In the mid 80’s, many suburban folks made the switch from station wagons to vans as the preferred method of family transportation. I remember my father doing all sorts of research before purchasing ours. Now, just a few years earlier van culture was something entirely different. Trust me, our family van wasn’t decked out with a shag carpet interior or vicious animals painted on the side. That’s what we get, though, in this 1977 piece of “vansploitation,” Supervan.
Our story focuses on a young man named Clint (Mark Schneider) who is planning on entering his van, The Sea Witch, in a big event known as The Invitational Freak-Out. While on the road he meets up with a girl named Karen (Katie Saylor) who is being roughed up by some nasty bikers. Sadly the encounter with the bikers also leads to The Sea Witch getting crushed. Lucky for Clint, he has a van designer buddy named Bosley (Tom Kindle) who has been working on a secret project…a futuristic, solar-powered super-van he has dubbed “Vandora.”
Clint and Karen head for the Freak-Out, but it’s not going to be an easy trip. A nasty oil company exec, T.B. Trenton (Morgan Woodward), is out to stop them since, you know, a solar-powered van wouldn’t exactly be good for business. Oh, and did I mention that Karen happens to be his daughter?
What passes for the plot of Supervan is about as thin as they come. Much of the film is devoted to montages depicting the different competitions going on at the Freak-Out. There’s a zig-zag driving contest around a series of cones, a distance contest to see who can make it the furthest up a muddy slope, and a wet T-shirt contest. All these events are given play-by-play courtesy of a wacky DJ for radio station KVAN. These sequences serve primarily as a way to pad out the minuscule story, but these moments aren’t without a certain level of fun. It certainly seems as if much of this film may have been filmed at an actual gathering of van enthusiasts out in the middle of some muddy field. Strangely, amongst the modest crowd viewers can spot poet Charles Bukowski. He features prominently in the wet T-shirt contest scene.
While aspects of the Freak-Out are somewhat interesting in that 70’s time capsule sort of way, the titular “Supervan” is less than spectacular. Sure, it looks kind of cool, but we don’t really get a good picture of what makes it such a revolutionary leap forward for vankind. Short of one scene where the van uses a laser to blast our leading man out of prison, the van doesn’t do much that is terribly impressive. Its primary futuristic features seems to be that it emits a constant beeping sound as it tools down the highway. It’s good that it’s solar-powered and all, but I’ll take an 8-track player over the continuous beeping, thank you very much.
Like the van itself, the human characters are also not terribly interesting. Clint and Karen are downright drab, and it doesn’t take long to stop caring if they ever manage to make it to the Freak-Out. There are a few strange side characters that manage to spice things up a bit, but ultimately most people who would’ve plunked down a few bucks to see this flick weren’t the least bit interested in the human cast. Heck, the last moments before the credits roll are devoted to a montage of the artwork decorating the sides of the vans. Bottom line, Supervan is essentially the cinematic equivalent of going to a car show.