Hitch Hike To Hell : A Quiet, Sleepy Taboo Breaker

Posted: May 19, 2009 in movies
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"Hitch Hike To Hell" Title Sequece

"Hitch Hike To Hell" Title Sequence

Sure, there are the films we all know about that are famous—or infamous—for obliterating the boundaries of taste and decency and going where even the most jaded audiences didn’t think they really would. The late sixties to early eighties offered a veritable smorgasbord of such movies to choose from, and while we as a society have purportedly become more sophisticated and less prone to good old-fashioned shock, the fact remains that to the average modern viewer, taboo-smashers like “Cannibal Holocaust,” “I Spit On Your Grave,” “The Last House On The Left” and “Bloodsucking Freaks,” to name just a few, still haven’t lost any of their visceral power and on first viewing can still quite literally knock you flat on your ass even though we’ve been inundated with sadistic torture porn-lite of the “Saw”  variety for years now.

Most of the films that are considered to be the “most shocking” ever made are the stuff of semi-whispered legend (okay, until the days of the internet, now you can find raging debate and discussion on just about anything and whispers are few and far between), but the film under the TFG microscope today goes where even the flicks I mentioned a moment ago, and just about any others you’d care to add to the list, don’t.  And the damndest thing about it is—until about the last 15 minutes you sure never would expect it to.

“Hitch Hike To Hell” is another “never take a ride from a stranger” story from exploitation king Harry Novak’s Box Office International Pictures, directed by B-movie vet Irv Berwick (you may remember his son Wayne from our earlier review of “Microwave Massacre”—and the junior Berwick also worked as the sound man on this film) in 1967.  Like a lot of marginal cinematic product, it has a spotty distribution and release history. It sat around until 1970 when it finally got a limited release at the drive-in, then sat around some more until 1977 when it finally got a full nationwide release , at which point the whole thing probably looked pretty dated since 10 years is, generally speaking,  enough time for a “contemporary” piece to look anachronistic, but probably not quite long enough for it to look charming and/or nostalgic.

"Hitch Hike To Hell"'s Howard, the eternal mama's boy

"Hitch Hike To Hell"'s Howard, the eternal mama's boy

In any case, after a rather delightfully cheesy opening theme tune sung by some lady trying her level best to do a solid impression of Tammy Wynette, we’re introduced to Howard (we never get his last name), a typical B-movie mama’s boy closet psychopath played in deliriously OTT style by Robert Gribbin. Howard drives a delivery fan for a dry cleaner and his job takes him all over town. This being the late 60s, he naturally happens upon quite a few hitch hikers. Howard’s not averse to offering them rides, but depending on how you answer a few questions, you may or may not make it out of his van alive.

Howard likes to know if his passengers are running away from home or if they just need a lift. He also likes to know whether or not they love their mothers. Answer either, or both, questions incorrectly, and Howard take a wire coat hanger and wraps it around your throat.

Our guy Howard, you see, has always been a good boy. He lives at home with his doting mother even though he looks to be about 30 years old. She pampers him with root beer and home cooking and he does his part by being nice to his mom and spending his spare time in his bedroom working on model cars instead of going out and tearing it up or, heaven forbid, trying to get himself a girlfriend.

His sister Judy, on the other hand, apparently was a bit of a troublemaker. She ran away from home not too long ago and broke their mother’s heart. Evidently mom is not a “forgive and forget” type, because when stories start appearing on the news about young female hitch hikers turning up raped and murdered (Howard’s handiwork, unbeknownst to his mother), she says that while she sometimes wonders if that’s what happened to Judy, if it did it would only serve her right since she had it coming to her.

"What? You don't like your mom's cooking?"

"What? You don't like your mom's cooking?"

Howard has taken his mom’s disappointment pretty personally, evidently, because he now figures that the best way to “do her a favor” is to kill any hitch hiking girls he meets who are running away from home and don’t love their mothers sufficiently. And so our bloodbath is underway.

