Hitch Hike to Hell (1977)

A lot of good things happen in the San Fernando Valley. Burritos, Korean food, family-run bookstores, an endless supply of frozen yogurt. There are also bad things too, like tanning salons, my family, earthquakes. The 1994 Northridge quake had a magnitude of 6.7, which would also be the Valley’s Pitchfork rating if it had one — “boring, uninspired, with occasional good moments, but overall forgettable.” But among all the awesome and less-than-awesome things the Valley has to offer, hitchhiking is not one of them. It’s not something that happens there and yet we have a movie about just that. Hitch Hike to Hell is a cautionary tale about hitchhiking, mental illness, and dry cleaning, all set in the Deep V. The movie teaches us things we already know (Don’t get into a van with a stranger!) and things we may have forgotten (The Professor made it off Gilligan’s Island!). It also teaches us that a smothering mother is one who won’t let you have root beer before dinner.

A runaway hitches a ride in a dry cleaning delivery van, right in front of the high school where I took the SATs. She sure is glad to get out of this one-horse town! She’s sick of her stupid mother and her insane need to know things like where she’s going and what time she’s coming home. Her mother sounds like a real drag – way worse than my mother, who once forgot to pick me up from the airport. On Christmas. The driver, a legally blind man named Howard, is aghast. Why would she run away from her mama? Why would she put her mama through that kind of hell? Doesn’t she care that her mama misses her?

The runaway rolls her eyes. “I asked for a ride, not for a lecture.”

Howard, thoroughly disgusted, glares at her through his thick glasses. This girl clearly doesn’t love her mama. “I’m gonna do Mama a favor.”

And that favor involves a few backhand slaps and a rape. He also chokes her, but she doesn’t put up much of a fight. It looks almost pleasant. The girl just sorta relaxes and dies. Howard tosses her suitcase into some bushes: “Now you’ll never run away again!” This is a true statement on all accounts.

The girl’s body is found alongside a dirt road and now two cops are searching for the rapist/killer. One cop is Russell Johnson, aka the Professor from Gilligan’s Island. I guess his coconut radio worked after all. The Professor’s concerned. This incident could be the “beginning of a rash of pointless, senseless murders.” If you really think about it, all murders have a point – to make a person dead.

The movie goes through the same sequence several times: Howard picks up a hitchhiker, the hitchhiker says bad things about mamas, Howard rapes and chokes the hitchhiker, the Professor gets sad. Sure, there are some variations – like the buxom dishwater blonde. When Howard leers at her with his near-sighted, sex-hungry eyes, the girl realizes it’s time to “pay for the ride.” Will it be gas, ass, or grass? No one rides for free! The girl is perfectly OK to pay for the lift in ass dollars and starts to unbutton her cutoffs. But then she realizes the ride must be paid in rape dollars. There is actually no need for rape; she is clearly into sexing consensually. But no. Howard has to rape and choke her with a hanger.

Hitch Hike to Hell is repetitive, though oddly calming. The pace is very even and serene; nothing is jarring or disruptive. It’s like a screensaver. Only with rape. Everything in the movie makes sense — there’s even a beginning, middle, and end. Howard’s motives are clear: He kills those who don’t appreciate their mothers because he loves his mother, who happens to be an overbearing, doting lady who won’t let him go to Swanson’s for a root beer and can’t he just drink one from the fridge? There is far too much talk about root beer in this movie. There’s also soup that looks too watery for my taste. But overall, there’s no craziness, nothing out of left field, except for the gay hitchhiker who lets it known that he’s gay by saying gay things like “I’m really different, you know?” and “My mother is a peasant.”

This is a movie with a heavy moral hand: Hitchhiking is dangerous. Don’t ride with strangers. You can’t make it in the world without solid parental figures. Bad parents have bad children. If you say mean things about your mama, you’ll get killed.  In one scene, a cop’s wife reveals she’s pregnant. “Aren’t you glad we’re married? I don’t want to be one of those unwed mothers.” The overt moral teachings in this movie turns it into an after-school special, though one with boobs. The lessons are tiresome and suck up some — though not all — the fun. Violence and nudity are limited, raping and killing mostly happen off camera. At times the movie really does feel like a lecture when all you want it to do is cut lose and be a classic psycho-mom-has-psycho-son-who-rapes-hitchhikers story. Instead we have something that makes total sense, even though it is unrealistic. A dry cleaner in the Valley isn’t going to be a white guy. It’s going to be one of my aunts.

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