Challenge (1974)


Challenge (1974)- * *

 Directed by: Martin Beck

 Starring: Earl Owensby and William Hicks

John Frank "Frank" Challenge (Owensby) is a man from North Carolina who is running for the state Senate. You'd think with a name like that, he couldn't possibly lose. When Challenge comes across some paperwork that puts in writing the evil deeds of the local Dixie Mafia, led by one W.F. Gutherie (Hicks), the baddies decide Challenge is challenging their existence a bit too much, so - without any spoilers - they do some bad stuff that makes Frank Challenge mad. You do not want to make Frank Challenge mad. So, naturally, he makes it his mission in life to take down Gutherie and the other baddies that ruined his life. Will he succeed, or will the CHALLENGE be too great?

Earl Owensby was an independent movie producer from Shelby, North Carolina. He had his own studio and production facilities there, and he produced movies in an array of genres, though perhaps he is best known for his horror output such as Wolfman (1979), A Day of Judgment (1981), and Dogs of Hell (1983), among others. Challenge was his first producing effort, and he also stars.

It all begins with a personal note from Owensby, informing us of his intentions to make a PG-rated action film devoid of sex, nudity, bad language, and excessive violence. But we watched the movie anyway. In all seriousness, this may have been based on his religious convictions (although he never explicitly says so) and we appreciate the effort. And that's what Challenge, and other regional productions are all about - effort.

Challenge comfortably fits into the "Country-Fried Justice" films of the 70's and 80's, and is perfect for the drive-ins of the day. There are countless examples, but one of our favorites is Black Oak Conspiracy (1977). But back to Challenge, it all begins with a well-shot intro that sets the scene perfectly. Later, J.F. Challenge is described as a "ruggedly handsome ex-Marine". Some things never change - the hero is always an ex-something. And speaking of things that never change, the guy that sells out Challenge to "The Syndicate" is a little weasel from the media.

While Challenge overall has a nice, rough-hewn charm, it does fall prey to some of the, well, challenges of low-budget independent filmmaking. Many scenes are underlit or the sound is so muffled you can't understand what anyone is saying. There are significant pacing issues, like a lot of 70's movies. For example, there is an unbelievably long car chase, but, to be fair, that was the order of the day after Bullitt (1968) and The French Connection (1971). Owensby and the gang were just going for their own version, but, much as we hate to say it, there are many times when the film drags. And not as in racing.

But there is the other side of the coin when it comes to the strong 70's vibe - there are Karate classes, beat-em-ups, gigantic cars, and 70's styles and hair galore. So that's all good, and perhaps some of the guys doing roundhouse kicks had never done roundhouse kicks before? It was nice to enter a world where middle-aged men's idea of Martial Arts training was sitting around drinking Lone Star beer while wearing plaid, flared pants.

Shot in and around Shelby and Asheville, North Carolina, Challenge represents low-budget, independent filmmaking in the wake of Billy Jack (1971) and Walking Tall (1973). It has a lot of charm, but flaws are evident as well, and, unfortunately, those cannot be swept under the rug. It did come out on VHS in an explosive, irresistible big box, and it features an end credits song, "The Ballad of Challenge", by Tommy Faile, which namechecks characters and plot points in the song. We do love when that happens.

In the end, your appreciation for Challenge will all depend on how much you love, and are willing to forgive the shortcomings of, regional cinema.

Comeuppance Review by: Brett and Ty 

1 comment:

Stunt Fan said...

Ah, man, Earl Owensby. His movies are really hard to come across, especially now that his website's gone offline. I hope he's doing alright.

Being a '70s/'80s car chase movie nut, I've been searching high and low for two of his movies: "Death Driver" (1977), which is about a stunt driver, which I did manage to find, and "Hit the Road Running" (1983), which was more or less a "Smokey and the Bandit" rip-off (and was filmed in 3-D!). That one, I simply cannot find. It's like a ghost.

As for the car chase in "Challenge"... yeah, a bit tedious. At least, the cars are pretty cool, and the driving is quite good. There's a YouTube upload that calls it "the longest car chase ever". Not true at all: "Gone in 60 Seconds" came out the same year, and was famous for having a car chase that was 40 minutes long. And you guys can attest to that, having seen it cut-and-pasted into "The Big Sweat". ;)