Only it isn’t. “Hitch Hike To Hell” is a pretty bloodless affair, all in all, and for a “psycho on the loose” movie, the body count stays pretty low (five, by my count).  In addition, even though the victims are all raped according to the news reports, Berwick never shows any of the sexual violence too graphically—he might show half a naked breast while Howard strangles one of his victims, but that’s about it.  That’s what makes the final act so shocking (even though it, too, is bloodless)—but more on that in a minute.

Howard is also a pretty dumb criminal, it must be said. He leaves the bodies of his victims on the roadside without even trying to hide them, and he’s prone to doing stupid stuff like losing his glasses at crime scenes. Not exactly an evil mastermind. He doesn’t remember his crimes too clearly afterwards, apart from the occasional flashback, but honestly, if you were as half-assed a serial killer as Howard is, you probably wouldn’t want to remember the details just out of sheer embarrassment at your incompetence.

Still, as dimwitted as Howard is, he’s an absolute genius compared to his boss at work, Mr. Baldwin, who keeps chewing Howard out for being late with his deliveries, and not even being able to offer good excuses as to why, but keeps giving him one chance after another even though he’s practically begging to be fired, and the cops, led by one Captain Shaw (played by Russell Johnson—yes, The Professor from “Gilligan’s Island”), who know the killer uses a wire coat hanger, has a van or other large vehicle, and even find a pair of his glasses—but still can’t manage to catch him until the last victim turns up with a Baldwin Cleaners delivery clutched in her dead hand!

And speaking of that last victim—Howard sticks with killing runaway girls in their upper teenage years until about an hour into the movie, when a flamboyant gay guy literally invites himself into his van while he’s taking a lunch break and, of course,  talks about how much he hates the crummy little town, his family, and especially his mom. Needless to say, the next we see of him is when The Profess—err, Captain Shaw and his partner respond to a call and find his body in a ditch. So Howard apparently will stray a bit from his MO—but just how much? Apparently quite a bit.

Little Lisa is just 11 years old and her mom and dad argue like crazy. It breaks her heart and of course, she figures the only solution is to run away from home and go live with her grandma. From the moment Lisa turns up on screen, we know she’s doomed. The only reason you introduce a character like this well over an hour into the film and show her home disastrous home life is to set the stage for her running away and meeting up with Howard, and he’s not the type to have a sudden crisis of conscience.

Okay, we don’t actually see Howard strangle her. There’s no mention of him raping her. But from the moment she tells him she’s running away, you get a sinking feeling in your gut—not one of “my God, he’s not going to, is he?,” but one of “Oh, geez, he’s really gonna do this.”  Again, no on-screen violence here, but when Captain Shaw responds to a tip and opens up a dumpster in an alley and finds her body —which they do show for a moment —you really do feel dirty just for watching this thing.  Showing a dead child on-screen is a line very few films have crossed, and to have it happen at the tail end of what is, in every other respect, a pretty tepid little “psycho-in-a-van” flick that has for the most part eschewed anything too grim or graphic—well, it tends to throw you for a loop, to say the least. The fact that it’s the friggin’ Professor from “Gilligan’s Island” who finds the body gives the scene an added frisson of the surreal, as well.

So there you have it — “Hitch Hike To Hell.” Perhaps the most understated—and certainly the most unexpected—taboo-buster in the annals of exploitation cinema.  It may not leave the strongest impression for the most part, but it definitely leaves a stain.

"Hitch Hike To Hell" DVD from Something Weird Video

"Hitch Hike To Hell" DVD from Something Weird Video

“Hitch Hike To Hell” is available on DVD on a double bill along with “Kidnapped Coed” from Something Weird Video. As with all the SWV Special Edition releases, it’s loaded with a generous serving of extras including anti-hitch hiking PSA films, a tour of Harry Novak’s office, previews of related titles, a cool gallery of exploitation movie one-sheets and press books, and more.

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