Tom Phillips (Dana Andrews) was looking forward to Christmas when he was driving back home to meet his family, but it didn't work out that way. A heavy fog settled over the area, and the traffic suffered as a result, so when he met with a drunk driver it didn't end up too well for him, in fact he landed in hospital with an injured back. Not only that, as his previous confidence disappeared while he recuperated, leaving him reluctant to do anything very much, working or spending time with anybody aside from his wife Peg (Jeanne Crain), teenage daughter Tina (Laurie Mock) plus youngest son Jamie (Jeffrey Byron). However, his brother visited him with a proposal: how about they buy a motel out in the Californian desert?
A what in the where now? Apparently this is the sure thing to cure Tom's blues, never mind a psychiatrist who could talk him through his stress, nope, what he needs is to be a manager of a business whose custom will either be the occasional overnight driver or a not so salubrious punter. So which do you think he and his family encounter when they finally head off to see the property? The clue's in the title in a television movie that was judged too sensational for the small screen and released to drive-ins instead. And then broadcast on television soon after anyway, but that was to this production's benefit as it generated a degree of interest in cult movie enthusiasts it might not otherwise have done.
Needless to say, Hot Rods to Hell looked fairly over the top at the time, and now it looks fairly ridiculous, though not without entertainment value. It was arriving at a point when if it had been made a couple of years later the tables would have turned and the Phillips family may well have been the bad guys trying to stop the wild kids' fun; bloodshed would have been the result. There's not much of the claret here, but there is plenty of action if your idea of action is witnessing hot rods driving up and down the same stretch of highway at a speed limit challenging rate, though Tom - a "square" in the view of Duke (Paul Bertoya) and his gang of scallywags who include a pre-giallo, considerably revved up Mimsy Farmer - is there to do more than simply tut-tut at the antics of the youngsters.
Nope, he and his brood are there to be terrorised, and there are intriguing elements to take away from the movie as well as titters at how silly it often appeared. Tom didn't really do anything wrong when he was picked on by Duke and company, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, so this escalates from the thugs bullying the Phillips for no reason to them actively seeking a reason to justify their actions. What they choose is that Tom is to take over the local motel, which they assume he will make respectable which is the last thing they want since that is their hangout, a place where current owner Lank Dailey (George Ives) likes to cater for the younger patron (we even see him dancing with them) to the strains of the Mickey Rooney Jr combo.
That the youths are exactly right, the resolutely middle-aged Tom will put a stop to the shenanigans, would make him the villain in any other era to follow, but in this case you have to admit that this was not a film for the kids, it was designed to put the wind up, then reassure, the older generation. Jeanne Crain's expressions of melodramatic panic are a source of humour for many these days, but they would be wholly sympathised with by the straightlaced folks watching this on the box that it was intended for; the closest twenty-first century equivalent from Britain would be the fearmongering Eden Lake, it was part of the same purpose to decry the wayward youth and bolster the powers of those in charge. We see a granite-faced cop (Paul Genge) pop up every so often to tell off anyone potentially breaking the law (notably a Sunday driver who should know better sending picnickers flying at an oasis of a holiday spot), but it takes Tom's newfound resolve to restore the peace and send the hotrodders away meekly. Probably did his back wonders as well. Music by Fred Karger.