I’m a big fan of 70s-era sexploitation movies, but there be bad and good, as the pirates (and Ray Bradbury) say.
As The Van opens, we meet redheaded twerp Bobby and his pal Jack on graduation day. After pranking their high school principal in a gag that could’ve resulted in a broken hip for the old man, Bobby and Jack smoke a joint behind the gym, then hit the road in Bobby’s crappy convertible. Clad in his white shirt and black tie, Bobby looks like he just got kicked out of The Knack, but he seems to be amused by some private joke and won’t tell Jack what he’s so happy about.
Our heroes pull up next to a customized van parked outside a pizza joint and take a moment to ogle Sally (sexploitation regular Connie Lisa Marie, a.k.a. Connie Hoffman), the foxy mama in the van’s passenger seat who suggestively slurps an ice cream cone.
Bobby dreams of getting it on with Sally “just once, it would satisfy me for a whole year!” Unfortunately, even though Sally appears to be interested in the scrawny ginger lad, her musclehead boyfriend Dugan appears, sporting tattoos and an awesome BMX T-shirt. He challenges Bobby to a drag race, but Bobby forgets to put the car in gear, losing instantly.
Afterwards, Bobby and Jack run across more 70s babes, saucy-and-braless Sue and her uptight friend Tina. Sue digs Jack but Tina wants nothing to do with Bobby. To her horror, she discovers that Sue has arranged a double-date with the young men for that evening.
Continuing on their way, Bobby and Jack approach Jack’s car, which for some reason is parked about 17 miles away from school and is about to be towed. Bobby unceremoniously dumps his pal and heads off to his job at the car wash, which is run by Danny DeVito, who currently has his tiny head stuck under the dashboard of an old lady’s car. Wacky antics ensue as we discover that DeVito is running a bookmaking operation on the side, and Bobby has a volatile relationship with his co-workers. When Tina arrives to have her car washed, Bobby tells the fellas that he’s got a hot date with her. In response, the merry pranksters run Bobby’s convertible through the car wash with the top down, and Bobby goes in after it, getting his coveralls ripped off to reveal his sexy blue undies — all in plain view of Tina, of course, doing nothing to brighten her opinion of Bobby.
Bobby’s got an ace up his sleeve, though: after work he heads to the car dealership, where he drops his college fund for the down payment on a supercool customized van — and this thing is insanely flamboyant: everything slathered in white fur, a mirrored ceiling, waterbed, spoiler, fridge, even a toaster and the all-important 8-track tape player. Everything a teenager needs to score, right?
Delirious with joy over his new wheels, Bobby swings by work to show off the van to his chums. Making a peace offering, he laces some gigantic bottles of beer with castor oil and gives ’em to the guys. Then, ever the court jester, Bobby throws the restroom key in the trash. Bobby heads out and before long, everyone is on the verge of crapping their pants.
Bobby hits the pizza joint we saw earlier, where Dugan and Sally are hanging out. He tries to put the make on Sally but her hands are tied as long as her bruiser of a boyfriend is around. Not one to be crushed by a little disappointment, Bobby approaches another chick, saying “Hey beautiful — you into studs?” This seemingly flawless come-on doesn’t work, so he hits on a girl at the pinball machine by asking if she’s “into vans.” She’s intrigued when he points out his custom ride, so he asks if she’d like to share a joint on the waterbed.
It’s at this point we learn our “hero” is really a borderline rapist: as he and the girl get high, he starts grabbing her boobs. “Hands off the tits!” she hollers, but Bobby isn’t prone to take no for an answer and he continues mauling her chest. “Quit pawin’ me!” the chick yarps, to which Bobby replies “I’m not pawin’ you, I’m lovin’ you!” This is supposed to be a funny line, but as moments like this continue to pile up throughout its running time, The Van feels more and more like a love letter to domestic abuse and just gets creepier and creepier.
It doesn’t get any better as Bobby and Jack, cruising in the van, stumble across Sue and Tina. Jack hops into the car with Sue and Tina is forced to ride with Bobby. The plan is to meet up at the beach, but as the night wears on and Tina gets more and more fed up with fending off Bobby’s advances, he tells her Sue and Tina won’t be meeting them. When Tina freaks out, Bobby says she can sleep in the van. She asks if she can trust him and he says “I know how you women get at night” and grabs at her.
By this time I was hoping Tina would beat Bobby to death with a tire iron, but instead, she sleeps in the van with the little creep, who somehow manages to keep his hands to himself. The next morning, Tina wanders off to answer the call of nature, and Bobby sees Jack and Sue pull up. Springing into action, Bobby jams an 8-track of female moans into the player, then starts rocking the van. Jack and Sue don’t bother knockin’ and take off.
The movie becomes even more twisted as Bobby bangs Sally, but finds that he’s developed an obsessive love for Tina. Worse yet, she feels the same way about him, despite his endless creepy actions. Eventually things swirl towards the unpleasant conclusion after Bobby loans his car payment to Danny DeVito so he can pay off some sharks, then has to agree to race Dugan for the money.
I’m no marriage counselor, but every relationship on display in this flick is at the very least a mess and at worst, horrifying. The whole romance between Bobby and Tina is just flat-out disturbing — but then again, every interaction Bobby has with a woman is skin-crawlingly weird, and to be honest, the movie is almost worth watching if you take it as a prelude to the life of a serial killer.
The Van is definitely a lesser entry in the sexploitation genre, but if you dig the 70s cars (and the 70s foxes), I’d say take a stab at struggling through it. You won’t get a lot out of it but you’ll sure know how to treat the ladies!
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