Color, 1977, 88 mins. 9 secs.
Directed by Irvin Berwick
Starring Robert Gribbin, Russell Johnson, John Harmon, Randy Echols, Dorothy Bennett, Mary Ellen Christie
Arrow Video (Blu-ray) (US/UK R0 HD) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9), Something Weird / Image Entertainment (DVD) (US R1 NTSC)

Hot Hitch Hike to Hellon the heels of the Hitch Hike to Hellsterling Blu-ray release of Toys Are Not for Children, Arrow Video continues to plumb the the vaults of Harry Novak's Boxoffice International Pictures with the sordid Hitchhike to Hell, a serial killer roughie most recognizable to Something Weird fans for its 2002 DVD edition paired up with Novak's Kidnapped Coed. Inspired by a rash of notorious serial killers who dominated the headlines throughout the 1970s, it's a strange, low budget drive-in offering from director Irvin Berwick, who capped off his career just after this with Malibu High after an on and off run of titles starting off with the '50s favorite The Monster of Piedras Blancas.

In the dustier outskirts of the western side of the San Fernando Valley, seemingly mild-mannered Howard (Don't Go Near the Park's Gribbin) spends his days in a van doing deliveries for his employer, a dry cleaning company. However, he frequently misses his appointments due to the fact that he keeps picking up the world's oldest teenaged runaways thumbing a ride in the area. When the young women refuse to go back to their parents, Howard tells them about his missing sister, who took off despite being pampered by their overbearing mother, and then he rapes and strangles them. Afterwards Howard can't remember his crimes and just wants to unwind with a root beer float at Swenson's, but his boss (Berwick pal Hitch Hike to HellHarmon) becomes more irate with his performance issues. Meanwhile two cops, Captain Shaw (Gilligan's Island's Johnson!) and Lt. Davis (Echols), try to figure out who's responsible for the crimes and become frustrated that they can't hold any runaways in custody for very long to keep them safe. As Howard's killing spree continues, his mind starts to unravel at an Hitch Hike to Hellaccelerated pace -- and no hitchhiker around is safe.

At first this film seems like your standard exploitation offering about young women getting partially stripped and killed, but there are some odd ingredients thrown in here including its repeated admonishments for youngsters to stay away from hitchhiking no matter how necessary it may seem. Then things really get weird in the last half hour as the nature of the hitchhikers shifts gears to include a gay male youth and a disturbingly young, innocent girl, a pair of pickups that show how transgressive this film could have been in more daring hands. Despite the premise and the occasional murder scene, the tone of the film is often laid back with the characters lounging around chatting while our main character gets more twitchy about his murderous blackout, a tactic that leads to a macabre but low key finale far from the usual chase the killer resolution familiar from films like Blood Feast. The soundtrack is a really crazy quilt, too, including the twangy theme song by Nancy Adams (who had recently sung on the soundtrack to Disney's Robin Hood) and repeated use of that creepy library track "Hideout" by Brian Bennett, which also served as the de facto theme the same year for David Cronenberg's Rabid.

Long unavailable after the initial DVD thanks to the separation of the Novak library from Something Weird, Hitch Hike to Hell comes to Blu-ray from Arrow Video with simultaneous U.S. and U.K. editions. The packaging notes a 2K restoration from "original film elements," and it looks much better than the DVD even if it isn't up to the technical standards of a brand new scan from a camera negative. Frequent debris (including white specks) can be spotted but in a sense that adds to the scruffy, disreputable feel of the film itself, while the Hitch Hike to HellDTS-HD MA English mono track is faithful to the original basic nature of the theatrical mix. The film can be played in either open matte (1.33:1 or matted (1.78:1) options, the latter closer to how this was shown theatrically even if it gets a bit tight on the framing side at times. The 1.33:1 one gives the film more breathing room and generally fares better, but most of the matted version plays well enough compositionally if you Hitch Hike to Hellwant to fill up your screen. Optional English SDH subtitles are also included. A terrific new video overview by Stephen Thrower, "Of Monsters and Morality: The Strange Cinema of Irvin Berwick" (29m1s), is a fascinating survey of Berwick's career including his early brush with Universal monster movies and his sexploitation collaborations with his son Wayne, as well as claims that he dabbled a bit in hardcore at the end of his career. You'll find out plenty more about the film including a JFK assassination tie-in, Christian and educational scare filmmaking, the casting of this film culled from film students, the location of the dry cleaners (which indeed is still there), some possible underhanded tactics behind the film's various retitlings, and the sleuthing required to figure out when this was actually shot. In "Road to Nowhere: Hitchhiking Culture Goes to Hell" (21m27s), Alexandra Heller-Nicholas takes a broader academic look at the presentation of thumbing in cinema from Thelma & Louise to Two-Lane Blacktop to Road Games with ties to car culture, film noir, teenage behavior's evolution from the 1950s onward, urban legends, and true crime incidents around the world. (In one odd moment she cites this film as one of the earliest Boxoffice titles when it's actually one of the very last.) In "Nancy Adams on the Road" (24m52s), the singer recalls her path through the music industry and her connection to Disney and a visit to the Oscars, brushes with Louis Prima and Benny Goodman, and the story behind the song for this film including two versions recorded in Nashville. Speaking of which, you can play both versions of that song, "Lovin' on My Mind," culled from the tape in Adams' possession (and sounding great!). The theatrical trailer is also included (in 1.33:1 and 1.85:1 options) along with a BD-Rom press book, while the reversible packaging features the unforgettable poster art and a new design by The Twins of Evil.

ARROW VIDEO (1.78:1)

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ARROW VIDEO (1.33:1)

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Reviewed on November 20, 2019.