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 Thread Rating: 22 votes, 4.95 average.
Old 04-11-2005, 01:22 AM
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Default Hitchhiker, The: Volume 2




Reviewer: Rhett
Review Date: April 10, 2005

Released by: Warner Brothers
Release date: 4/12/2005
MSRP: $24.98
Region 1, NTSC
Full Screen 1.33:1



inline ImageHBO was founded in 1972, and its creation is important in the rise of cable television as a competing venue for showcasing film and video entertainment. Although they were around throughout the seventies (mostly releasing pay per view boxing matches and events), they didn’t care a real niche until the mid-eighties when they started producing their own shows. One of their first and most popular shows, The Hitchhiker was created in 1983 and would run eight years before being eclipsed by another HBO anthology series, Tales From the Crypt. With its wandering, wisdom-spouting drifter of the title (Page Fletcher), its who’s-who cast of stars, and its adult subject matter, The Hitchhiker was able to leave quite the mark in its day. It is making its mark again, but this time on DVD, with Warner Brothers packaging the most beloved episodes into best-of DVD packs. The first volume was released last year, and now we find ourselves with Volume 2. Buckle up, and let’s take The Hitchhiker for a ride.


The Story

inline Image O.D. Feelin’ kicks off this release, and it is a little oddity. Set in the future (actually Vancouver), the story follows a cocaine-like white substance. Left behind in a deal gone bad, the mysterious white package changes hands from a streetwise rat (Sandra Bernhard) all the way to a corporate bigwig, Mr. Big (Gene Simmons). Upon opening the substance however, Mr. Big finds a surprise akin to his namesake.

The observation that “everyone wants to get to the top” is hammered home rather repeatedly, and the story is predictable and tame, yet it is not without its charms. The story structure is unique in that almost every human character gets killed off, making the lead character the actual cocaine package. Also unique is the choice to have Sandra Bernhard play her role as a male(?), complete with masculine dubbed audio. It’s not deep by any means, but the pulsing new wave music keeps the whole thing moving nicely. Passable.


inline Image True Believer is much more substantial, and quite the little segment. It involves a gruff detective, Frank Sheen (Tom Skerrit), whom, after the death of his daughter and a subsequent breakup with his wife, is facing a bit of a spiritual dilemma. Things are accentuated when he is forced to investigate the suicide of a priest in an abandoned convent. The more he investigates the murder, the more surreal things become, until the convent becomes a pod for him to live out his dreams and, as it turns out, nightmares.

Directed with a fierce style by Carl Schenkel, who utilizes atmospheric Panaflex camerawork throughout, the film has a very accomplished and creepy visual look. Skerrit’s performance has considerable weight despite the short format of the show, and the material he is given is actually quite compelling. Without a religion to ground him in reality, Sheen has only his memories to reflect on, and the longer he spends in purgatory, the darker those memories become. Very effective.


inline Image Perfect Order plays upon the old adage of all artists, the desire to achieve immortality through their work. Steve Inwood plays an avant garde photographer who enjoys capturing images of masochism in its most unrehearsed form. He pretends to open fire on a large audience merely to capture their shocked reaction, and in doing so is branded a genius by all around him. Amazed by his talents, Virginia Madsen, an up-and-coming model, throws herself at him in hopes of becoming a celebrity. He promises her he will make her famous, but little does she know that he plans to do so by making her death tabloid fodder for years to come.

Candyman fans will enjoy seeing Virginia Madsen and her shameless breast baring throughout this episode, and should be quick to note that the similarities between Perfect Order and Candyman are not merely in Madsen’s presence. She shares a seductive repartee with Inwood in the same way she did with Tony Todd in Candyman, and in the surreal way their liaisons took them into morbid parallel dimensions in Candyman happens again in Perfect Order. Characters are pretty shallow, relying on the clichés of the crazed artist and the do-anything-for-fame model, but the subject matter is twisted enough to warrant consideration afterwards. The climax is wholly memorable, with a post-modern irony in showing the director capturing his own death on screen. It’s no Candyman, but it is entertaining all the same.


inline Image Cabin Fever, unlike the previous three episodes, keeps things much more grounded in reality. It’s a clever play upon the sexual tension that occurs when a young man is invited on a trip with a married couple, and naturally passion erupts between the young man and the wife, much to the chagrin of the husband. It is Polanski’s Knife in the Water, but with a twist. The young man, Rick (Michael Woods) is a gigolo, and Miranda (Kurt Russell’s ex, Season Hubley) hires him on for a little cabin work. The alcoholic husband, Cameron (LA Law’s Jerry Orbach), is suspicious from the get-go, but he too has a little fooling to pass around. The tension between the three boils over, and it all becomes a matter of who is playing who.

