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Roller Skating: Not Just for Porn Stars
by Angela Mac

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Somehow it's fitting that Roller Cinema began with a cross eyed man...

Somehow it's fitting that Roller Cinema began with a cross eyed man...
Roller Skater #1: "What's goin' on over at Jammer's?"
Roller Whiz: "All right, now here's the deal we got two goons and a twerpy guy with a six hundred dollar suit on and they want Jammer to sign the contract, or they'll torch the place. They don't even care if we're in there or not!"
Roller Skater #1: "Hey look, what about Sgt. Danner? That guy's always been straight with the boardwalk scene, right?"
Roller Whiz: "No cop's gonna arrest a guy with a six hundred dollar suit on! And even if they did, there wouldn't be enough left of the rink to fill a shoebox."
Roller Skater #2: "But what about the Boogie Contest?!"

Yes, what about the Boogie Contest?
It goes on of course. See, that's the magic of wearing roller skates: slap on eight wheels and shimmer tights, and anything can happen! Overdressed goons, saltpetre-laced drugs, and even quasi-evil, corporate water-mongers are a mere pebble on the pavement to a hot roller skating mama (or daddy, as it were).

It seems the very first roller renegade to grace cinema was a police-thwarting hobo on wheels. The cross-eyed wonder of silent film, Ben Turpin, merged skating and slapstick in the 1907 entry AN AWFUL SKATE or THE HOBO ON ROLLERS. It would be years, however, before Hollywood and the poorly funded, festering cochels of Hollywood truly seized upon the notion of mixing "awful" with "skating." In the meantime, roller skating on film was delegated to pleasant spice status, and everyone from the lovely legged Betty Grable (PIN UP GIRL) to Popeye (A DATE TO SKATE) joined in.

Though Grable doled out some fab moves, it is Gene Kelly's skating number in IT'S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER that captures the memory. A sequel to the Kelly/Sinatra smash ON THE TOWN, we find the three sailors of the former film meeting up again, ten years later. Against a depressing backdrop of friends whom time has separated, seeing Kelly break out into dance, making cumbersome metal skates transcend into a dancer's perfect compliment, along sidewalks and across a street, was especially whimsical. Bonus points for the curb-skipping wink to SINGIN' IN THE RAIN.

The early Sixties, apparently, were far too busy letting Bette Davis torture Joan Crawford, and James Caan torture Olivia de Havilland for anyone to bother putting on skates.

Then God created Roller Derby.

The "happy people on skates" formula, like so much Bromo Seltzer and green food coloring, foamed up out of its box, seeping into other genres.

1971 kicked off with a documentary devoted to a factory worker with great, big, swingin' low, Roller Derby dreams. DERBY looks great, however is as currently unavailable as the bobby eluding hobo. However, one can find 1972's UNHOLY ROLLERS on VHS (also: RUDE DOG: LEADER OF THE PACK, though, uh... wow UNHOLY ROLLERS is such the superior title). In the grind house academy of life, lessons are never culled easily -- and if Roger Corman is the producer, there's no free lunch program, either. Starring Playboy Playmate, and B vixen, Claudia Jennings, ROLLERS explores the pitfalls of instant celebrity. The film also bears the distinction of being the only roller skating film to feature a snarly mob of Derby girls pinning their captain to a pool table and forcibly stripping her, ala an exploitation prison film but gee, roller skating cinema could certainly use more of that.

Just as skating was dredging to a
If only all the Roller movies had scenes like this.

If only all the Roller movies had scenes like this.
seedy, violent finish, something strange happened... people began wearing sequins, and dancing in lines (... and not just on the dance floor).

Gotta Dance!

I'm hardly a mathematician, but if there is one lesson to be gleaned from the late 70's/early 80's roller skating genre it is this: Roller Skating is fun. Add some music to the roller skating, though, and it's even more fun.

Thing about UNHOLY ROLLERS, when one has rollicking Derby footage, and an ooglesome rollerbabe like Jennings helming the ship, both dialogue and acting can be a forgivably dirty brand of cheese (though UNHOLY's scribe, Howard R. Cohen did score a written wonder with a later offering, SATURDAY THE 14TH). However, the same cannot be said of pairing roller disco with Linda Blair.

Some people might argue that ROLLER BOOGIE is dated. I suppose that could be a valid point... if Americans, en masse were gorging themselves on qualudes in 1979. From horrific, trite dialogue to howlingly terrible staging, BOOGIE heralded in the dreadful notion that people would watch chicks on wheels, even without nudity.

