This is one of those quintessential late-night films...by that, I mean the kind one would discover on television back in the days when the network affiliates would play movies in overnight time-slots rather than informercials and reruns of Friends, Seinfeld, or That '70s Show. It's an odd little film that faded from public consciousness soon after its middling theatrical run, takes place mostly at night in the hills above L.A., is set in a cool milieu (illegal drag racing), and has a cast of interesting, though second-tier stars. Since its leading man, the titular "King," Harry Hamlin found fame in the '80s on L.A. Law, even "winning" People's "Sexiest Man Alive" crown in '87, I'm sure this one found plenty of "late show" airplay in the '80s. Later, in college, Rupe and I would watch this sort of thing via ex-rental VHS tapes, but still Noel Nosseck's King of the Mountain eluded me until now.
I caught a VHS rip of the film, which has been completely absent from DVD, possibly due to the inclusion of some popular source tracks by artists such as the Police, Styx, and Robert Palmer, and watched it late at night, thereby somewhat replicating the experience I might have had seeing it on the CBS Late Movie, ABC Late Night, WPIX 11, or WWOR 9. In my head, I can the hear that authoritative network v.o. saying something like, "We now return to King of the Mountain starring Harry Hamlin." Made in 1981, this is a hard PG, reminiscent of the many '70s films that packed in much rough stuff, but still maintained that kid-friendly PG rating. There is plenty of smoking, drinking (including some slugs of Jack Daniels while behind the wheel), some sex (though no nudity), violence, and some nasty language. In short, another film mostly made for adults, but without the requisite amount of "fucks" and nipples to earn an R. The film was produced by mini-major Polygram and distributed by Universal; I believe Universal still retains distribution rights. Its home video in the U.S., in the '80s, was handled by Embassy.
Taking a page from the Saturday Night Fever school of development, H.R. Christian and Leigh Chapman's script is based on a magazine article about a real emerging, local subculture. In the case of King of the Mountain, the article was "Thunder Road" and the magazine was New West (the West Coast sister magazine to New York, where "Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night" was published). The article told of the exploits of a couple of racers in the illicit car racing scene that developed along Mulholland Drive in the '60s and '70s. Harry Hamlin's Steve seems to be an amalgamation of two young drivers profiled in the article (Chris Banning and John Hall) and is the "Tony Manero" of the film. He's the baddest driver on the scene--"the King"--appropriately handsome and cocky, who boasts of being able to drive the 1.8 mile course "blind-folded." Hamlin just isn't as dynamic as Travolta and his inner struggle isn't fully explored enough to make his character arc / transformation all that moving or dramatic, as I'm sure the filmmakers intended. Dennis Hopper is the grizzled vet and former "King," who was driven mad after nearly killing himself on the course 15 years earlier. This is Hopper several years before his career revival (Blue Velvet and Hoosiers) so the story that he took a six-pack and finished it while doing some dangerous driving for pick-up shots is not surprising. In spite of the tolerance of the shaky Hopper's presence on the production, original lead Brad Davis was reportedly fired for his drug problem.
So, the film becomes a sort of fusion of Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, Saturday Night Fever, Rocky, Spetters, Breaking Away, The Idolmaker, Dreamer (also directed by Nosseck), and surely others that I'm not thinking of right now. It's not entirely successful, by any means, but it's an entertaining diversion and certainly not deserving of its current no-DVD obscurity / limbo status. However, reading the New West article, it's clear that the film would have been much better off following its streamlined approach: that is, focusing solely on the racers and their obsessions...their cars, speed, and the road...their environment, and the cops trying to take them down.
"I'll never stop for the police in my car," Chris says. "Not if they're after me with the militia. There are people out there who work for the city who want to get me, but there's no way anybody can catch me in this car. I wouldn't stop if they set up a barricade. If they caught me, they'd impound the car and mess it up. I'd kill myself if anything happened to this car. I love it more than anything."