Director: Irv Berwick
Screenplay: John Buckley
Starring: Robert Gribbin, Russell Johnson, John Harmon
BBFC Certification: 18
Exploitation cinema can often be a fun, if grimy, subculture to explore. It can be hard to pin down exactly what defines an exploitation film, but they are generally considered to be stories that focus their narrative on current trends or fears to get bums on seats and often do so in a lurid or nasty fashion. Hitchhike To Hell is one such late 70’s exploitation film which sets its sights primarily on the subjects of vulnerable hitch hikers and serial killers, but also has a bingo cards worth of tropes to tick off. This review contains some spoilers!
From the first scene we’re introduced to Howard, a seemingly mild mannered delivery driver who has a penchant for picking up young female hitch hikers. This on it’s own should set the alarm bells ringing, but when Howard questions these (often) dumb teenagers and discovers that they’re running away from home and have no love for their families, he promptly flips into psychopath mode, finds a secluded corner of woodland and rapes and murders them. Yes, Howard is a serial killer, albeit an unwitting one.
As if that collection of exploitation classics wasn’t enough, it’s also revealed early on that Howard has mental health problems which contributes to his split personality. He’s clearly somewhat simple, relying on his overbearing and bigotted mother to care for him and it’s her views that tarnish his personality to the point that he’s committing violent acts. Throw some copsploitation and a dash of blaxploitation into the mix and Hitchhike To Hell sounds, on paper, like a kind of mad, fun night in. Except it isn’t.
No, Hitchhike To Hell is, instead, an incredibly slow and boring film. After the initial attack the plot meanders around a handful of locations, with Howard going about his day job as a delivery boy for the local dry cleaners, being coddled by his mother, picking up other unwitting victims, and an insight into the local cops who just can’t seem to get a lead on the case of the homicidal maniac that’s slaughtering teenagers in their small town. It’s dull, repetitive, largely uneventful, mostly badly acted and flat.
I say mostly badly acted, as there are some halfway decent performances on display here. Robert Gribbin as Howard is pretty good value, flipping easily between his simple but kindly persona and his violent homicidal one. This performance comes a cropper thanks to the script, however, and his “momma’s boy” act only ends up turning him into a Poundland Norman Bates. As well as Gribbin, Russell Johnson and John Harmon are also clearly the more professional of the actors present, delivering solid and watchable performances as the weary local police chief and Howards boss respectively.
The performances on the whole are, however, rather horrid ranging from stilted to overwrought to “reading off cue cards” and coupled with the flat cinematography and weirdly jangly soundtrack have the unintended consequence of injecting comedy into the film. Behold, a scene where the cops ring the house of a missing girls parents who are so neglectful that the father can’t even be bothered to pick up the phone ringing next to his head! Hear the wakka wakka guitar theme that plays when the cops are running to the scene of a crime! See a sequence made up almost entirely of panning shots of a car going past! It’s honestly hard not to laugh.
Saying that an exploitation film hasn’t aged well on the cusp of 2020 is almost like saying that the sky is blue, but this is particularly so for Hitchhike To Hell. As well as many of the aforementioned tropes, particularly the demonisation of Howard’s disability with him labelled a “nut”, there are a bunch of other moments that simply leave a bad taste in the mouth. Take, for example, the random gay man that minces his way uninvited into Howards van, all effeminate and aloof, points out that he’s “different from other people” and is promptly murdered with only the slightest hint that he might not like his parents (which is pretty much Howard’s trigger) or the “oh no, they won’t go there, oh they will” where Howard does his thing to a 13 year old girl. After all of this, there’s really no major pay off or lesson; the cops just kind of stumble onto Howard and arrest him. It’s a weak and boring pay off for a weak and boring film and there are far better ways that you can spend 84 minutes of your life.
- 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
- FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Heather Drain
Unfortunately Arrow’s bundle for Hitchhike to Hell is as much of a let down as the film itself. The 2K restoration is chock full of grain and negative damage, while the two versions of the film are simply the full frame original print and a cropped 1.78 version. The two included mini-documentaries are interesting; I’ve seen Stephen Thrower talk about exploitation cinema on other documentaries and he’s as engaging here as he is anywhere else, but the included trailer and “music video” of the theme song (yes, the film has a theme song!) feel very much like padding. Early copies come with a collectors booklet which we didn’t get a chance to look at.