Highway To Hell

Director:Ate De Jong                                 
Cast: Patrick Bergin, Chad Lowe, Kristy Swanson

Highway To Hell in many ways feels like a first draft, or a dry run. There is a story here, but not much time is devoted to it; it sometimes feels like things are being made up as the movie progresses There's a resolution, but it's very forced, and feels like it was constructed out of leftover scraps. And a lot of the promising material that is used is never used to its potential, or used as a throwaway gag.

I'm not saying this movie is bad; Highway To Hell isn't awful and/or boring to watch. In fact, I kind of liked it, and I'm giving it a recommendation. There was almost always something happening onscreen that caught my eye, that was either bizarre, cool, or visually impressive. There are a number of amusing sequences and funny one-liners, and I have to admit that this is one original movie - I can't think of another movie quite like this one. But still, there were many times in the movie where I saw a lot of potential that was ignored by the makers of this movie. Plus, the movie is very sloppy, both technically and story-wise - this probably explains why Hemdale shelved this movie for a few years, then subsequently gave it a tiny and quiet theatrical release before becoming another anonymous title in the horror section.

Charlie (Lowe) and Rachel (Swanson) are a very young couple driving the backroads to Las Vegas to get married. Not listening to the cryptic advice of gas station man Sam (Richard Farnsworth) for the route ahead, the couple keeps driving into the night. On one particular deserted stretch of the road, they are suddenly stopped by Hellcop (C.J. Graham), a bald, deeply scarred demon cop from Hell. Hellcop kidnaps Rachel and vanishes. Freaked out, Charlie returns to Sam, who tells him (in a vague and rushed explanation) that (I think) his girlfriend has been kidnapped by Hellcop, and will be taken to the underworld Hell City to Satan to be his new bride. Given a shotgun, a new set of wheels, and the directions to the underworld, Charlie travels to and through the underworld to rescue Rachel from both the Hellcop and Satan.

The underworld is one weird place - imagine the world of The Road Warrior mixed with the world of Route 66, and you'd only begin to picture this bizarre environment. There's a cobwebbed donut shop filled with the living dead (the Hellcop stops here for a break - an amusing touch); Charlie is at one point out of the blue attacked by a psychotic ice cream man (Charlie quickly blows the guy's head off, and the scene ends, with no further mention of this incident); Members of a roadside construction crew all resemble Andy Warhol; Charlie meets weird characters like "The Satanic Mechanic" (Bergin), an underworld tow truck driver who gives him some assistance; and there are bizarre encounters, such as when Charlie finds himself in the middle of a gigantic pack of speeding VW Bugs. Along Charlie's journey, there are also a number of hilarious moments and sight gags. I like the "handcuffs", consisted of two hands connected by a chain. There's a very funny sequence when Charlie's car is broken down, and he uses a highway emergency phone to try and get assistance. The movie tries everything to interest and amuse us, from using stop-motion animation to showing a team of midget mechanics. Keep your eye out for some cameo appearances as well.

It's amazing that this low budget movie was able to throw in so much stuff. Since there is so much to find here, it's perhaps inevitable that the makers of Highway To Hell had to find as many ways as possible to cut back on expenses. People wear a variety of costumes, but there's no logic to what they are wearing, even for the underworld - it's as if the wardrobe department rented costumes in "bulk". There are many locations, but many are familiar desert locations slightly (and cheaply) dressed up to represent locations in this underworld. So many locations are in this movie, it's as if the filmmakers only had enough money to rent them out for a few hours - this also seems to apply to the cameo appearances, for the actors in these cameos just seem to sit on the sidelines, make a few comments, and disappear.

The low budget also hurts the technical side of the production. I realize this was a low budget movie, and you can't always expect production values equal to major studio movies. But this movie has such incredibly shabby technical qualities, that even Roger Corman or North American Pictures would be embarrassed. When characters are driving down one lengthy stretch of a road, we see the same shots repeated. There are numerous times when we see the shadow of the camera jutting into the scene. In chase scenes, the speeds of the vehicles and their positions keep wildly changing from one shot to the other. One scene has Charlie racing towards a canyon wall, then in the next shot he's suddenly parked and on foot out of the car. When two people fall into a ravine, we see at the bottom of the screen the cardboard boxes the stuntmen subsequently land on! What's really disgraceful about this incompetence is that Hemdale, during its short life, was know for making movies with superior technical qualities on low budgets (Platoon, Miracle Mile, etc.) So what happened here? I don't know; my best guess is that the production encountered some major problems of some sort, and director De Jong tried the best he could to try to complete enough of the production so it could be called (barely) a movie.

This might also explain why there seem to be gaps in the narrative. Changes from the end of one scene to the beginning of the next move as if there was no money for a second unit director; footage seems to be missing at these points. Certainly, the ending of this movie feels like it wasn't what was originally intended. After the climax has ended, we cut back to footage that seems to have belonged to an earlier and unfinished scene in the movie. Then before this footage seems to have finished playing, the screen turns black, and we are treated to a very long title crawl explaining what happened to the characters. Actually, I should make that "some of the characters", for there are some subplot threads that even here aren't resolved.

Highway To Hell is a real mess. But it's still an entertaining mess all the same. It's fairly fast paced, never boring, and is alternately amusing and exciting. More conservative viewers will probably hold their heads and groan, but people who like B movies will probably find it as entertaining as I did. Still, it's likely even they will occasionally point at some major boo-boo, and hiss or sneer. If you're patient enough to take the time to pull off the bits of mould on a good piece of cheesy entertainment, then you are the audience for this movie.

(P.S. - To the makers of Highway To Hell: Idi Amin is NOT dead! Even in 1999, he's still alive, and living in exile!)

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See also: Survival Run, Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, Rituals