Warner Bros. // 1989 // 300 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge David Johnson // April 6th, 2004
He takes you places you don't want to visit alone.
Late night HBO, baby. Let's hope the parents ain't awake! Hee hee.
One of HBO's first stabs at original programming, the early-'80s The Hitchhiker pioneered the self-contained, stand-alone, episodic storytelling that the pay-network found notoriety for in subsequent offerings (e.g., Tales from the Crypt).
Well not nearly as playful -- or gory -- as its aforementioned brethren, The Hitchhiker still gave its paying customers access to the kind of content network television was unable to provide.
The Hitchhiker stories had no real common thread running through them binding them in a motif; sure, there was the hitchhiker himself, but he acted more as a narrator, making brief appearances before and after the tales. His commentary was frequently flowery and opaque, leading me to believe his ultra-tight jeans were having an adverse effect on his brainpower. But who am I to criticize the hitchhiker?
Of course, the benefits of having an anything-goes approach to the series is that, basically, anything goes. Writers can develop any story they wish. And, though most of the tales involved reality-based circumstances (the series sports a lot of noir-like atmosphere and plotting), the supernatural rears its head as well.
What you can always bet on when watching a Hitchhiker episode is some blood, a boob or two, and some recognizable faces. Many actors cut their teeth on this show; spotlighted in this collection are Helen Hunt, Gary Busey, Kirstie Alley, Willem Dafoe, and Joe Pantoliano, plus a few others you'll recognize.
Here are the synopses of the 10 tales on this disc:
A director under pressure from the producers and saddled with a below-average actress struggles to pull off the "last scene," the pivotal sequence in a movie he's filming. Threatened with a failed career if the movie flops, the director decides to employ an innovative style of motivation, much to the chagrin of the actress.
What's Good: Sports Paul Verhoeven as director, and includes some effective scare scenes.
What's Not So Good: The rest of the scare scenes are pretty lame, and the ending is anticlimactic.
Look For: The superfluous opening soft-core porn scene. "We're HBO! Look at these breasts!"
Margot Kidder stars as a jerk of a nurse in charge of an elderly hospital wing. Little do the oft-sedated patients know, but she and her boyfriend have developed quite the racket; the two help themselves to any valuables the patients possess and then hock them for cash. But when they cross the wrong guy, there will be hell to pay.
What's Good: The supernatural twist at the end.
What's Not So Good: The pacing. It felt like the writers struggled to fill the 30 minutes.
Look For: Margot Kidder walking a straight line.
"The Miracle of Alice Ames"
A corrupt minister, played by Joe Pantoliano, has taken advantage of the flock of impressionable young homeless girls who seek shelter at his church. In exchange for a roof over their heads, some soup, and an inspiring word or two, the girls must hit the streets. His prostitution ring hits an unexpected snag when Alice, his newest recruit starts to receive the stigmata. Always the entrepreneur, and with cartoon-like dollar signs in his eyes, the irreverent reverend sees a big cash-in option, but the Man Upstairs has other ideas.
What's Good: Two words: Joey Pants.
What's Not So Good: The convoluted finale.
Look For: A homeless girl with a pretty good make-up job.
The most noir of the bunch, and my personal favorite. A mediocre writer's apparent suicide seems the like a godsend to his cheating wife and her lover, his literary agent. But when it's obvious that the husband's demise may not be what it appears, a web of deceit is spun. Willem Dafoe stars.
What's Good: The story is a refreshing, twisty little yarn. And Dafoe is always cool.
What's Not So Good: The wardrobe. It's hard to believe white high-tops were ever fashionable with a suit and tie.
Look For: Poor observation techniques by a detective -- "Hmmm, it looks like a body wrapped in a tarp, but nahhhhhh."
"Man's Best Friend"
A man on the edge of sanity is tossed out by his wife and seeks solace at a friend's house. There he befriends a mysterious canine that does his bidding, namely violently wiping out his enemies. But there may be more to the dog than simply a murderous-servant-of-animal-fury. My second favorite.
What's Good: That dog is one bad mother.
What's Not So Good: Why this guy goes off the deep end so quickly is not really investigated. What, he dropped his suitcase? Oh no, get his some anti-psychotic medication at once!
