If you are a fan of Netflix’s excellent series Mindhunter, then you may feel a sense of familiarity with Howard (Robert Gribbin), the mild-mannered, psychotic killer from Irvin Berwick’s 1983 film Hitch Hike to Hell. He has a fair resemblance to Ed Kemper, one of the real life serial killers featured on Mindhunter. Kemper, a very large and very intelligent man, picked up eight hitchhiking college coeds in the early ‘70s then raped, mutilated, and murdered them. He sometimes blames his abusive mother for his turn to violence. In 1973, he killed his mom, cut off her head, and threw darts at it.
Howard has some similar mommy issues, but instead of feeling anger towards an awful mother, she is kind and he is filled with love for her. His anger is directed at anybody else who happens to not like their own mothers. There is some nonsense about his sister running away which devastated his mother, causing him to go on a murder spree, but we aren’t given any details and it's dropped pretty quickly. What we're left with is a man who is perfectly pleasant to everybody until he hears you say a disparaging word about your mom, then it's a strangling with a coat hanger.
Here’s the plot: Howard drives around in a laundering service delivery van picking up hitchhikers. If they mention any negative feelings towards their mother, he rapes and kills them. If they like their mother, he forgets about the murdering and takes them to wherever they are going. The killings cause black-outs and he returns to the job disheveled and confused. The boss (John Harmon) yells at him for being late on his deliveries (murdering hitchhikers on the job will wreak all sorts of havoc on the schedule). He comes home where his mother tries to make him eat but all he wants is a root beer (murder also makes one lose your appetite, don’t ya know?)
Rinse. Repeat. Rinse Repeat. The film goes through these exact motions a good four times, which is about two too many. There is nothing new to be gained from each killing. They aren’t even that exciting or titillating or violent. Howard pushes the girls (or guy as the case may be) down, rips off their shirts so the boys (or girls as the case may be) can get a little excitement, then he sort-of dry humps them (this film's version of rape) then strangles them in the most unrealistic way possible (presumably, it is difficult to make on-screen strangulation look real without a budget and without actually strangling the actors).
We are only spared from this tedium by the ridiculously inept attempts at capturing him by the local cops. Despite the fact that multiple murders are being committed in a short amount of time, there are only two police on the case, and they seem to spend most of their time at headquarters shaking their heads at the horror of it all. Despite the fact that the killer is clearly picking up hitchhikers every day, they never once think to warn the public or at the very least put some patrol cars out near the hitching spots. The closest they come is picking up one girl with her thumb out, call her folks (who want nothing to do with her), then give her a stern lecture before dropping her off out of town on a secluded road.
The Captain is played by the Professor from Gilligan’s Island (Russell Johnson) and it is nice to see he was still getting work after the show was canceled, even if it is in this sort-of drek. My favorite bit with him, and the whole movie really, is when they find some glasses on the scene of the crime and he has his guy send it to Washington to see if they can identify the prints. The guy comes back complaining that the Feds are gonna take their sweet time with it, that it will “take a while” for them to get back to him. Not five minutes later, he has the results and gives the captain a “that took less time than I thought” quip. It makes no sense plot-wise and it is a wonder why they even filmed that bit of dialogue. It is a wonder why anyone thought this whole film was worthwhile.
Oh, God, this movie is terrible. If you are of a certain age you may remember those old educational films they used to show in school (Do they still show them? Are kids still being subjected to god-awful films about marijuana, STDs, and gruesome car crashes?). Hitch Hike to Hell has a similar vibe to it. It is clearly a message film (don’t hitchhike, kids, or some guy will rape and murder you!) with the same kind of budget as an educational film and the same poor production values. If ever a film needed a good editor (or at least a competent one), this is it. So many scenes meander on for far too long. Two characters will talk, moving the plot along, and then as if the director thought you can’t end a scene once the pertinent plot points have been espoused, there will be long pauses where maybe the characters chat in the most inane way for a couple of minutes before the scene ends. Too many times to count we see Howard’s van just driving around, or backing up, or just sitting there. Maybe they left all that in because if they didn’t their film would be about 45 minutes in length.
The acting is terrible, the script nonsensical, and the direction just barely passable. If that wasn’t bad enough there’s even a lousy country song sung over the opening credits (and yes, they do manage to get "hitch hike to Hell" into the lyrics.). I am an abashed bad-film lover. I’ve enjoyed watching stupid movies for as long as I can remember. This film is making me rethink my whole outlook. While watching it, I kept thinking about all the actual good movies I could be watching. Instead of wasting an hour and a half of my life on this crap, I thought, I could be enriching my life with one of the great films on the Criterion Channel, or one of the many movies that are topping this year’s best-of lists. Or a Marvel movie. Or any other freaking thing besides this atrocity.
Arrow Video has given Hitch Hike to Hell with a new 2K restoration from the original film elements. But rest assured, friends, were you thinking the one bright spot in this monstrosity was that it would at least look good, you would be wrong. Cleaned up it may be, but there are still loads of scratches and debris to be found within. Arrow normally does a great job with this, so I’m gonna guess the original elements were just trashed beyond belief. It does come in two different aspect ratios (1.33 and 1.78) so that’s something different. Extras include a new video essay by Stephen Thrower and a "better than the actual movie" video essay by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas that explores hitchhiking in the movies. There are also the usual trailers, and collector’s booklet with pictures and an essay on the film.