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Thrills! Nausea! Bad acting!
AS memorable adolescent experiences go, viewing one of the California Highway Patrol's "Red Asphalt" films ranks right up there with your first kiss or having your parents come home early to find a kegger in full swing. For generations, the lights have dimmed, the screen has flickered, and like young Alex in Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange," the state's youngest drivers have been compelled to watch this strange and enduring rite of passage.
"Red Asphalt" — the title says it all — is the flip side of California's carefree car culture. Intended to scare the bejabbers out of fresh-faced and obliviously immortal teen drivers, the original film and its four remakes are horror shows of vehicular ultraviolence mostly filmed by camera-ready cops called to accident scenes along the state's roads. The gruesome road-splatter films have become sociological touchstones for many drivers, and even may be among the most-viewed movie titles ever to come out of California.
"What you're about to see is not going to entertain you," warns the host of "Red Asphalt III," whose no-nonsense introduction is typical of the films in the series. "There are scenes of human suffering and death in stark reality. We did not enjoy making this film, and we don't expect you to enjoy watching it."
Thus welcomed, you're off on a joyless ride of grim highway fatality statistics, hectoring commentary about driving safely and bona fide hurl-your-cookies gore. View these films one after the other and you're likely to come away with three unforgettable impressions:
Driving at more than 10 mph is a seriously bad idea.
Anyone who ever lobbied against seat belts and air bags as standard equipment should be arrested, tried and executed, ideally all in the same day.
Not even George Romero has come close to replicating the sight and sound of human viscera being hand-scooped off damp pavement and into a plastic bag.
Perhaps it's hard to believe that such films weren't a California invention. That honor goes to Ohio, which in 1959 released "Signal 30," a no-budget 16-millimeter movie that features some of the worst acting ever committed to celluloid, comically wooden dialogue and a musical soundtrack so melodramatic that Boris Karloff really should have had the starring role. Without it or its spawn — "Mechanized Death" and "Wheels of Tragedy" — "Red Asphalt" might never have been filmed.
"Frankly, we were trying to give California its own version of the Ohio film," recalls Kent Milton, 78, who was doing media relations for the CHP in the early 1960s when work began on the original "Red Asphalt." "We wanted our own brand name on it to help promote the CHP."
Tastes change, of course, and to remain real and relevant to each new generation, "Red Asphalt" has gone through a series of remakes. No matter how riveting the accident-scene footage, a mashed lead-sled from the late 1950s will have less effect on today's teens than seeing a Nissan Maxima like theirs wrapped around a tree.
Plus, the CHP has learned a few cinematic tricks from Hollywood over the years. Early examples of the genre were screechy, preachy variations of the now-kitschy "Reefer Madness" governmental scare flick. "Signal 30," for instance, opens with the sounds of a crash, followed by a text crawl that belongs in the Museum of Turgid Prose:
"This is not a Hollywood movie as can be readily seen. The quality is below their standards. However
nothing has been staged. These are actual scenes taken immediately after the accidents occurred. Also, unlike Hollywood, our actors are paid nothing. Most of the actors in these movies are bad actors and received top billing only on a tombstone. They paid a terrific price to be in these movies, they paid with their lives."
Back then, the images were just as unsophisticated as the narration. Accident-scene footage showed harshly lighted people standing around gawking at all forms of debris as if watching a peep show. Later versions incorporated scenes of rescue efforts to save the movies' unfortunate stars, reflecting the evolution of emergency techniques and equipment.
By "Red Asphalt III," the CHP was interspersing carnage clips with interviews featuring accident investigators and commentary from actor Scott De Venney (who reacts with head-shaking "How do you people live with yourselves?" contempt) and a uniformed CHP officer. Unfortunately, the studio set of "Asphalt III" revolves around a couple of ancient, boxy Apple Macintosh computers, which now look hopelessly dated.
The fourth version, released in 1998, included interviews with victims' families and friends to add emotional power to the shock value. That version also represented a cinematic leap in terms of music, lighting and camera work.
"Red Asphalt V," which came out last year, features what a CHP spokesman called a "Matt Damon-type" actor who delivers the introduction and litany of statistics wearing layered shirts, jeans and a reasonably cool haircut. The makers of "Asphalt V" have borrowed from cinéma vérité to employ audiotape of a 911 emergency call and graveside testimonials. Its opening sequence might make Brian De Palma proud: A road flare is struck and hisses to life, followed by a suspenseful nighttime tracking shot in which the beam of a flashlight plays first across roadside vegetation, then finds the first hints of automotive debris, and finally illuminates a bloody victim trapped inside the metal crumple that once was a car.
But the question remains: Do these films actually shape or change driving habits?
Maury Hannigan believes they do. Hannigan, former CHP commissioner who oversaw production of "Asphalt III" and current vice president of public safety solutions for ACS Inc., an international computer-services company, argues that fear is a great motivator when it comes to behavior modification. There's nothing quite like the sight of once-vital young bodies broken open or bent into improbable angles to "get the brain cells working," he said.
"When you get into an automobile, there's this sense of independence, that you're not vulnerable to the outside world, that this steel capsule is going to protect you," Hannigan said. "But people don't understand the kinetic energy that's involved in a collision at 30, 40, 50 miles per hour."
"There's reality TV, and then there's this," agreed Tom Marshall, a spokesman for the CHP in Sacramento. "Does it make you change your driving habits forever? No. But if it can get kids to focus on it for the first month or two [that they're driving], it has done its job."
Martin J. Smith is a senior editor at West magazine and the author of "Oops: 20 Life Lessons From the Fiascoes That Shaped America."