Jerry Orbach has a natch for playing those self-confident aged men, and he has a good time playing off the mysteriousness of his character. Woods is comparably one-note, but the episode does his character well, with a final bout of irony that’s good for a gratifying smirk. In making Orbach’s character an over-the-hill horror director, the writers open the story up to some nice horror in-jokes and witticisms. We get to see an I Drink Your Blood-inspired poster for the mock-film House of Cadavers, and Orbach has fun spouting off a metaphoric little horror tale to get Rick’s blood going. It is a lot simpler than the other episodes, but it has a classy quality reminiscent of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Premature Burial.


inline Image A Whole New You is the male variant to Virginia Madsen’s “be careful what you wish for” parable in Perfect Order. This time we follow wanted man, Augie Benson (Elliot Gould), as he secretly makes his way through a French hotel. He is spotted however, and nearly gunned down in the process, but manages to beat down the culprit’s head while yelling his catch phrase, “nobody burns Augie Benson!” Fearing for his life, and sensing that the French are not doing a good enough job protecting it, Augie signs up for a radical form of plastic surgery that will alter his entire physical make-up. We know from Cronenberg movies that this sort of thing never goes off without a hitch, and before long Augie Benson becomes the Whole New You of the title.


Made when the series was winding down in 1990, this is a definite step down from the other episodes in terms of quality. The short 22 minute runtime (as opposed to the series’ norm 28 minutes) makes it tough to really flesh out a story line, and as a result the ending seems rushed and does not tie the story up like it should. Gould, always fun to watch, really chews the scenery, and his character is such a whiny prick that it becomes tiresome having to follow him the whole way through the story. The camera work looks much cheaper than usual for The Hitchhiker series, and everything reeks of contracting budgets and a drought of ideas. Much could have been made of the theme of castrating hyper-masculinity, since Gould’s character is an alpha male that certainly has it coming, but again, nothing reaches synthesis at the end. Despite Gould’s spirited performance, A Whole New You is a whole new low for the series.


inline Image Dead Heat is an even more similar reworking of Perfect Order, this time again focusing on the crazed artist archetype. Luther (Fred Ward) is an abusive husband who seeks to capture death and destruction in his art pieces. So morbid is he, that he has a sculpting of his wife (Denise Galick) burned and placed in a coffin in his work loft. Despite her attempts to leave, Luther keeps dragging her back. Things get complicated when an attractive drifter happens upon their farm, and Luther offers him money to model for his pictures. Little does the drifter know that Luther has morbid plans behind his generous offer. Luther’s wife has equally ambitious motives however, as both husband and wife pull at this drifter to get him to do what they want. Things heat up, but in the end it spells murder.

Definitely the most erotic of the batch, Dead Heat features quite the steamy love scene. The married couple is developed well, with Ward and Galick creating empathetic characters, enough to charge the love scene with more than just provocative imagery. Ward plays a convincing madman, and is exciting without ever quite going over the top. The ending is very similar to that of Perfect Order, but the crazed artist is a fun enough concept to reap rewards after multiple viewings. It is just a good, solid episode.


inline Image The Curse returns to the supernatural, following Jerry (Harry Hamlin), a rich businessman who is forced to make a life-altering choice when an accident happens in one of his apartments. He owns a dilapidated old apartment in the projects, and after the stair railing there breaks, an old man is nearly killed. Jerry goes there to investigate his property, and meets a mystifying old African woman (Beah Richards), who mystically pets her pet serpent. There and then Jerry makes a promise to restore the old apartment to a livable order, much to the old lady’s pleasure. His greed gets in the way however, when he goes against his word to build the beach house he’s always wanted. The choice has unwanted consequences however, when Jerry wakes up to find a snake tattoo forming on his leg. The longer he ignores his promise, the bigger the snake tattoo becomes, until eventually Jerry must make a choice before the temptations of the snake consume him.

