Following up on last year's set, HBO Home Video has issued another ten-episode volume collecting episodes from the genre anthology series The Hitchhiker.
The selection the first time around seemed to be almost entirely random, but the emphasis on this followup volume appears to be on star power. I can't imagine it's a coincidence that HBO chose episodes with guest stars who have been in the news quite a bit as of late -- Sideways' Virginia Madsen, Fat Actress star Kirstie Alley, and the late Jerry Orbach -- along with appearances from the likes of Sandra Bernhard, Elliott Gould, Harry Hamlin, Gene Simmons, Tom Skerritt, and Fred Ward. Just like last time, these ten episodes are spread across two discs.
- O.D. Feelin' (first aired 1/28/86): A massive bag of drugs inspires betrayal as it's handed off to one overacting, cartoonishly-nicknamed cariacture after another. This episode is absurdly over-the-top to the point of almost being surreal, yet at the same time, it delivers a very heavy-handed moral through an exceedingly straightforward plot. Nose-pinching, groin-kneeing...I dunno, I sincerely have no idea what they were going for here. The cast includes Joe Flaherty, Gene Simmons, and Sandra Bernhard doing her best Wolfman Jack impression.
- True Believer (first aired 3/11/86): Tom Skerritt plays a grizzled detective struggling with some personal demons, and his investigation into the suicides of various religious figures brings him in contact with a more literal variety of demon. "True Believer" is the single best episode on this DVD set -- creepy, atmospheric, and effective.
- Perfect Order (first aired 2/17/87): A busty model is going nowhere with her career, but she's willing to go to any lengths to pose for an avante-garde photographer with a torturous technique. Virginia Madsen stars as the model, and if you're curious, yup, she gets topless. A couple times, even. A fairly mediocre episode, and...c'mon, death lasers?
- Cabin Fever (first aired 5/12/87): A muscular gigolo with a taste for married women finds himself a new playmate, working for her and her aging movie director husband at their getaway cabin. The director catches on immediately what's happening between Rick and his wandering wife, and things quickly escalate to become murderously tense. The episode itself would have just been merely okay if not for the presence of Jerry Orbach, who's spot-on perfect with his dry, condescending attitude towards his new houseboy.
- A Whole New You (first aired 2/1/91): Elliott Gould stars as Auggie Benson, an informant slated to undergo radical reconstructive surgery at an experimental French clinic, the first step towards his new life. The loathesomely overbearing Auggie noses around the clinic and discovers there's more to the procedure than a couple of nips and tucks. It's better in concept than execution, but it's still nice to see Elliott Gould beating the living shit out of someone (twice!).
My biggest gripe about HBO's first volume of Hitchhiker episodes was how uneven it turned out,
almost as if the two-DVD set had been divided up into "good episodes" and "mediocre episodes", with a disc dedicated to each. This followup volume is even worse. It's not that these episodes are bad -- it's just that most of them are entirely unremarkable. The marquee value of its cast is the only reason I can fathom why "O.D. Feelin'" was included, and "Dead Heat" seems redundant with the fairly similar "Perfect Order" packed on a couple episodes back. Even though there are a couple of standouts like "True Believer" and "Cabin Fever", there's just not enough meat on this set to recommend buying it, especially with its $34.95 sticker price. Established fans of the series and some of the talent involved should still consider picking up this two disc set, even if it's only as a rental, but this volume is a noticeable step down from HBO's inaugural release last year.
- Dead Heat (first aired 3/3/87): Another episode about a demanding artist with a goofy climax? Anyway, Fred Ward plays a sculptor whose latest masterpiece centers around a grisly prom night car crash he witnessed as a child. His manipulation of a drifter and a female model he can't let go builds to a climax involving a car chase and a flamethrower. Proceeding at a much more relaxed pace than any of the other episodes in this set, "Dead Heat" is a lot less interesting than that description may make it sound.