They were right.

It's a must see.

If only so the next time a person mentions that PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE received the Worst Film Ever Made award, you can get your Irish riled, too.

Roller skating cinema fans seem to split over whether BOOGIE outskates its successor, the trippy, sing-a-long XANADU.
I can only assume this split was powered by a certifiable laziness to study global warming, or the pending extinction of the American polar bear, coupled with an incessant need to argue about something. Really, ROLLER BOOGIE begins with photographic evidence of why real men do not wear hot-shorts, while we see one grooving skater along the boardwalk become many otherwise involved, potential skaters summarily drop their lip-locking, spinning in dizzying circles and skate-shaking handstands to join in on the impromptu, pseudo-conga.

XANADU had a nearly equally terrible opening, with 9 muses springing to life from a painting... and then dancing, and dancing, within outrageously cheesy, drawn-in neon forms, for what seemed like ten minutes. The first minute or two were actually well done, but such is the bane of XANADU good scenes gone far, far too long. However, Olivia Newton-John's stellar voice could've made icebergs part and spared the Titanic... and XANADU had Gene Kelly. No contest.

Of all the scenes in all the skating films, Kelly soft-shoeing with Newton-John is my favorite. While sitting in a chair, listening to an old big band album featuring the voice of a lost love, Kelly imagines the past merging with present on the sprawling wooden floor behind him. A slow fade-in of the band, and the lovely lady at the edge of the floor within moments, she's back at his side, as if time had never parted them.

It's tough, seeing Kelly as an old man yet, sitting front row to the Bruce Lee of dance (in that Kelly mixed tap with ballet, with acrobatics, ballroom, jazz and more), only to witness that at age sixty-eight, he still had it. Beneath the dignified wrinkles and smaller movements, the extraordinary Gene Kelly of auld, who could leap through the air, float on his feet and win the lady over with a song, could still be spied.

Sure, XANADU requires more than a bit of forward button play, but during every
If I wore roller skates, I'd probably be seeing glowing orbs, too.

If I wore roller skates, I'd probably be seeing glowing orbs, too.
misstep is something brilliantly done. Why everything was peppered with roller skates is something of a quandary.

There's another title that would surely throw a dark horse in the running, in the whole XANADU/ROLLER BOOGIE argument, that being, SKATETOWN, U.S.A. Here's what I know: Scott Baio is in lead, with Flip Wilson in tow and amid the disco roller skating is a first-time Patrick Swayze (whose character is "Ace Johnson"). Why is this film out of print? Released in 1979, it was billed as "The Rock and Roller Disco Movie of the Year!" Penciled in, just below "Visit the Galapagos Islands" is "Watch SKATETOWN, U.S.A" on my personal bucket list.

The End is Nigh

I can't roller skate. So, to me, roller skating films are just as escapist as films where an assassin falls in love with his target, or there's a group of friends who can fly. Part of the difficulty I foresee with strapping wheels to my feet is the potential of broken bones I would suffer due to the rocks, uneven ground, dogs, and meteor crators in my path.

Such obstacles are never the case in roller skating movies. It's not just the disco rinks that are kept in stellar shape even post-apocalyptic settings are free of clutter! While burned out chunks of metal sour the landscape, and the sun burns down unrelentingly, roads remain intact and clean swept. Thank goodness, too, because I, for one, would hate to have seen anything bloody happen to Jason Patric's lovely man-gams.

Perhaps it was just maturity setting in, but the 80's skating film scene was captured by the idea of society's mortality. SOLARBABIES, in addition to featuring the first teaming of THE LOST BOYS darlings Jason Patric and Jamie Gertz , has that addicting world-gone-to-hell feel of fringe 80's films, rife with shoestring budget effects and a soundtrack by Queen. The dobermen guard dogs running around with spotlight helmets and painted cardboard-looking armor, is almost as good a budget stretching tactic as strapping handsome youths into rollerblades and doing forced perspective rather than costly wire work.

Whether a muse, or an orphaned boy in the future, people don't just wander around in roller skates. So, if one is going to grab a camera and toss reality to the wind, do let it be with Bruce Payne hamming it up, and Terrence Mann looking positively edible in a loincloth. For all these reasons, SOLARBABIES takes the roller crown.

