While On the Air Live with Captain Midnight was released in November of 1979 by Columbia Pictures, the film’s credits end with a copyright year of 1977. Whether this means the film was made in 1977 independently and then later purchased by Columbia for distribution or produced by Columbia and then shelved for two years before its release is unknown. Whichever is the case, On the Air Live with Captain Midnight is the only film discussed here that was distributed by a major studio, Columbia Pictures. And regardless of the circumstances of its production and release, it may come as no surprise that by the time a major studio released a van movie, the craze was all but over.
After accidentally playing a record on the air during his shift at a major radio station, Ziggy (Tracy Sebastian) is fired and has to find a way to keep making his van payments. While his impossibly nerdy friend Gargen (Barry Greenberg) is trying to use a C.B. radio to intrude on an FM radio signal, Ziggy grabs the “mic” and improvises some nonsense that includes the phrase “Captain Midnight” and “Wang Dang Sweet Poontang.” The next day, everyone at school is buzzing about the hottest new thing on the radio: Captain Midnight. Ziggy decides to start a pirate radio station out of the back of his van with Gargen’s help and establishes a small army of assistants to collect paid song requests. The assistants round up the notes and the cash and hand them off to Captain Midnight, who drives around playing the songs and presumably saying other swear words on the radio, although we never actually hear him doing so.
As Captain Midnight grows in popularity, the FCC catches on to him and sends Agent Pierson (John Ireland) to track him down. Gargen uses his electrical wizardry to help evade Pierson, and a local legit radio DJ (Jim Ladd) sends him good vibes and encouragement through the airwaves. As Pierson closes in, though, Ziggy grows tired of the charade and plans a spectacular finale for Captain Midnight: after handing out hundreds of “CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT” t-shirts with his friends, Ziggy will parachute into the middle of Magic Mountain theme park (see also: Van Nuys Blvd.), where Captain Midnight’s rabid fans will tear him apart. After landing, Ziggy sneaks out through the crowd, meets his girlfriend, and leaves the park. Once again, a vansploitation film ends with the lead character’s symbolic destruction of the thing that has come to define him, although in this case it seems like Ziggy will just go back to faking his report cards and taunting Fat Vicky (Claudia De Seca) and being kind of a dick to Gargen.
On the Air Live with Captain Midnight is mostly a film about pirate radio, although the mechanics of how the station work and just where Ziggy is broadcasting are fuzzy at best. How could Ziggy possibly become a radio sensation after spending five seconds on a C.B. radio? Why are high school kids paying him money to play the same stuff they could hear on any other radio station? There are innumerable questions raised during the course of the film, and the only way to deal with it and remain relatively sane is to just let them all go. There is really only one van in the film, but quite a bit of the film’s action takes place inside it, including all of the “Captain Midnight” broadcasts. Early in the film there is a scene where Ziggy is out cruising what appears to be Van Nuys Blvd. in which he picks up a couple of girls and sets the van a-rockin’ while Gargen makes faces at the camera while sitting in the passenger seat. Ziggy’s van is integral to the plot, but other than adding more radio equipment, he doesn’t seem to spend much time on its upkeep or customization. While the van facilitates his transformation into Captain Midnight, Ziggy is ultimately defined by the character he becomes and not the van he drives.
Ziggy is played by Tracy Sebastian, son of co-writer/directors Beverly and Ferd Sebastian. The Sebastians had quite a run in exploitation cinema in the 70s including ‘Gator Bait, and in the 1980s made Rocktober Blood (a heavy-metal horror film) and a sequel to ‘Gator Bait, ‘Gator Bait II: Cajun Justice. While Captain Midnight is Tracy’s only screen credit, it appears he later adopted the pseudonym “Tray Loren” and starred in Rocktober Blood and Gator Bait II as well as the Sebastians’ female wrestling film American Angels: Baptism of Blood (1989). One other particularly notable cast member of On the Air Live with Captain Midnight is Barry Greenberg, who plays Ziggy’s put-upon sidekick Gargen. Greenberg plays Gargen as a cartoonish jester, mugging relentlessly for the camera and delivering some seriously insane line readings. It is not hard to imagine a world where Greenberg could have taken Eddie Deezen’s place as the go-to actor for 80’s films looking for crazy nerds. Unfortunately, On the Air Live with Captain Midnight was Greenberg’s last screen appearance to date.
Recommended Additional Viewing:
While the previously discussed films make up the core of the Vansploitation cycle, there are various other tangentially related films that are well worth seeking out for the dedicated exploitation cinema enthusiast. Listed below are ten features that may not quite fit the definition of Vansploitation, but are of interest to fans of the style for various reasons. Most of these feature vans in prominent roles, even if they are not the focus of the action, while others feature familiar faces from the Vansploitation canon.