Look For: Hmmm...a certain Edward Norton/Brad Pitt flick anyone?
Gary Busey stars as a radio evangelist who has risen to incomparable fame. His on-air antics have garnered serious cash and the attention of news outlets. As he fends off the prying eyes of media, he is blindsided by a voice from his past, and he soon must confront his personal demons, at the cost of everything he's gained.
What's Good: Busey is always a hoot, and things get weird at the end.
What's Not So Good: There's no real resolution, especially following the penultimate events.
Look For: All that blood can't be good for the radio equipment.
"The Legendary Billy B."
A sleaze reporter (Kirstie Alley) for a tabloid rag is desperate for accolades and the scoop. This drive to succeed blinds her to obvious danger, as she stumbles upon the location of a legendary rocker long thought dead. The zaniness that ensues will leave you wishing pain upon the bumbling journalist.
What's Good: Brad Dourif as the goofy rock singer.
What's Not So Good: Kirstie Alley as the pain-in-the-butt reporter.
Look For: A reason that Alley's character does any of the things she does at the end.
Two escaped convicts -- an orphan with no ties to the world and his surrogate brother, a dangerous psychopath (James Remar) -- seek shelter in a "model home," which I suppose is '80s-speak for "house in a development." But, the house is occupied, and things get wonky when gunfire is exchanged and junior feels torn between the safety of the family and his loyalty to his crook-pal.
What's Good: The out-of-nowhere finish to this thing, which culminates in a satisfying wrap-up.
What's Not So Good: Junior overacts something fierce, until he's nothing but a ball of screaming weenie.
Look For: The cool jump scene with the kid on the stairs.
"Why Are You Here?"
A TV tabloid reporter seeks the scoop on trendy after-hours life. After a tour through the gnarliest dance club in town, he hooks up with a privileged young woman (Helen Hunt). He follows her back home where he finds himself embroiled in drug deal, general debauchery, and a ridiculously contrived ending.
What's Good: Not much. This one sucks.
What's Not So Good: Lots. This one sucks.
Look For: A chance to flee.
"In the Name of Love"
A ruthless assassin (Lucy Gutteridge, from Top Secret!) retreats to a resort for some respite from her stabbing and killing. However, her vacation is thrown for a loop when she meets a dashing fitness instructor (Greg "The Cool Dad" Evigan). But only betrayal awaits her in his arms, not to mention a little sumpin' sumpin'.
What's Good: Again, we have straight-up noir, and the plot twists are cool.
What's Not So Good: The assassin's lunacy is never really touched upon; her penchant for spontaneously revealing her breasts, though, is in full effect.
Look For: Those vicious stabbings with a pocket knife! Ouch!
My main complaint about the set is the selection of the tales. I think the compilers put together this offering based on the famous folks who have starred rather than choosing the best of the best. I mean, the show was on for seven years. Weren't there better episodes out there than the lame "Why Are You Here?" The answer is undoubtedly "yes," but Helen Hunt is in it, so that's what's important. Aside from "Ghostwriter," the best of the set star semi-unknowns.
I don't know if HBO plans on releasing more of the series on subsequent DVDs, but my advice to them is go for "story-quality" and not "star-quality."
All the episodes are replicated from their original source, so the picture quality is a cleaned-up version of early-'80s TV. As such, the picture (in full frame) isn't terribly crisp, and some scenes, particularly dark sequences, become tough to follow.
Sound is in stereo and is neither good nor bad. It's there and is what it is.
The only special features are three director's commentaries. One is of note, Carl Schenkel's. That guy just had nothing to talk about. Intermingled with his brief observations are long awkward silences. I could just sense the wheels working overtime in his mind to drum up something to say.
An "A" for effort, with HBO determined to unleash its original programming on the masses. A "D," though, for selection, where name recognition, not substance, was the criterion.
The Hitchhiker is ordered into county lock-up to serve a 10-day sentence. In addition, he is forced to tell the court some of his more interesting tales. Oh, he is also ordered to wear a different pair of jeans that leave something to the imagination.
Review content copyright © 2004 David Johnson; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 300 Minutes
Release Year: 1989
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Three Directors' Commentaries