Color, 1989, 96 mins. 14 secs.
Directed by Umberto Lenzi
Starring Joe Balogh, Josie Bissett, Jason Saucier
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD), Media Blasters (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
By the end of the 1980s, Italian horror films were struggling to keep an international foothold despite the minuscule number of screens willing to give them the time of day. The most obvious solution was to make these films as American as possible, dumping the beloved dubbed voices in favor of mostly generic stateside actors who could play young people in peril. Joe D'Amato's Filmirage was one of the biggest purveyors of these latter day horror films mostly bound for the VHS market with one of its high points, the wonderfully insane Ghosthouse, directed by veteran genre hopper Umberto Lenzi. By this point Lenzi was far, far away from his legendary contributions to the poliziottesco, giallo, and Italian cannibal films, instead content to churn out diverting quickies like Nightmare Beach (a.k.a. Welcome to Spring Break), Black Demons, and TV fare like The House of Witchcraft.
Made right at the heart of Lenzi's final filmmaking period, Hitcher in the Dark finds him once again studying terrorized teens in the American South on Spring Break, albeit from a far more mean-spirited attitude than usual. Essentially The Collector in a camper, the story follows unstable preppy Mark (Monstrosity's Balogh), who works out his twisted mother obsession by targeting women who remind him of her. Mostly he goes after hitchhikers while driving around in his dad's RV, but things ratchet up several notches when he becomes fixated on Daniela (Mikey and Melrose Place's Bissett), whom he believes to be a dead ringer for mom. After taking Daniela captive, he chops off her hair, takes nude photos of her while she's unconscious, and generally torments her while she's handcuffed inside. Meanwhile boyfriend Kevin (Whore's Sauchier) is combing through the area in search of the missing girl, with time quickly running out before she becomes the next fatality.
A film seemingly designed to go straight to VHS and cable at the time, Hitcher in the Dark is an odd one for sure with a sleazy but sleepy atmosphere that seems to promise a lot more perversity than it actually delivers. It's clearly playing around with the public's fascination for serial killers and seems to teeter on becoming a slasher film at times, but mostly it settles into a dark chamber drama with three characters jockeying for dominance throughout. Bissett easily takes the acting honors here with a tricky role, remaining vulnerable but strong and keeping you rooting for her throughout. On the other hand, Balogh often comes up short with his bratty character delivering some unintentional howlers that veer close to Night Killer territory. The cherry on top here is the insane twist(?) ending, which interrupts what would have otherwise been an incredibly nasty resolution and feels like something that would have been dictated by a test audience (if movies like this actually got tested anywhere). It's certainly a memorable and entertaining flourish to bring down the curtain either way though.
Initially released on VHS in Japan and a handful of European territories throughout the late '80s and early '90s, Hitcher in the Dark didn't reach the U.S. in any official capacity until a Media Blasters (under its Shriek Show banner) in 2003. Clocking in at 94m46s due to a PAL master and a premature cut during the end titles music, it was a fairly dreary-looking presentation but made for the best way to see the film at the time. Extras on that disc (which was later bundled with The Majorettes and Hell High for some reason) included the trailer, bonus trailers for My Dear Killer and Black Demons, and a Lenzi interview (10m20s) in which the filmmaker talks about his approach to avoiding the usual serial killer tropes and his desire to explore human psychology in films like this and, ahem, Eyeball. Interestingly, he also chats about Bissett's reluctance to do nudity and how he found ways to honor her wishes without crossing the boundaries she had set. In 2021, Vinegar Syndrome debuted the film on region-free Blu-ray featuring the usual limited slipcase edition and a fresh 4K scan from the 35mm camera negative. As you'd expect, it's a tremendous leap over past versions with a much more dynamic and colorful appearance than the comparatively bland DVD. It isn't a particularly pretty film, of course, but its fans should be overjoyed to see it looking so pristine here. The DTS-HD MA English 2.0 mono track is a typical Filmirage mix from the era with live sound recording and a fairly basic synth score by Carlo Maria Cordio (some of which will sound very familiar to viewers of Killing Birds). The archival Lenzi interview from the DVD is ported over here, and the trailer is presented in a nice new HD scan as well. The big new extra here is an audio commentary with Samm Deighan and Kat Ellinger, who start off by noting their appreciation for this unusually grim film from the period before spending most of the time surveying Lenzi's overall career and his contributions to horror and giallo in particular. They also touch on the film's place in the canon of serial killer cinema and have some fascinating observations about the treatment of female appearance here, as well as the unique decision to avoid the sexual assault route a film like this would have normally taken. The appraisal of Lenzi early on as an "amazing visionary" might be stretching things a bit, but the enthusiasm is certainly appreciated!
Reviewed on March 27, 2021