- Drive-In (1976, directed by Rod Amateau)
A slice-of-life film about young people in a small Texas town, with a long scene in a rollerskating rink and the last half taking place at the local drive-in. The principal “villain” of the film is a guy with a van and a gang of toughs who hang out with him. No points for guessing what happens to the water bed in the back of his van when he angers his ex-girlfriend.
- Love and the Midnight Auto Supply (1977, directed by James Polakof)
Michael Parks stars in this automotive take on Robin Hood. Duke (Parks) runs the Midnight Auto Supply, where his band of van-driving outlaw mechanics (including Bill Adler of Van Nuys Blvd.) steal cars and parts from the rich and become involved in a plan to give half their take to a group of local farmers. Watch for a young Colleen Camp.
- Citizen’s Band (aka Handle with Care) (1977, directed by Jonathan Demme)
An early feature by Jonathan Demme (and featuring cinematography by Jordan Cronenweth), Citizen’s Band follows parallel storylines of characters whose lives are partially defined by their relationship to C.B. radio. Starring Paul Le Mat, Charles Napier, and Candy Clark, Citizen’s Band does not feature any vans to speak of, but is an interesting relic of the C.B. radio craze.
- Malibu Beach (1978, directed by Robert J. Rosenthal)
Bill Adler makes an appearance as a “Vanner” in this entry from Crown International Pictures. Other familiar faces include Jim Kester (The Van and Van Nuys Blvd.), Steve Oliver reprising the role of “Dugan” from The Van, and Tarah Stromeier (“Wanda” from Van Nuys Blvd.) in a supporting role. Mostly this is about teens hanging out at the titular beach, but it’s worth a look if only to learn the truth about the miserable life Dugan presumably lived off-screen in The Van. It sort of explains an awful lot about why he’s such a horrible jackass.
- Corvette Summer (1978, directed by Matthew Robbins)
Mark Hamill’s infamous follow-up to Star Wars was this goofy road trip following high schooler Kenneth W. Dantley, Jr. (Hamill) as he tracks the stolen custom Corvette he worked on in auto shop class to Las Vegas. Annie Potts made her feature film debut as Vanessa, a young hooker with a heart of gold working out of her custom van, which features a water bed (apparently a very popular feature in custom vans).
- Killer’s Delight (aka The Dark Ride, 1978, directed by Jeremy Hoenack)
Perhaps the closest thing there is to a “van horror” movie, director Jeremy Hoenack’s nasty thriller was inspired by serial killer Ted Bundy. Bundy’s fictional counterpart in the film drives around an unassuming yellow van, which is the stage for some scenes of unsettling violence that queasily punctuate what is otherwise a TV-movie level “true crime” story. Featuring a cameo by George “Buck” Flower, father of Verkina Flower (“Donna” in Mag Wheels), and starring John Karlen (Dark Shadows, Harry Kümel’s Daughters of Darkness) as the killer.
- Texas Detour (1978, directed by Howard Avedis)
There’s a van in the first few minutes of Texas Detour, but then it gets stolen, and the rest of the film is pretty much van-less until it reappears near the start of the third act to help the protagonists make a daring escape from the tiny Texas town in which they are stranded. Cameron Mitchell is a villainous ranch owner, and Priscilla Barnes plays his daughter. Director Howard Avedis (The Stepmother) brings his typical hyper-melodramatic style to the table.
- Smokey and the Hotwire Gang (1979, directed by Anthony Cardoza)
George Barris plays a supporting role as a Vanner whose van is stolen and used in an armored car robbery in this seriously incompetent action/comedy/chase/C.B. movie directed by Anthony Cardoza. If Cardoza’s name sounds familiar, it’s most likely from his acting in such b-movie classics as Ed Wood’s Night of the Ghouls and Coleman Francis’s The Beast of Yucca Flats.
- Midnight Madness (1980, directed by Michael Nankin and David Wechter)
Rival groups of college kids (nerds, jocks, etc.) play an overnight scavenger hunt masterminded by “Game Master” Leon. David Naughton leads one group that comes to include his neglected younger brother (Michael J. Fox in his feature film debut). Stephen Furst (Animal House) leads the villains out of his custom van, which features a huge computer console.
- Pinball Summer (aka Pick-Up Summer) (1981, directed by George Mihalka)
Director George Mihalka is probably best known for the slasher classic My Bloody Valentine, but his first feature film was this bizarre teen sex comedy. The “hero” of the film drives a van that gets a fair amount of screen time, but the focus is on the antics of small-town teenagers running wild over Summer break. There is a distinctly Canadian sense of humor at work here, giving Pinball Summer a unique flavor.