Monday 6 August 2018

Highway to Hell (Ate de Jong, 1991)

At the end of the last post I promised more Ate de Jong, and this time around we're looking at his 1991 comedy horror Highway to Hell.  This film appeared hot on the heels of de Jong's critically panned Drop Dead Fred, and I recall it playing at the 1992 Edinburgh International Film Festival.  I was covering the festival that year, but a scheduling conflict meant I was unable to catch the film.  I remember being greatly irked by this, as the brochure made it sound like one I really shouldn't pass up on, and I knew it was going to be tricky to track the film down once it had played the festival circuit.  Of course, in these digital times it's pretty easy to locate most films that have had any sort of a release, but back in those days viewing options were very limited, so you may find my annoyance at missing the screening more understandable if you can imagine/remember a world without Netflix or Amazon.

While the festival brochure made the film sound like a must-see, keep in mind that the blurb in festival programmes, quite understandably, gives everything the hard sell, with pretty much each and every film on the bill made to sound up there with Citizen Kane.  But much more enticing than the gushing thumbs-up description was the image of the film's poster boy, Hellcop (although oddly, he's not on the front of the German VHS release).  Hellcop looked a likely horror icon in waiting as soon as I first clapped eyes on the picture in the EIFF brochure, and I wasn't too surprised to learn that he was played by C. J. Graham, who already had experience of playing a bona fide horror icon in the form of Jason Voorhees (Graham donned the hockey mask in the 6th Friday the 13th film).  Hellcop may have failed to reach anything like the heights scaled by Jason, but his arresting (ha!) image does make him one of the more memorable villains of early 90s horror.

Young couple Charlie and Rachel (Chad Lowe, Kristy Swanson) have decided to elope, and en route to Vegas they find themselves pulled over by Hellcop, who promptly drags Rachel off to Hell.  A frantic Charlie heads back to the service station the couple stopped at earlier, where he's lent a car and a shotgun by kindly owner Sam (Richard Farnsworth).  Sam reveals that his own fiancee (Pamela Gidley) was also taken away to Hell, where she remains, and he gives Charlie some tips as to how he might save Rachel before it's too late.  Charlie duly finds his way in to Hell, where, as you might expect, Rachel proves difficult to find.  His quest is made a bit easier by suspiciously-named mechanic Beezle (Patrick Bergin), who steps in at a critical moment to help out the desperate Charlie; Beezle also has some further advice regarding how Rachel may be found.  And of course, there's always the added problem of Hellcop...

While I must admit that Highway to Hell didn't quite deliver in the way I thought it would when I first became aware of it in 1992, it's still a lot of fun, and it is easy to see why it has attracted something of a cult following over the decades.  As a schlocky riff on the Orpheus-Eurydice legend, it works fairly well, although it's unlikely to ever unseat Jean Cocteau's Orpheus as the best cinematic take on the myth.  While it's mainly played for laughs, there's one very creepy scene involving Charlie catching Rachel's reflection in a mirror; unfortunately, the scene's effectiveness is diluted as it goes on to show way too much, eventually descending into camp.  The two leads are both fine - Lowe (younger brother of Rob) gives the sort of performance we're now used to seeing from Sam Rockwell, while a pre-Buffy Swanson brings some nice humour to the part of Rachel.  But the film is really notable for its other couple, played by two late performers who would each go on to give their most memorable turns in David Lynch films: Farnsworth excelled in The Straight Story, while the striking Gidley - who died just a few months ago - made a real impression as Twin Peaks' Teresa Banks.  Highway to Hell is cheerful, untaxing B movie fun, and a region-free Blu-ray can be ordered from Spain.

Darren Arnold

Image: Rob Mieremet [CC0]