Blu-ray Review: HITCH HIKE TO HELL

1977 psycho thriller packs a cheap, shocking punch

Director Irvin Berwick (MALIBU HIGH) may not have made many movies in his day, but – as we all know – quality trumps quantity and his 1977 exploitation psychodrama shocker HITCH HIKE TO HELL is not only his best work, it’s one of the weirdest and most potent pictures of its kind, and that’s saying something considering the company the movie kept during that most sensational era of “passion pit” drive-in potboilers. And really, “quality” is a subjective term. By conventional standards, the shoestring-budgeted HITCH HIKE TO HELL isn’t a particularly well produced work. But man, does it pack a disorienting, primal punch.

The film tells the tawdry tale of Howard (Robert Gribbin), a dry-cleaning delivery driver who is seemingly happy, upbeat and well-liked by all. Certainly the wayward women hitchhikers he picks up dig his company. He’s kind and a good listener. But the problem is, when said runaway ladies start taking trash about their domestic lives – specifically griping about their mothers – Howard starts to get dark. Then, he gets darker. Within minutes, Jekyll become Hyde and Howard drives his poor passengers to a remote locale, yanks them screaming out of his van and beats and savagely rapes them before brutally murdering them. And then it repeats.

Indeed, the wearisome, oppressive central mechanics of violent male aggression and feminine victimhood are well-worn in the annals of exploitation and Berwick does not shy away from the horror of Howard’s attacks. But what elevates the film and makes it so interesting is the director’s dedication to sticking with his lead character, following him as he goes about his day, as his crimes affect his fragile employment situation at the dry cleaners (and really, this is the picture of this kind I can think of that features an antagonist who trades in pressed trousers and steamed blouses) and most importantly, his unhealthy relationship with his mother. Again, the latter device is exhaustingly familiar and pre-dates PSYCHO, the movie that most mad-male-murderer pictures tend to crib from. But here, in HITCH HIKE TO HELL, Howard’s festering obsession with protecting his mother – and the very notion of motherhood – stems from his sister, who we’re told has broken his mother’s heart and abandoned the family. We don’t get much deeper into the issues that caused Howard’s sibling to depart, but whatever it was, the effect of her absence has acerbated whatever serious mental illness Howard already has. In fact, Berwick smartly leaves it vague enough to suggest that Howard himself may have played some sort of part in his sister’s problems. Whatever they might have been…

But HITCH HIKE TO HELL doesn’t solely stick with Howard’s transgressions. The sociopath’s reign of violence and violation is tempered by a police investigation into the crimes and – unlike many of these running-time padding sub-plots that weave into exploitation cinema – the cops aren’t idiots, reacting with sensitivity and outrage at the crimes and refusing to relent tracking their quarry. It helps that the lead detective is played by the great Russell Johnson (ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS, IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE, key episodes of THE TWILIGHT ZONE and, of course, GILLIGAN’S ISLAND), here much older and wearier, which helps add emotional weight to the character when he faces the grisly aftermaths of Howard’s killing sprees. And in regards to said sprees, Berwick is unsparing, introducing younger girls (and in one instance, young male) victims to Howard’s dry cleaning van of death, offering a vague hope that maybe the more innocent passengers might be spared. But no, as soon as any disparaging words on motherhood are uttered, it’s game over. They all die. Their bodies dumped in the crudest and most careless of places…

HITCH HIKE TO HELL was distributed by the great grindhouse huckster distributor Harry Novak, who no doubt felt its filthy charms fit right in with other releases from his Boxoffice International Pictures imprint like TOYS ARE NOT FOR CHILDREN and AXE, movies that similarly offered kinky come-ons and cheap, lurid thrills with injections of surprising cinematic sophistication. But – as with most of his pictures – the Novak ad campaign for HITCH HIKE TO HELL was ludicrously misleading, making the movie seem like a fun Crown International hot-chicks-and-cars caper, the diametric opposite of what it actually is. Arrow Video’s recent Blu-ray release offers that colorful and striking poster art on the reverse of its sleeve,  which is fantastic as the erroneous advertising of movies of this ilk are essential components of their legacies. But it’s a shame HITCH HIKE TO HELL wasn’t handled better back in 1977 as it’s a tight, intelligent and ruthless little thriller, with a dynamite lead turn by Gribbin, a haunting country-tinted theme song warbled by Nancy Adams and style to spare. It’s yet another piece of ’70s indie-American -shock that needs to be rediscovered and appreciated for the artful work of finely-tuned trash it is.