Let’s Hear It For The Boys: Texas Lightning (1981)

Dave ponders what might have been, had Gary Graver’s father-son hunting trip not succumbed to producer interference.

“I think The Boys is the best film I ever directed,” mused a reflective Gary Graver to genre mag Penny Dreadful in 2004. “Do you know something though? You can go out and make a movie in 35mm with a great cast, but unless you have the money to publicize it, then no one will know it exists.”

Moon in Scorpio (1987) may be the most infamous hijacking by a producer of a Gary Graver flick, but The Boys is the one that hurts. Upon seeing the completed movie, producer Edward L. Montoro (Grizzly (1976)) was aghast at the bleak resolution of the pic, so along with distributor Film Ventures International, they ganged up on the prolific director to demand reshoots. He refused, with Montoro pleading with a bemused Graver that he was “too close to the project” – but the filmmaker found an unlikely ally in star Cameron Mitchell.

“Cameron wouldn’t come back for these scenes”, explained Graver. “He was very firm about that. He didn’t want them to change the ending, and he stated how the original ending was the one reason he took the part in the first place.”

Mutiny or not, Montoro and co. did manage to get the movie into the editing room, where they ripped out Graver’s devastating denouement, replaced it with a more upbeat finale, and slapped a banjo-twanging yeehaw song onto the soundtrack which echoed the title of the newly rechristened flick – TEXAS LIGHTNING.

Although these post-production shenanigans invariably leave a bad taste in the mouth, and diminish the gut-wrenching impact of Graver’s masterpiece, the fact that The Boys aka Texas Lightning remains the pinnacle of the filmmaker’s non-adult career underlines the strength of what he had created.

Karl Stover (Cameron Mitchell) is your typical beer-swilling, machismo-oozing, Midwest-dwelling truck driver – but his son, Buddy (Mitchell’s real-life son, Cameron Jr), has so far failed in embracing the parental genes. Preferring a crisp white shirt to the lived-in dungarees of his father, Buddy’s idea of a good time is lying in bed listening to classical music, much to the disapproval of his ‘ol Dad.

“You’ve sissified him!” Karl bellows at his wife (Hope Holiday). So to inject a little Texas masculinity into the boy, he rounds up his two best friends, Frank (Peter Jason) and Leonard (Jean Clark), for a sweat-stained, girl-ogling hunting trip – “You’re a Goddamn man, and today I’m going to prove it”. Alas, this exercise in generational bonding doesn’t pan out as Karl intended, and when Buddy enjoys a little flirtation with barmaid Fay (Maureen McCormick), it unleashes an animalistic savagery in Frank and Leonard that will have a shattering impact on everyone’s lives.

“They’re stormin’ on the taverns, thunderin’ over the roads, and just plain having a good ‘ol time.”

If there’s a strapline in existence that could ever misrepresent a film in a more stunningly inaccurate way, then I’m all ears. Far from good ‘ol boys in cowboy boots, Texas Lightning is a harrowing picture; a damning indictment of the worst aspects of masculinity, and a seedy glimpse into the lives of three very flawed individuals.

Peter Jason has rarely been better. The John Carpenter mainstay who’d go on to work with Graver in Trick or Treats (1982), Party Camp (1987), and The Other Side of the Wind (2018), balances Frank’s  swaggering façade against his crumbling personal life, as wife Donna (Danone Camden) indulges in an extramarital affair behind his back. Meanwhile, Jean Clark, a boom operator who cameoed in over twenty Graver movies from ’68 to ‘92, lands a role to sink his teeth into – or not, having accidentally smashed his dentures on the morning of the trip. The rotund bit-part player ensures that Leonard is the epitome of the easily-led loner, desperate for affection, yet dancing to the beat of Frank’s leery drum.

It’s Mitchell times two who deserve the real accolades, though. Cameron Snr makes Karl a fascinating character, longing for a true bond with his son yet tied to the loyalty of his lifelong friends and maddeningly unable to separate the two. Cameron Jr on the other hand brings nuance to Buddy, layering him with sensitivity and emotion – two traits that are a step too far for his overbearing father.

Charlies Dierkop shows up (as he did so often in Graver’s movies) as Walt, an affable gas station owner, while Maureen McCormick really does step out from the shadow of Marcia Brady in her portrayal of Fay. The role was originally written for Graver’s former girlfriend, Claudia Jennings, who of course died tragically in a car accident in late ’79.

Speaking of Graver, keep an eye out for one of the helmer’s funniest director cameos. He pops up as the emcee of a wet t-shirt competition in the the film’s one intentional comedic moment. Bonus points for spotting that the winner of the bosom bout is none other than Lisa De Leeuw: star of Graver’s XXX hits Co-Ed Fever (1980), Garage Girls (1980) and Amanda By Night (1981).

Over the years, The Boys has achieved almost mythical status. Be it through an unused poster glimpsed on the wall of Christopher O’Keefe’s (Chris Graver) bedroom in Trick or Treats, or the tease that bootleg editions of the original version may have sneaked onto VHS in continental Europe. Either way, in his final years Graver was keen to stress that he owned the rights to Texas Lightning, and he seemed intent on finally getting it out into the public domain under its rightful title. Alas, we can only hope that his immediate friends and family enable that to happen someday, but for now you can at least see the original ending of the film on A Gary Graver Movie (2004) – the filmmakers’ self-hosted documentary about various aspects of his career – and it’s very much worth your time.

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