I’ve never hitchhiked. And that’s not just because of my common sense. Movies like The Hitcher (1986) and Road Games (1981) made sure I’d be too scared to ever offer my thumb or anything else on the side of the road. While I wouldn’t exactly say the hitchhiking subgenre is popular now, it was something that moviegoers took a ride with throughout the 70s/80s thanks to murder cases around the states, and the dissolving trust in our fellow humans...
...Some, like the above, were frightening examples of the danger in getting picked up. Others, like Hitch Hike to Hell, just restored and released through Arrow Video, were another story entirely.
Hitting the open road in 1983, Hitch Hike to Hell comes from writer John Buckley (Malibu High) and director Irvin Berwick (The Monster of Piedras Blancas). It’s a film that is pure, unfiltered, unwashed sleaze covered in so much grime you’d have to soak in a vat of soap for a day just to get the first layer off of you. That’s not for everyone, but I never mind getting down in the dirt with movies. Following Psycho’s example, Hitch Hike to Hell is the story of a psychopath with mommy issues named Howard (Robert Gribbin). We watch as acts on his depraved, violent urges, leaving a trail of dead hitchhikers along the way. Hitch Hike to Hell is the kind of movie that draws fans of exploitative violence, while leaving everyone else in the dust with a disgusted look on their face.
Opening with a scream over the shot of a dead woman followed by an ironic, upbeat country tune, Hitch Hike to Hell then introduces us to Howard’s daily life, which is essentially making deliveries and hanging out with mom at home. Howard leads a dull existence, both for himself and the audience, and it isn’t long before we witness one of his transgressions from the beginning. Howard picks up one of many soon to be deceased hitchhikers in the film, coming off strange though charming enough (thanks to an exceptional performance from Gribbin), all the way up until she mentions that she’s running away from home. See, Howard’s sister Judy ran away from home, and “hurt” his mother, as he says. Howard isn’t a fan of people running away from their mothers, and the only way he can seem to deal with his sister leaving him is by violently raping and murdering the poor hitchhiker.
Rape. Violence. Murder. Berwick’s film doesn’t shy away from any of it, and even indulges in the depravity of it (no one wears a bra, and many blouses are torn). Those three things are what Hitch Hike to Hell ultimately boils down to. Howard commits sex murders. Captain Shaw (Russel Johnson) and Lt. Davis (Randy Echols) discuss the case with bland, generic cop speak. Howard eats with mommy (Dorothy Bennett). Rinse and repeat. For the most part, the audience is strapped in tight in the passenger seat next to Howard for a firsthand view of all of his sick actions. Which is a good thing too, because outside of Howard, Hitch Hike to Hell is a whole lot of dull, with scenes of Shaw and Davis squeezed in to remind the audience that this film is actually going somewhere. I wish I could talk more about the plot, but there isn’t much of one. Howard has already reached peak madman by the time we meet him, so this isn’t even, at the very least, the psychological descent into madness that you might expect.
That doesn’t stop the film from trying though. Howard encounters more than the pretty stereotypical hitchhiker, also coming across a little girl and a gay man, both of whom test the limits of Howard’s sexual mania and offer two of the more curious, devastatingly real moments. The film’s ultra-dark nature and unblinking eye at the life of a serial killer might remind some of the relentless, horror masterpiece, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, but despite all of that, it lacks the rich, gooey substance that makes Henry so memorable. Gribbin steals the show in Hitch Hike to Hell by about a mile, but he’s no Michael Rooker. The overbearing presence of his mother and her influence—at one point she claims the dead hitchhikers “had it coming” just like her daughter—acts as the barely beating heart of the film, but it’s a relationship that never develops further than what we already know from the beginning.
Inspired by the rise of American distrust, killers like Edmund Kemper, and the application of the newly developed term, “serial killer”, Hitch Hike to Hell works as the shocking, exploitative, twist your lips in disgust or anger sort of movie its meant to be. It can be shocking. Grim. Gruesome. And satisfies that craving for something sinister and downright mean. But when it comes to any amount of suspense or engaging conflict, those elements might as well be a tumbleweed rolling down an empty highway. All of the bad acting, poorly choreographed slapping, and other endearing qualities aren’t enough to suggest taking Hitch Hike to Hell for a drive.
As for the extras on Arrow’s new release, the disc probably should’ve picked up a few more strays along the road, because it’s a bit barebones for my taste. Most disappointing is that there is no feature commentary, which is personally a must when it comes to collector’s discs. The special features also don’t contain much behind the scenes info on the film itself. But that isn’t to say they aren’t worthwhile. Of Monsters and Morality: The Strange Cinema of Irvin Berwick, walks the viewer through Berwick’s career and puts a lens on examples from his earlier work that predicted his later involvement with exploitation flicks, most notably touching on his use of a graphic, severed head in his film The Monster of Piedras Blancas, which was pretty freaking taboo for a black and white film in 1959! My kind of director. Nancy Adam on the Road is an informative history on the career of Nancy Adams, who provided the song “Highway to Hell” for the film, but is a rather bland presentation outside of some fun commentary regarding her first time experiencing the shocking mess. Road to Nowhere: Hitchhiking Culture Goes to Hell is the hot hitchhiker worth slowing down on the road for. Narrated by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, this video essay covers the entire history of hitchhiking films, and how it transformed from something mundane to stories of American terror as we all began to lose trust in one another, referencing classics to pure sleaze and everything in-between. Anything you ever wanted to know about hitchhiking cinema is in this piece.
You can now take Hitch Hike to Hell for a drive, courtesy of Arrow Video.
Full Blu-ray Specs:
Brand new 2K restoration from original film elements
1.33 and 1.78 versions of the feature
High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
Original uncompressed mono audio
Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
Newly-filmed appreciation by Nightmare USA author Stephen Thrower
Road to Nowhere: Hitchhiking Culture Goes to Hell - brand new video essay by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas exploring the dark side of hitch-hiking in the real world and on the screen
Original theatrical trailer
Original press book (BD-ROM Content)
Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by The Twins of Evil
By Matt Konopka