Wednesday, January 07, 2009

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 68: The Hitchhiker (1983-1991)

Here’s a 1980s flashback (or hangover...): the HBO (later USA Network) horror anthology entitled The Hitchhiker (1983-1991). This long-running TV series commenced before the first Reagan term was over, and that epoch makes it an early example of the premium cable horror series (a trend pursued by HBO with Tales from The Crypt in the 1990s and later by Showtime with examples such as Masters of Horror and True Blood).

This new broadcasting venue meant that The Hitchhiker was free from the limiting restrictions (and censorship...) of mass audience, basic network television. In other words, The Hitchhiker was willing and able to spotlight gory blood-letting, much nudity, and even simulated sex. It was a half-hour of soft-core porn and hardcore horror. Whoo-hoo!

As The Twilight Zone and Rod Serling’s Night Gallery established so dramatically in earlier decades, the anthology can be an excellent format for the horror genre. Since you get a new character every week, you’re able to kill off your lead if you so desire. That's a trick The X-Files or Kolchak: The Night Stalker, for instance, couldn’t get away with. Since your leads are always vulnerable in an anthology, there’s a heightened sense of vulnerability or unpredictability...and that's always good in horror. Throw in a little graphic violence and a pinch of sexy T & A and you’ve got yourself a real contender. At least that was the idea.

Our tour guide and narrator on The Hitchhiker was a mysterious wanderer with Miami Vice stubble, one who wore tight acid-wash jeans and thumbed his way across an endless desert road. Played by Nicholas Campbell and then Page Fletcher, this hitcher introduced each tale on the series, and then returned for a closing narration. The underlying conceit, which I quite like, is that we -- as viewers – symbolically "pick up" this enigmatic stranger on the highway and he regales us with a bizarre, frightening tale of the “road.” It’s kind of like a campfire story, I suppose, but modernized to include a specter of modern life (the hitchhiker/stranger) and the isolation/alienation of endless highways, endless night drives. Quite spooky if you think about it.

In general, The Hitchhiker sought to tell horror stories in which -- in the great tradition of EC Comics – the scales of justice were balanced. In other words, bad people were punished for their misdeeds. The universe boasted a sense of decency, even if some men did not.

The early installment “Night Shift,” (written by William Darrid and directed by Phillip Noyce), for example, involved a cruel nurse, Jane Reynolds (Margot Kidder), who worked the night shift at the Golden Age Nursing Home. This bitter, mean nurse ruled the old folks there with an “iron hand,” even going so far as to steal their prized jewelry so that she could sell it to her no-good boyfriend, Johnny (Stephen McHattie). But, as the Hitchhiker’s opening narration reminds viewers, this nurse learns that “some rules bend when the night shifts…”

Specifically,Jane's latest ward is “The Old Man” (Darren McGavin), an apparently comatose stranger who wears a very special ring. After Johnny and Jane attempt to steal it, the Old Man awakes and pursues them to get it back. Turns out the ring has a nasty blade embedded under the stone, one that is very efficient at slitting throats. The Old Man is actually a vampire you see, and before the tale is over he has hunted the cruel Jane and Johnny, draining them of their blood and youth, physically rendering them “old” like the very wards Jane so cavalierly abused.

At the coda of “Night Shift,” The Hitchhiker explains that “fate delivered an ancient evil to” Jane’s “doorstep” so that “the predator knows what it’s like to be the prey.”

Like most early episodes of The Hitchhiker, “Night Shift” is filmed extraordinarily well, relying on fine use of dramatic, well-composed close-ups and eerie lighting. When McGavin – the vampire – arrives at the nursing home, his room is bathed in an ethereal white light, one which seems to accentuate his age and suggest his immortality. And when Jane is hunted by the vampire in a storage closet the light palette shifts to a terrifying, sickly green. It’s as though the institution – the nursing home itself – has turned against the transgressor.

Another HBO era story, “Last Scene” was written by Robert J. Avrech and directed by Robocop (1987) helmer Paul Verhoeven. It stars Peter Coyote as a desperate first-time movie director (and former actor…) who has limited time and resources in which to help his wooden leading lady, Leda (La Gena Hart) develop the acting chops deemed necessary to sell the shocking final scene of his debut thriller. Coyote’s character goes to extreme and frightening lengths to terrify Leda and elicit a “real” reaction from the bad actress. The plan goes awry, however, and soon it’s the director who is learning about the nature of authentic terror.

