her character does something Annette’s never done in a film before – she gets drunk. (“Thatshh right, I’m a crazy broad. But you don’t care…”) Drunk-driving a stock car (on a closed course) while guzzling hard liquor, Annette’s young character gets a moment where she’s just as lost and unsure. Instead of a love song, her song in the movie is ultimately a ballad about Fabian’s complex and troubled character. (“When you get what you want, will you want what you have…?”)
Of course, the “action and uncertainty” theme was meant to attract audiences who were no longer young teenagers. In 1967 the movie’s poster promised wild and abandoned excitement. (“Days of screaming wheels. Nights of reckless pleasure…”) “Thunder Alley” does deliver on its promise of cars and racing footage (though occasionally they’re spliced together from races on different tracks.) An early shot in the movie even gives viewers a glimpse of George Barris’s famous custom car shop.
But ultimately it adds the story of a man struggling with his demons. With all the genuine drama he struggles through, the movie’s happy ending becomes that much more satisfying.