In a quasi-TANK GIRL future where precious water is rationed out by an evil corporation, a band of skating orphans happen upon a mysterious energy sphere. The sphere is stolen, by a freshly blossomed, long-haired Adrian Pasdar, prompting the orphans to pull up stake and go after the kindly little globe.

Preposterous as the plot may be, there is a palpable difference in delivery of it. Most notably, unlike its skating predecessors, no one in SOLARBABIES seemed to think the very fact they were being filmed would make for a good movie from Gertz to James LeGros and Peter DeLuise, the kids threw themselves into their roles, starving to get as much punch for their screen time as they could. When watching, one can't help but get caught up in the fervor.

Which is a hell of a lot more than I can say for 1989's entry, ROLLERBLADE WARRIORS: TAKEN BY FORCE. Not yet on DVD, this no-budget foray into skating during Armageddon was shown during the heyday of USA's UP ALL NIGHT. So bad it's good. The plot synopsis off IMDB
How badass is this patch from SublimeStitching.com?

How badass is this patch from SublimeStitching.com?
says it all: "In the future, a warrior nun on roller skates must rescue a seer, who is to be sacrificed by a band of mutants."

BRIDE OF THE RE-ANIMATOR alumnus, Kathleen Kinmont rolls her scantily clad body through the assaults of an inept band of cretins (which includes Michael Sonye of SURF NAZIS MUST DIE fame). Just thinking about evil cackle laughter from the bad guys makes me miss UP ALL NIGHT all over again.

The last entry in post-apocalyptic skating is the Corey Haim flop PRAYER OF THE ROLLERBOYS. I'd slated it on Netflix in preparation for this column, but got cold feet. A hashed together, sometimes nonsensical plot, with a teen mouthpiece for the Nazi-inspired, anti-establishment movement (though, technically, there was no establishment), a somewhat disturbing (in its length) sex scene between Haim and Patricia Arquette, can't really say ROLLERBOYS had much going for it. Yet, I loved it when I was a kid. Perhaps there was something wrong with me perhaps there still is, but I don't care. Going to keep my memory pristine.

Really, the good thing one can say for ROLLERBOYS is, damn, they could skate a key trait overlooked by the more recent roller skating entry, ROLL BOUNCE.

If ROLLER BOOGIE had an urban setting, and Linda Blair was Bow Wow, and instead of thugs wanting to shut the rink down, there was an elite band of enemy, synchronized skaters... you would have ROLL BOUNCE. Since I'm in an award bestowing mood today, let's christen ROLL BOUNCE with the title of, "Most Hilarious Dance Scene in a Roller Skating Movie." Allow me to set the scene: The evil skating group has just parlayed a phenomenal display of rink prowess. Flipping, spinning you name it! Bow Wow's troupe of skaters is hellbent on showing those uptown "how it's done."

The underdogs take the rink, their jaws set, and wheels ready.

... and they break into a conga line, shaking right leg out, then left, in unison.

Only, it's not supposed to be funny.

Interestingly enough, it is this scene which came to mind when fellow columnist Zombieboy recently divulged his roller skating ability to me. Seriously, go look at his photo picture THAT face throwing down a should-be talent proving conga on skates.

Since this column isn't being hammered out by some jet setting socialite, I'll admit to adding the conga scene to a clip tape of scenes to watch for instant laughter the Kelly XANADU scene, however, is on a totally different clip tape.

In closing the disturbing dream that is the roller skating genre, one final crown must be tossed in. The "Best Song to Ever Appear in a Roller Skating Film" goes to CANNIBAL ROLLERBABES title sequence, "People Eating People" by Cadillac Bill and the Creeping Bent. By no means am I suggesting anyone should run out and rent CANNIBAL ROLLERBABES it is only for the most hardcore, B cinema fan, who is willing to like a film simply because it has Batman art flashes of "Bite!" "Slash!" "EAT!"

So, while the roads contained within roller skating films might be free of debris, the same cannot be said of watching the films. Given the nearly hundred years of roller skating cinematic tradition, though, there's got to be a masterpiece at some point. It's just too bad Kelly isn't around to be a part of it.

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Every other Saturday

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Other Columns
Other columns by Angela Mac:

Big Screen, Little People

Fetish Lovers Unlock Secret Joy in Film

Not Just for Chewing: Aluminum Foil in Film

How Much is that Actor in the Window?

Time Travels for the Resolution Impaired

All Columns

Angela Mac
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