As Page Fletcher's hitchhiker declares here, “the creatures created” by filmmakers “often have the last laugh.” As the creator and director of The House Between, this is a lesson I’ve learned myself; that “manufacturing illusion and manipulating the way people feel” may result in the creator himself being “tricked by his own sleight of hand.”

Even during the HBO run, critics were not overly charmed by The Hitchhiker. Starlog admonished the series for using “gratuitous blood, gore and naked flesh in place of good scripts and solid performances.” (Starlog # 96, 1984-1985, page 35.) Meanwhile, The New York Times complained that “each episode becomes a game of guessing when an opportunity would be devised for the featured performers to take off all their clothes.” (John J. O’Connor, The New York Times, November 26, 1985, page C22.)

The reviewers weren’t necessarily wrong in this critique. The series indeed tended to exploit rather than authentically explore issues surrounding sexuality and sexual relationships. Many of The Hitchhiker episodes provided more-than-adequate eye candy thanks to guest stars including Kirstie Alley, Shannon Tweed, Helen Hunt, Karen Lych, Ornella Muti, Virginia Madsen, and Karen Black -- thus satisfying prurient interest. Still, most of these shows aren’t genuinely sexy because sex is just a marketing tool of the producers; not a legitimate thematic undercurrent.

There were notable exceptions. In “Videodate, a womanizer named Rhodes (Gregg Henry) who ritually exploited women and even kept a bulletin board tally of his conquests, was bested by a sexy performance artist (Shannon Tweed) who played his game better than he did. The subject here truly was sex (and sexual sport/sexual dominance), and the ways in which every human being can be manipulated by his or her desire. Rhodes believed that he was a student of human nature, that he could push those buttons in others, but that he was somehow immune to it. In the end, he wasn’t; he was as much a slave (and a victim) as those he victimized. Again, not deep and not too original (another "moral" reiteration of the cosmic scales balanced cliche...) but still, overall, a…ahem…satisfying half-hour.

“Hired Help” was another quirky revenge story that succeeded based largely on its bizarre and daring sexual imagery. Here, another exploiter of fellow human beings (this time Karen Black, exploiting illegal immigrants) ends up unknowingly bedding down a Mexican devil or “Diablo” and is…er…put to Hell's service herself.

The centerpiece sex scene -- with Karen doing the heavy lifting -- is spiky, sadistic and memorable. The scene is shot in silhouette, and during intercourse, the Devil Man unexpectedly sheds his human shape and sprouts demonic wings (not to mention glowing emerald eyes). Without warning, this devil – in media res, as it were – starts brutally man-handling Black, slapping her around with a belt (!) and contorting her compliant naked body in a vicious, pounding rhythm. What’s kinky about this sequence is, well, everything. It’s arousing in a very perverse, freaky sense. Shakespeare it ain’t, but it sure keeps your attention. Even had they been inclined to include such odd sequences, Hitchcock and Serling could not have gotten away with this sort of thing on broadcast television.

When The Hitchhiker went out on a limb and expressed the powerful notion that sex can be scary, dangerous and exciting, the imaginative imagery and subversive implications of the show's creators triumphed over often banal writing and trite plots. But these stories were the exception rather than the rule.

By the time that The Hitchhiker shifted over to the basic cable USA Network, it was in its fourth season. Unfortunately, that’s where things took a decided turn for the worse. The series could no longer get away with HBO levels of violence and sex, so the two trademarks of the anthology -- sex and gore -- were stripped away. And I mean totally stripped away.

Also, the entire production high-tailed it up to Canada (to cut costs), meaning that the series no longer featured movie star-caliber performers or directors. On USA, The Hitchhiker became a very bad, very dull potboiler with tepid twist endings that wouldn't surprise a four year old. At least the HBO edition stands as an interesting testimony to its context in the world and history of cable television: sex and violence were highlighted because they could be highlighted.

So if you're in a frisky, freaky mood, The Hitchhiker is certainly a fun horror anthology to re-visit. Just be certain you see the premium cable edition. The USA stuff is pure, G-rated dreck.

1 comment:

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