Directed by acclaimed filmmaker Phillip Noyce (Patriot Games, Rabbit Proof Fence), this is the standout episode of the DVD. It is a clever contrast between the American yuppie of the 80’s and the mystical communalism of the east. Jerry and his friends are all suit and tie WASPS, always looking to make a buck, while the apartment dwellers are tightly knit community of African Americans. The inclination to turn the piece into a clash of races is avoided in order to turn the story into a more potent clash of values. One group values promises, while the other values the greenback. It is a great story, made better by a nice helping of blood and some very satisfying special effects. Seeing a snake erupt out of Harry Hamlin’s body alone is worth it. There is much more going on beneath the surface (literally, in Jerry’s case) and Noyce ties it all up with style. First class entertainment, with bite.


inline Image Out of the Night is a twisty little tale that unfolds like a mirror maze at a carnival. Paul Baxter (Ricky Paul Goldin) is running, running from something, and seeks sanctuary in a hotel. Inside the hotel is not quite the recluse he was hoping for however, as things become very twisted. He meets a magician named Angelica (Kirstie Alley), who throws him into a surreal world where time no longer makes sense. He meets up with a seductive older woman, a young waitress and a disgruntled chef, but ultimately ends up returning to Angelica. The crazed magician has Paul partake in a deadly magic trick, where he must point a gun at his head and pull the trigger. Everyone is watching and he must make a choice…and when the mirrors are taken away, the truth comes to the surface.

Although initially hampered by terrible overacting by Ricky Paul Goldin, the episode goes on to tackle some pretty serious subject matter in an inventive way. The magical element to the story allows the director to have fun with time and space, and the twist ending goes for more than just shock. After the twist is revealed, the film takes on a very Freudian light, and the way it blurs the realms of mysticism and reality is equally as captivating. It’s not all serious though, as Kirstie Alley has a lot of fun with her devilish role, and there is the series’ signature sex scene to keep the temperature rising. Very enjoyable.


inline Image Secret Ingredientis somewhat reminiscent of Larry Cohen’s The Stuff. It is about a popular new food product, “Fit Forever”, that contains a secret ingredient that helps people stay in shape. Chris (Dean Paul Martin) is the suave salesman who sells it, and he does a pretty good job at it. Things get complicated when one of the many women he has wooed turns on him and decides to start her own business. Chris doesn’t play fair though, stealing her customers and extorting the elderly. His womanizing ways get the best of him though, as he falls for an alluring blonde with cat eyes (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson). The blonde invites him over for a party, but Chris soon finds out that deadly secret ingredient that makes the product a hit.

This episode is notable as being the last acting gig that Dean Martin’s son, Dean Paul Martin, would star in before dying in a plane crash a mere month after airing. He plays his role with real charisma, crafting the kind of salesman everyone loves to hate. When he does finally get his, it is quite the climax, probably the closest the series gets to all out horror. The whole story doesn’t tie up all that well though, and the secret ingredient punch line is confused. Still, the dark ending and strong performances from Martin and Wheeler-Nicholson (fresh from Fletch) make this wholly watchable.

inline ImageMan of Her Dreams is a fitting title for the final episode, since it occurs mostly within the protagonist’s mind. Jill (Marilyn Hassett) is a lonely banker who shuts herself out from reality in order to indulge in the fantasies of her mind. While bathing she often fantasizes of men with plucked roses seducing her. Things get complicated when one of her male fantasies ends up in murder, and that murder turns out to have happened in real life. She tries to notify police, but they naturally don’t believe her. Is she responsible for the killings, or is one of the males in her life living out her darkest desires?

This is another episode directed by the talented Phillip Noyce, and it can best be defined as a feminist take on the slasher genre. Slashers usually get in the first person of the killer through various point of view shots, but in Man of Her Dreams the focus is entirely on the female. The phallic stabbing therefore takes on a new dimension, since it becomes a manifestation of Jill’s fear of intimacy and masculinity. While talking to a police officer, Jill says “why do you feel the need to assert your masculinity through props?” and in the slasher genre no prop is more prominent than the knife. In and out the killer in her dreams stabs his knife, mimicking the rhythms of sex, in what is probably the most sexual and physiological episode of the bunch. Yet, despite Noyce’s direction and the interesting premise, the whole thing is rather stilted and lacking the substance of some of the better episodes in the series. Like most films in this set though, it is inherently watchable.


