"I'm gonna punish you, Judy...punish you for what you did to Mommaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!"
The name 'Harry Novak' is practically synonymous with 'exploitation'. Through his company Boxoffice International (named after the respected industry magazine), Novak produced such genre classics as Mantis In Lace, Please Don't Eat My Mother, Wham Bam Thank You Spaceman, and much of Jean Rollin's erotic work. Something Weird Video has released a number of Novak's films to DVD, including this latest double feature, collecting Hitchhike To Hell and Kidnapped Coed.
Hitchhike To Hell was apparently lensed sometime in the late '60s, though a full decade had passed by the time Boxoffice gave it a theatrical release. Robert Gribbin stars, and to my complete and total amazement, he actually went on to work on other projects, most notably as the third of four Richard Abbotts on One Life To Live and a small role in Steve Guttenberg's feature film debut, The Chicken Chronicles. Anyway, Gribbin is Howard, a young man who's on the slow side, but he works hard at the laundromat and sure does love his momma. In fact, he loves his momma so much that the thought of her being hurt makes him violently angry. Howard's sister ran away some years ago, breaking their mother's heart and was never heard from again. Living where so many highways cross leads to an overabundance of hitchhikers, and Howard feels compelled to pick up each and every one. To those unfortunate enough to admit to hating their mothers...well... Howard remains blissfully unaware of his violent tendencies, though he continually finds himself unable to explain his lengthy delays to his boss (John Harmon) or why so many disturbing images appear before him while indulging himself in his favorite hobby. Thankfully, Russell Johnson -- yup, the Professor himself, in his first feature film role after Gilligan's Island wrapped -- is on the case, trying to make sense of the available clues as the body count continues to rise...
The progression of the plot goes something like (1) Howard picks up a hitchhiker, asks if the individual is running away, and follows up with a question about his or her mother. Five times out of six, the reply doesn't meet with Howard's approval. Wackiness (or more accurately, rape and murder) ensues. (2) Howard shows up late to work and comes up with some lame excuse for his craggy yet forgiving boss. His cute co-worker, the only particularly attractive woman in the movie, is inexplicably sympathetic. (3) The Professor and his shades-of-Big-Jim-Slade sidekick mull over the evidence and chat about the murders. (4) Howard's mother insists that he eat dinner. He declines in the most whiny, childish way possible before retreating to his room with a can of A&W root beer to work on "his hobby", assembling model cars. I don't know if it's the glue or what, but each and every time, Howard has a flashback to the murder's he's committed. Wash, rinse, repeat. Sure, the order my vary slightly from time to time, but repeat all of that for 90 minutes and you have the general idea.
Hitchhike To Hell is really not very good at all. The casting is a trip, though. Howard's first victim is sorely miscast as a young runaway, spouting off that she's "over 18, I can do whatever I like". Technically, thirty-two is indeed over eighteen, but that's still deceptive. Robert Gribbin is hysterically over the top as Howard, hamming it up so much that I feel compelled to chop him up into little pieces, smother him with barbeque sauce and vinegar, and enjoy him on a toasted bun with fries and onion rings. The fits of pain that precede his psychotic outbursts left me laughing each and every time, without fail. Considering how Oedipal the relationship between Howard and his mother is, the presence of severe psychological damage shouldn't have been a difficult call to make. There is also some very out of place filler in the form of a subplot dealing with the pregnancy of the lieutenant's wife. Why it's there, I'll never know, as it doesn't in any way relate to any of the events in the movie, and the lieutenant himself is a minor supporting character. He does have a cool bed, though. There's absolutely no suspense at any time. The violence seems to decrease with each successive murder, a couple of which take place entirely off-screen. Hitchhike To Hell is kind of fun to sit through once due to its sheer putridity, but I can't realistically imagine subjecting myself to it again.
The title sequence of the second movie, humorously enough, flashes "Jack Canon as" on one card and "Kidnapped Coed" on the next. Despite what this gaffe may indicate, Canon is unmistakably the kidnapper, Eddie Matlock (no relation, I'm sure, to Atlanta's favorite fictional son). The "coed", played by Leslie Ann Rivers, looks much better on the poster art than she does in the movie. Anyway, Rivers plays Sandra Morely, a rich girl who relies on the old man's money when she's abducted. Though she makes several valiant attempts to escape from Eddie's clutches, Stockholm Syndrome sets in after a while, changing the gameplan entirely. As the tagline says, "he only wanted the ransom -- until he saw her!"
