Hitch Hike to Hell
directed by Irvin Berwick
starring Robert Gribbin, Russell Johnson
In 1990 Joe Bob Briggs released a short-lived VHS series “The Sleaziest Movies in the History of the World”. The films were mostly H.G. Lewis and Doris Wishman movies, but had the series continued Irvin Berwick’s Hitch Hike to Hell would have been an easy choice for inclusion. The early to mid 1970s vans and hitch hiking were weirdly prominent in youth culture that was reflected in and influenced by music, TV, and movies. Naturally anything the kids are into must become a source of moral outrage and dire warnings of doom from the older generation so depictions of thumbing rides turned dark, and few hitching movies were as affably grim as Hitch Hike to Hell.
Howard Martin (Robert Gribbin) follows a long cinematic tradition of homicidal, simpleton mama’s boys, intent on punishing young women for their moral shortcomings. He give a credible if wildly over the top performance in this film. Howard is a nice guy always willing to give a girl a lift, unless she says she’s a runaway who hates her mother. Those words are turn Howie into a deranged psycho. Howie rapes and murders a number of hitchhikers, often with a wire hanger, after which he has no memory of his deeds. He does have a sense that he has done something untoward as he suffers from headaches, night terrors, and an unhealthy root beer addiction. Things spiral so badly out of control even his mother can’t put things right and Howard’s killing spree continues unabated.
Director Irvin Berwick had a long, mostly anonymous career behind the scenes in Hollywood and managed to make a small number of horror and exploitation movies as well as being the creator of educational and industrial training films. It is fitting that Hitch Hike to Hell functions largely as a educational warning film to impress the dangers of hitch-hiking that you might be shown in a church youth group or driver’s ed class, but with rape, nudity, and gore thrown in to keep it interesting. The film has some definite Ed Wood style on screen frugality as the dry cleaners, police station, and one crime scene all appear to use the same white cinder block building for exterior shots. There is a murder scene early on where you can actually see bugs crawling on the actress’s nude body.
Despite the film’s notable technical shortcomings the acting is surprisingly good for this kind of joint, especially from Robert Gribbin and Russell Johnson. Johnson, the Professor from Gilligan’s Island adds a touch of class to the proceedings, and at times it feels like he’s in an entirely different movie, while Gribbin plays such a cheery, clean cut mama’s boy (when he isn’t raping a murdering young women) there must be a parallel universe where he starred in Richard Donner’s Superman the Movie.
Arrow has remastered the film in 2k from some rough looking elements. This is not a film to show off your home theater, but it is watchable and the super grainy picture actually adds to the grimy atmosphere of the film. Arrow has included 1.33 and 1.78 aspect ratios. I don’t know which version was preferred by the director, but the 1.33 feels less cramped.
The on-camera interview, Of Monsters and Morality: The Strange Cinema of Irvin Berwick, genre film historian Stephen Thrower (Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci) does a deep dive on the career of director Irvin Berwick. Thrower covers Berwick’s colorful career as a mercenary film maker who was as comfortable shooting porn as he was shooting Southern Baptist inspirational features. Berwick and his wife had a production company making educational films and Thrower posits that Berwick’s approach to the social issue educational films overlapped with the rape & murder exploitation in Hitch Hike to Hell, helping to create the film’s singularly off kilter vibe. As is so often the case with maverick film directors, the stories behind the scenes are more interesting than the film they made. According to Stephen Thrower, Berwick was teaching a college course on low budget filmmaking at the time of the production of Hitch Hike to Hell and drafted his students into the cast (and presumably crew) for his film resulting in a number of one credit IMDB cast pages.
Australian author Alexandra Heller-Nicholas (Found Footage Horror Films: Fear and the Appearance of Reality) explores the history and culture of hitch hiking in the movies, especially the films where thumbing a ride has dire consequences. She touches on true crime cases including the Ivan Milat “Backpacker Murders” in Australia and the likely inspiration for Hitch Hike to Hell, the unsolved “Santa Rosa Hitchhiker Murders”. Heller-Nicholas explores the tropes of hitch-hiking films from film noir, horror, and exploitation films and TV. Clocking in at around 20 minutes the piece feels really short and certainly leaves you wanting more, and you’ll need a rewatch to jot down the titles of some of the more obscure films covered.
Nancy Adams on the Road is an on camera interview with Nancy Adams. Adams, who sings the the film’s theme song, recalls her colorful career beginning with cutting her first record at Les Paul’s house, doing jingles for Newport cigarettes, and working on Disney’s Robin Hood (1973), including attending the Oscars watching Johnny Whittaker and Jodie Foster singing her song “Love” at the awards show.
Arrow rounds out the package with a full color booklet featuring an essay by film writer Heather Drain (The Bizarro Encyclopedia of Film Volume 1). Drain not only places the film into cultural context, she examines distributor Harry Novak’s marketing and digs deep into the grime to expound on the film’s whiff of incest and the nihilism of the film that enables it to get so dark that even innocent 11 year old girls who are escaping a terrifying home life are not sparred.