The Hard Road (1970): Graver Madness!

After a lengthy shower in bleach, Dave books himself an STD check in the wake of Gary Graver’s lurid drama.

The teenage propaganda film has been alive and well since the dawn of the talkie, warning your parents against the perils of sex, drugs, crime and anything else remotely enjoyable that their child could end up being to drawn into. While the ‘50s was the decade of choice for this style of exploitation movie, boasting worthwhile endeavours like Fred F. Sears’ Teenage Crimewave (1955), Edward L. Cahn’s Runaway Daughters (1956) and Paul Henreid’s Live Fast, Die Young (1958) – all noted film noir directors no less – this particular story needs to rewind a few decades and begin with Reefer Madness (1936).

Funded and produced by a church group to act as a morality tale regarding the dangers of cannabis, Reefer Madness was soon hijacked by producer Dwain Esper, who recut it and inserted a dollop of smut and salaciousness. Impressed by his lucrative new acquisition, Esper decided to wheel a similar quasi-documentary into production under the title Sex Madness (1938), which took it upon itself to warn youngsters against the dangers of venereal diseases – albeit in a louche and morally ambiguous manner!

Quite why the subject of VD was still on the education-cum-sexploitation agenda midway through the sexual revolution is a question you’d struggle to find an answer to, but nevertheless, here was THE HARD ROAD (1970), and behind the camera was Gary Graver.

Taking its cues from Esper’s Sex Madness character of Millicent, who heads from her small town to the city, only to contract syphilis in the wake of a ‘casting couch’ encounter, The Hard Road tells the tale of Pamela Banner (Connie Nelson – Mrs. Graver at the time): a seventeen year-old high-schooler in suburbia who heads to the city and falls into a similar trap.

Her reason for heading to the bright lights of Los Angeles and shunning a return to education is because she’s just given birth to a baby out of wedlock. The child has been given up for adoption, but for fear of casting shame over her wholesome parents (Ray Merritt and former gangster’s moll Liz Renay), Pamela snags as job as a receptionist for a seedy talent agent called Leo (Gary Kent). Enamoured by her new surroundings, she finds solace in the hedonistic party lifestyle of her peers, befriending a hooker called Jeannie (Catherine Howard) and her drug-addled boyfriend Jimmy (Graver regular John Alderman, credited as Frank Hallowell), but they gradually lead her down a dark path of iniquity, from which she struggles to return.

Although The Hard Road is a compellingly downbeat drama about an impressionable teen, it’s tough to shake off the educational aspect which rears its head at will. Featuring a deeply disapproving voiceover from Byron Clark – “The doctor is taking samples of discharge from Pam” – we’re punished with relentless photographs of mouth sores and rotting genitalia to hammer home its cautionary intent.

The sole screenwriting credit for Richard Stetson (who’s also listed as providing the medical illustrations), it’s produced by the enigmatic B-movie maven Ed DePriest, a prolific producer who dug out a fifty year career in everything from surf movies to hardcore pornography. His name on the credits is a good enough hint that The Hard Road should be taken with a healthy dose of irony, especially in the midst of hysterical utterances on glue sniffing and deformed babies.

Retitled High School Hooker for a later (and lecture free) release, there’s plenty of Graver-isms to revel in. Visual flourishes punctuate a brisk running time, while the auteur (Graver edits and photographs as well) brings a real style to what could easily have been a pedestrian outing. There’s plenty of his stock company dotted around the picture too, with Jean Clark, R. Michael Stringer and Graver’s brother, Jeff, all in uncredited roles for the eagle-eyed among you.

Lurid, sensationalist, and at times genuinely nauseating, The Hard Road is a strange chapter in Graver’s career. But, given his eclectic choices with such a broad range of pictures, it should probably be the least surprising entry.

USA ● 1970 ● Drama ● 85mins

Connie Nelson, John Alderman (as Frank Hallowell), Gary Kent, Catherine Howard ● Dir. Gary Graver ● Wri. Richard Stetson

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