Kidnapped Coed is as brutal as Hitchhike To Hell is unintentionally comical. Most kidnap flicks spend too much time on the set-up, also making the mistake of cutting away to different characters and their role in the plot on far too regular a basis. Sandra is kidnapped within the first two and a half minutes, and the rest of the movie deals not with the attempts to rescue her, but on the relationship formed between Sandra and Eddie. One alternate title, for what it's worth, is the more descriptive and accurate Date With A Kidnapper. Production values are respectable, all things considered, as is the acting (with the possible exception of the crazed farmer; no idea what's going on there). Keep your eyes peeled for Larry Drake (LA Law, Dr. Giggles) as an orderly at a retirement home, by the way. The ending comes somewhat suddenly and resolves little. The last line, though, is classic, even if I had to replay it three or four times to figure out what the unnamed character is saying.
Neither Hitchhike To Hell nor Kidnapped Coed represent the best exploitation cinema has to offer. I'd be more tempted to lump Hitchhike in with camp than exploitation, considering the near-total lack of the traditional elements of nudity and on-screen violence. Kidnapped Coed is on the other end of the spectrum, featuring one of the most brutal rape sequences I've seen since I Spit On Your Grave. Kidnapped Coed is simultaneously difficult to watch and strangely compelling. I guess my interest in exploitation is closer to the cartoonish extreme violence of Blood Feast. Then again, a release from a company called Something Weird Video obviously isn't going to interest everyone. The presentation of both films is, in keeping with Something Weird's excellent track record, quite nice, and there is a decent collection of supplemental material as well.
Video: Both films are presented at an aspect ratio of 1.33:1. Despite being released theatrically in the late '70s, this would seem to be the proper aspect ratio for each. Hitchhike To Hell in particular has such a number of shots with characters' mouths so low in the frame that even slight matting would render the film nearly unwatchable.
Hitchhike To Hell appears to have been shot on rather unremarkable 16mm stock, so its somewhat soft, grainy appearance is to be expected. Kidnapped Coed, on the other hand, is a much more professional production. Something Weird rarely disappoints in terms of quality, but Kidnapped Coed may be their best looking effort yet. The image is crisp, clear, and exhibits a striking amount of detail for an obscure, low-budget film of its age. Grain only leapt out at me in a couple of shots, and even then not to any great extent. Unlike Hitchhike To Hell, where colors are spotty and vary somewhat from shot to shot, the palette of Kidnapped Coed is rock solid and accurately saturated with those typically dull '70s hues. There was a particularly noticeable video hiccup I spotted while watching Kidnapped Coed for the first time, but I didn't have my trusty pen and paper handy to jot down the timecode. A quick scan through the film on my DVD-ROM wasn't able to turn it up either. Oh well. Overall, both movies look as good as can reasonably be expected.
Audio: The original mono soundtracks for Hitchhike To Hell and Kidnapped Coed are included on this DVD. Though there aren't any significant problems worth noting in either movie, Hitchhike To Hell is greatly limited by the way the film was recorded. It's difficult at times to understand some of the dialogue in Hitchhike, though I'm confident that this can be traced back to production and is not the fault of Something Weird. I don't really have much to say beyond that. Neither track is sure to impress, but I'd imagine they offer a fair improvement over what was heard over a single crackling speaker hanging in the car window at the drive-in.
Supplements: Trailers for both features are included, along with a trailer for Kidnapped Lover. There are also three related shorts, two of which are perfect for MST3K-style riffing. The Hitch-hiker isn't the usual overbearing educational tripe, spending its three minutes on a young woman whose car breaks down and resorts to stripping to get a ride. The Dangerous Stranger marked the beginning of Sid Davis' scare-them-kids-straight-with-campy-films career, funded in part by his boss, the legendary John Wayne. The short, which runs around nine and a half minutes, ends with an excellent series of drawings containing grotesque, stupid children. The Cautious Twins is a brief animated short that has...well, the Cautious Twins (they even have monogrammed 'C's on their outfits) being cautious.
Though I was hesitant about the idea of watching a decade-old 27 minute tour of Harry Novak's offices, the footage, captured with a handheld camcorder, is actually great. It begins and ends rather abruptly though, and I have no idea who it is that's visiting the offices or why. Whoever they are, their knowledge of schlock-cinema is second to none, and they prompt a number of comments about Harry's films and the way he's done business over the years. Harry may be a hopelessly disorganized packrat, but that makes for some good footage, as packrats seem to have a story about everything within arm's reach.
Rounding out the 'runaway residue' is a five-minute collection of promotional art for Novak's various films, with unmemorable "soundtrack greatest hits" blaring underneath.
Conclusion: Readers with more than a couple of Something Weird titles on their DVD shelves will almost certainly want to add this double feature to their collections at some point. I wouldn't be in any great rush, though. Those with a more casual interest or faint curiosity in the genre should probably steer clear altogether, though. I have no qualms about recommending the DVD, but the films themselves are another matter.