Color, 1981, 90 mins. 40 secs.
Directed by Noel Nosseck
Harry Hamlin, Joseph Bologna, Deborah Van Valkenburgh, Dennis Hopper, Dan Haggerty, Joseph Bottoms, Richard Cox, Seymour Cassel
Scorpion Releasing (Blu-ray and DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
Few films can encapsulate early '80s L.A. quite as well as King of the Mountain, a onetime cable TV and VHS staple that's largely fallen by the wayside for the past couple of decades. Heavily publicized upon its 1981 release complete with a tie-in paperback and a vinyl push for the main song "Dangerous Strangers," the film got a lukewarm reception but has grown in significance as the first real mainstream look at street racing, later the foundation for the Fast and the Furious series. It also sports a fascinating cast of character actors seemingly handpicked for cult value, resulting in a compelling character study and a snapshot of an era long gone.
By night, car repairman Steve (Hamlin) rules as the King of the Mountain, the reigning champ of a group of illegal street racers tearing up and down Mulholland Drive overlooking the Valley. His trademark Porsche 356 is his pride and joy, but his lifestyle seems to be waning with best friends and fellow racers Buddy (Bottoms) and Roger (Cox) moving into the record business. That avenue crosses Steve's path with fledgling singer Tina (The Warriors' Van Valkenburgh), who might be enough to coax Steve away from his dangerous pastime. The racing scene also has its share of casualties including Cal (Hopper), the onetime champ sent into a spiral by a disastrous crash. As Steve approaches a crossroads in his life, a major, life-changing race still looms in his future.
Though there's nothing particularly novel about the slim storyline here, King of the Mountain makes up for it as a character study in stunted adolescence that seems even more relevant today. The impressive roster of actors helps with welcome faces popping up throughout like Seymour Cassel (as a very L.A. producer) and Dan Haggerty at the height of his Grizzly Adams period (plus a briefly seen pre-Elvira Cassandra Peterson), all mixed into some fantastic footage of early '80s L.A. by day and night. The street racing scenes don't take up as much running time as you might expect but are well executed when they arrive; the film is just as centered on the idea of friends aging into different phases of their life a la Big Wednesday, albeit shot through here with that glittery nocturnal style like the same year's Thief and the later Thief of Hearts.
The rights history behind King of the Mountain has been a little odd to follow since it hit theaters from Universal as part of a deal to release films by PolyGram Pictures, which had just been founded in 1980 and would score a big hit in '81 with An American Werewolf in London. A 1983 VHS from Embassy was everywhere in mom and pop stores around the U.S. for most of the decade, but then the film completely disappeared for over three decades as the PolyGram library bounced all over the place (including still-AWOL titles like The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper and Six Weeks). A streaming option eventually turned up from Universal, but the film didn't hit Blu-ray and DVD until 2021 with a special edition from Scorpion Releasing in both formats. The transfer here looks great, maintaining the original grain structure quite nicely (especially in those pivotal night scenes) and really sparkling during outdoor driving scenes. The DTS-HD MA English 2.0 mono track faithfully captures the original mix (too bad PolyGram didn't spring to do this one in stereo back in the day), with optional English SDH subtitles provided. In a new video interview with Hamlin (10m31s), the always articulate star talks about getting the role just as he was expecting a baby with Ursula Andress and working for PolyGram during its early days. Then a second featurettes has director Noel Nosseck (12m46s) explaining how his experience in documentaries prepped him for narrative features starting with Best Friends and how he tackled an initial script that seemed to be unacceptable, with the film being sold in Japan even before it was made thanks to the presence of Hopper (who was in a "strange place" at the time). A theatrical trailer and TV spot are also included, plus bonus trailers for The Greek Tycoon, The Dogs of War, and Trick Baby.
Reviewed on April 3, 2021.