Overall, The Hitchhiker is a series with its share of hits and misses, but the same is true of all anthology based film and television. On this particular set, the hits outnumber the misses, and some episodes, like The Curse and True Believer stand out as more than just great TV, they stand out as great filmmaking. In each and every episode there is something clever going on with the subtext, be it a comment on slasher films with Man of Her Dreams or teen suicide in Out of the Night, which makes the series stand out. Tales From the Crypt may be HBO’s signature horror anthology series, but The Hitchhiker is definitely one worth revisiting.

Image Quality

Although HBO is known today for their big television productions like The Sopranos or Sex in the City, but in The Hitchhiker’s day they were just starting out. The mediocre 1.33:1 video quality of this release can therefore be attributed to that. All of the episodes have poor color rendition, with the red dress in Dead Heat demonstrating some unflattering bleeding and the blacks in all episodes looking much too gray. Color saturation is often an issue as well, with many episodes containing flesh tones that are pinkish in color. For the most part though, the series looks fairly clean, but specs do pop up every so often. Detail is also not as sharp as it could be either, but this, I suspect has to do with the source print of the transfers.

Generally, the episodes look as if they have been ported over from Laserdisc masters, which gets the job done fine. But in one apparent snafu, it seems that Warner used a syndicated print source for their A Whole New You episode. That tepid episode looks considerably worse on all fronts than the rest of the films in the set, and its short and truncated running time suggests that material was cut to fit it into syndication. Luckily A Whole New You is the worst film in the set, but still, its shoddy transfer demonstrates that Warner could have put a lot more work into the set. Still though, what Warner has released is definitely watchable, just not up to their usual standards.

Sound

The series is presented in its original English 2.0 Stereo, and sounds just as one would expect a low-budget 80s television series to sound like. It sounds a little flat, and there is a little hiss than can sometimes be heard. There is never any distortion though, so it won’t distract at all.

Supplemental Material

inline ImageThe only supplements included in this ten episode, two disc set are a pair of commentaries. Thankfully, those two commentaries are on the two best episodes in the set. The first is on True Believer, and it is with director Carl Schenkel. Schenkel is not one for modesty, stating right from the start that his episode is the quintessential episode for the entire series. A big claim, but the episode is definitely worthy of praise. Schenkel talks about how the story was shaped to match his knowledge about the Catholic Church, and how he had many conflicts with the heads at HBO. But they let him go on, and he made a quality episode, and it is nice to hear his observations.

The second and final commentary is on The Curse and it features both director and star, Phillip Noyce and Harry Hamlin, respectively. Noyce is a little puzzling throughout, asking dull and out-of-context questions to his co-speaker. Hamlin does what he can to keep Noyce on track, and after a slow start, the commentary picks up with some nice career observations by Hamlin. Noyce doesn’t really offer up much, not remembering a whole lot and hijacking the conversation even more. Given the quality of the episode the commentary is a disappointment, and can be skipped without missing all that much.


Final Thoughts

The Hitchhiker is a good little television series, rife with episodes that aren’t afraid to take risks. It is refreshing, and a bit ironic too, that in an age where most movies are PG, there is still some quality R-rated television for adults. As for this release, the audio and video won’t win any immediate awards, and the fact that the A Whole New You episode is cut is also a distracting peculiarity. The two commentaries are decent, but wholly forgettable.

On top of the at-times-questionable transfer, many will have issue with the fact that this release is a “best-of” collection rather than a full seasonal release. Given that the show was just a bunch of unrelated suspense tales, there is nothing (save maybe for nostalgia) lost in grouping episodes together in these “best-of” releases. But completists will be completits, and luckily for them the Canadian-based Koch International has seasonal sets that can be obtained at various retailers online. But for those with only a passing interest in The Hitchhiker, or only a desire to see the series’ best episodes, will be satisfied with this second volume of stand-out episodes from Warner Brothers. While it has it’s flaws, The Hitchhiker is worth picking up.


Rating

Movie - B
Image Quality - C
Sound - C+
Supplements - C+

Technical Info.
  • Color
  • Running time - 5 hours
  • Not Rated
  • 2 Discs
  • Chapter Stops
  • English 2.0
  • English subtitles
  • French subtitles
  • Spanish subtitles
Supplements
  • Commentary on True Believer with director Carl Schenkel
  • Ceommtnary on The Curse with director Phillip Noyce and actor Harry Hamlin

Other Pictures

 

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