I estimate I saw between 40 and 50 movies for the first time in 2018, and the strangest of them was 1970’s Gas-s-s-s. It’s currently available to watch on Amazon if you have Prime.
Directed by Roger Corman from George Armitage’s first screenplay, it’s a comedy where almost everyone on Earth dies in the first act. That’s a heavy load to lift, but for the first few minutes, it looks doable. The film opens with a crudely drawn cartoon, in which a general and senator hold a press conference in “Coloralaska,” in which they inaugurate the “right wing of the chemical-biological warfare proving grounds” before three unimpressed Inuit.
When the senator goes to smash a bottle of champagne against the building, he is mistakenly handed a bottle of a powerful killing agent, which, as the opening credits roll, is shown sweeping across the whole of the Earth. As the film proper begins, we learn that the gas is lethal to everyone over the age of 25.
The rest of the movie doesn’t live up to that glib darkness, although it never gives up, either. In an early scene, a radio plays the dying words of the president, who is then cut off by the vice president, who apologizes and says he’s the new president now. “You’re sorry,” wheezes the old president.
The good stuff is frequently pushed to the edges in Gas-s-s-s, in no small part because of the interchangeable and unlikeable lead cast of college kids who have accidentally found themselves in charge of the world. Gas-s-s-s is, more or less, a road trip movie, in which leading man Coel (Bob Corff) drives an Edsel across the American southwest, in search of… something.
The Edsel is probably the movie’s best sustained joke. A totem to America’s mistakes, it is nevertheless inexplicably stolen early in the film, forcing Coel into a junkyard shootout with the car thieves. The shootout consists of the lot of them standing around making finger-guns and shouting the names of actors from westerns. It is one of the most baffling things I have ever seen. I fear my complete inability to understand it is a harbinger of what today’s memes will look like to people 50 years from now.
Coel slowly builds up a posse of like-minded youths. An effort at diversity is made, but virtually everything the movie tries to say about race or sexual politics looks like a disaster in 2018. A rare joke that works: An immensely pregnant woman goes into labor, then decides that this just isn’t the right time to have a baby. She spends the rest of the movie pregnant.
Other bizarre highlights include a biker named Edgar Allen, who rides with his raven and his girl, Lenore. Who were these people before the gas killed all the adults? Were they lying in wait, ready to get weird?
Although probably not on purpose, Gas-s-s-s makes a powerful case that the counterculture had no real game plan. Given a clean slate to write on, the young Baby Boomers of the film stick to sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, which comes to feel almost nihilistic. There is literally a scene early on in which a young person steals a hat from a dead elderly person in the street.
In its final moments, the movie absolves its characters of all responsibility. Gas-s-s-s has a dance party ending, the earliest one I’ve seen, coming a full three decades before Shrek. A strangely painted military transport truck, which has been following the Edsel for the entire film, pulls up, and we finally get to see who was in it. As the film concludes, its world turns back into a cartoon. The voice of God – who has a strong Jewish accent – asks Jesus if it’s time to go back to Earth.
“Sure, sure, Pop,” says Jesus. “But this time, you go first.”
“You should live so long,” says God.
Gas-s-s-s currently has a 3.9/10 score on IMDb, which is completely understandable. But what made it watchable – and what keeps it in my mind – is how unpredictable it is. You never know what’s going to happen next.