- The Curse (first aired 2/25/86): A real estate entrepreneur (Harry Hamlin) learns a tax shelter has turned him into a slumlord when a rundown property nearly costs one of his tenants his life. An encounter with a beautiful stranger and a broken promise culminate in a violently internal struggle that quickly turns external. I liked the moral ambiguity of Hamlin's character -- fumbling with a decision to go forward with his dream home or renovate a rickety tenement seems a lot more believable than if he were some sort of repulsive snake (so to speak). There's also some pretty cool and mildly disturbing imagery near the end of the episode that definitely causes it to end on a high note.
- Out of the Night (first aired 10/29/85): A teenager fleeing from the police ducks into a hotel in search of a friend he thinks can help. Instead, he stumbles upon a bunch of bizarre characters, including Kirstie Alley at her most annoying (she's wacky! she's mysterious! she's grating!) and a seductive young woman, both of whom try to drag him down a different path. It's less conventional than a lot of the other episodes on this set, and the twist near the end is unexpected, but no, it's really not very good.
- Secret Ingredient (first aired 5/5/87): A sleazy salesman who uses his charms to con women into shilling nutritional supplements finally crosses the wrong people. The way that "secret ingredient" is mentioned so frequently throughout the episode (not to mention providing its title), it seemed pretty obvious that the reveal at the end would revolve around that. Nope, actually, the ending's kinda dumb, in keeping with the blandness of the rest of the episode. Genre vet Candy Clark guest stars.
- Man of Her Dreams (first aired 4/8/86): Rather than taking the usual "moral of the story" approach, this episode is more of a murder/mystery with a loan officer whose romantic daydreams seem to document the attacks of a serial killer. Average.
Video: All ten episodes are presented in their original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. The Hitchhiker was shot on film then edited on video, offering the sort of ample film grain and smudged detail you might expect from that sort of early effort. These episodes look decent enough on a small television, but the limitations of the source material become much more exaggerated on larger displays. None of this is surprising, and I don't think these episodes could realistically look much better unless HBO went to the great expense of digging up the original negatives and recutting everything again.
Audio: The audio options are actually a little more limited this time around. The previous set offered monaural and stereo surround tracks; this second volume includes a single Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kbps) track for each episode. The stereo audio sounds okay, though. The score (often provided by the Saban/Levy team) comes through well, and even though the dialogue has somewhat of a flat, dated quality, it's discernable throughout. Perfectly adequate.
Subtitles in English, French, and Spanish are provided, and these ten episodes are also closed captioned.
Supplements: The number of audio commentaries has taken a hit from one volume to the next, halved to just two tracks.
Director Carl Schenkel contributes an audio commentary for "True Believer", by far the best of the episodes on this collection. It's also an outstanding commentary, covering everything from the ambitious original concept, the freedom of this particular production after previous struggles with HBO, juggling lots of cameras and several simultaneously shooting crews, and even transforming the original hero of the piece from a Catholic priest to a cop. With as much as Schenkel and company seemed to be winging in during the filming of this episode, the end result certainly doesn't show it. I'm not sure when this commentary was originally recorded, considering that Schenkel passed away in December 2003,
but hopefully HBO has a stockpile of commentaries to include on future releases.
The second disc includes a commentary with director Philip Noyce and actor Harry Hamlin on "The Curse". Noyce opens the episode by bombarding Hamlin with questions about Clash of the Titans and the course of his career, then he discusses where the state of his own directorial career at the time. In the 26 minute episode, they don't really say anything about "The Curse" specifically until almost eight minutes in. After their extended initial pleasantries, they're somewhat quiet and really don't seem to remember that much about the episode at all. There are a few scattered comments like the inspiration for the interracial love scene coming from a '60s skin mag, but other than that, it's almost entirely just random chatter.
The disc includes a set of static 16x9 menus, with each episode preceded by a submenu listing the creative talent behind the episode alongside a brief synopsis. The always-welcome "Play All" feature allows the five episodes on each disc to be viewed in succession.
Conclusion: Their first volume was flawed, but HBO managed to scrounge up even more mediocrity the second time around. A stronger selection of episodes or a considerably lower list price would've netted a more enthusiastic recommendation. As it stands, this second volume of episodes from The Hitchhiker is only recommended to loyal fans of the series or these particular guest stars, and even then, a rental would probably be your best bet. Rent It.