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Hell's Highway:
The True Story of Highway Safety Films

Hell's Highway: The True Story of Highway Safety Films
Kino International
2003 / B&W & color / 1:37 full frame flat / 91 min. / Street Date October 28 2003 / 29.95
Starring John F. Butler, Earle J. Deems, Rick Prelinger, Mike Vraney
Cinematography Steve Anderson
Produced by Felicia Feaster, Tommy Gibbons, Bret Wood
Written, Directed and Edited by Bret Wood

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Bret Wood has done what Savant thought was impossible, and that's to make a thoughtful, watchable and worthwhile feature about the notorious true-life highway safety films of the 50s, 60s and 70s, the gore films that showed real auto fatalities close-up in blood-drenched horror.

Already considered legendary back in 1970, the films bring into focus the controversial issue of using scare tactics as a psychological tool for behavior modification. Wood lets the surviving makers of the films speak for themselves and keeps a careful lid on his editorializing. We see plenty evidence of a bizarre subgenre of intructional film that steps right over the taboo line that fictional films never cross - real pain, mutilation, bloody horror and gruesome death.

The docu takes some missteps but succeeds in approaching its sensational subject without itself becoming sleazy. It's a serious docu that shows the extreme end of the educational films examined in Driver's Ed., The Educational Archives.

The docu charts the history of the Highway Safety Foundation, which began as a local Ohio effort by a small group of photographers to document the aftermath of fatal car crashes. Richard D. Wayman saw the need to publicize the horror few people witnessed in person, while championing the cause of the Highway Patrolmen who had to deal with these traumatic wrecks. With official cooperation he began organizing photographers, and then moving up into the realm of 16mm color photography.

The resulting short subjects range from twenty to thirty minutes in length, at least half of which is ghastly wreck footage often shot before the living or dead victims could be removed from the vehicles. The photography is basic newsreel stuff, repeatedly described as primitive yet incredibly effective. Stentorian narrators spell out the traffic violations that led to ferocious scenes of mayhem. Cars are crushed, twisted, wrapped around trees and poles; the passengers have been smashed through windshields, mangled or burned alive.

Hell's Highway features interviews with a key maker of the most famous of these films, Earle J. Deems, along with John R. Domer and policeman John Butler. All of them contribute to an account centering around Wayman of the Highway Safety Foundation, which until the 1970s had a monopoly on this kind of film. They state their case for the scare film as an honest way of showing the results of bad driving, drunken driving, speeding and simple inattention, claiming that their difficult-to-watch films had beneficial effects.

We also get hindsight opinions from a qualified collector historian, Rick Prelinger. He made a name for himself with this reviewer back in the late 80s with his groundbreaking Voyager/Criterion laser disc compilations he called Ephemeral Films. Prelinger nails the cultural context of industrial safety short subjects produced by insurance companies and industrial companies. They often had an underlying economic motive - to shift responsibility for injuries in unsafe factories from the bosses back to the employees themselves.

Wayman's highway safety films are shocking now, but watching one in 1959 must have been incredibly traumatic. They use ominous music to good effect and the clumsiness of staged events only adds to the reality - there are no actors here, folks. Often worse than the in-your-face closeups of shredded flesh and charred limbs are the audio snippets recorded at the scene - men screaming in pain, an old lady sounding like a shrieking banshee or some kind of animal. It's all there, including full coverage of an accident crew finding a baby's bottle in a wreck from which all the adult corpses have been removed. They roll the car over, and sure enough, find a dead baby underneath. Hell's Highway presents these taboo images just as they were in the original films. Unpleasant as they are, they're the truth and therefore don't carry an exploitative charge.

Prelinger and contributing interviewee Mike Vraney reach no conclusive answers for the question of whether or not these films were an effective deterrent to bad driving. Everyone admits that common entertainments has become so violent that these films no longer have the same impact. Prelinger argues that they co-opted the familiar establishment view that teen dating and necking are a prime cause of traffic accidents. The frequent Last Date theme shifts a lot of moral guilt onto the crime of just being young.  1

The saving factor is that Wayman and his scare documentarians were sincere do-gooders. If they got a thrill from seeing human suffering, it doesn't show in the films themselves or in their attitudes now. The movies are tough to watch but not demeaning or sleazy. Gore-hound film fans will find something different than they expect. I watched it while my wife was out on the freeway driving home from work and guess who's safety was on my mind the entire time?

Savant's only objection to the films is their insistence that every one of the accidents we see was caused by gross negligence. The implication is always that breaking traffic laws is a potentially murderous crime (I agree) but the narrators rack up inattention and tragic mistakes as crimes too. Every person can't be a qualified pilot for a ton of hurtling metal, and we know now that cars back then weren't very safe. We see one Corvair ripped in two after losing control braking on the highway - I once drove a Corvair, and I know that in a hit-the-pedal locked-brake situation the rear-heavy car frequently spun out, like a weighted knife-thrower's blade. With their passenger-conscious construction and the simple addition of safety belts, modern cars are far safer.  2

The docu veers off its own highway for a few minutes in an attempt to tell the full story of the Highway Safety Foundation. In the 60s it branched out into other unorthodox subject matter and lost its way, eventually succumbing to financial disaster in a badly planned Telethon. Few others made this kind of film as full police cooperation was obviously required. In the 1970s, safety films by others used science and crash dummies to get their point across. One competitor utilized red paint to touch-up insufficiently disturbing death scenes.

A digression has the film company helping the police with a vice problem by setting up a camera in a public restroom frequented by homosexual men. The resulting footage ended up showing in local homes (where some of the participants were recognized) and opened a hornet's nest of trouble for the company when the papers charged them with making porno films (which one interviewee attests did happen separately). Hell's Highway fumbles with the issue here - the real crime would seem to be invasion of privacy. The cops use a private company to take surveillance pictures of citizens, and then allow the films to be shown on an exclusive home screening circuit. Somebody ought to have gone to jail for that one.

The docu takes a real misstep when it shows a few seconds of surveillance footage showing off-topic snippets of real sex activity in the restroom. We're primed for taboo crash footage, not gay sex, and if I was mildly offended I imagine plenty of viewers who will be outraged.

Slightly less offensive is a section on the company's foray into anti- Child Molesting films. One film clumsily dramatizes the kidnap and murder of two girls and ends with graphic photos of their bloodied corpses. School authorities showed the film to 6-year-old kids (!!!). We're given testimony by two of them, now adults, who admit to having been severely traumatized. Showing gore films to teenagers is bad enough but the willingness of "do-gooders" to use scare tactics against little children is no different than sticking a kid's hand in boiling water to 'teach a lesson' about the risk of scalding. As sincere as their makers might have been, I don't believe these films were really beneficial.

Finally, the idea that being a car crash victim entitles others to film and exhibit one's dead body also raises some objections. The concept of being displayed after death, whether intact or chopped up is so humiliating (am I afraid of losing control over myself?) that I wonder about the relatives of the corpses we see - most of the bodies are very recognizable. This grisly death stuff is such an intimate matter that I'd rather watch it in private.

Hell's Highway: The True Story of Highway Safety Films is a new production apparently shot on film, and the transfers look good. The key footage from the highway gore films is in prime condition and only some of the other pictures from the Prelinger and Something Weird collections are less than perfect. Audio is mostly good; the interview with Mike Vraney is poorly recorded in a classroom situation. The cover illustration and menu graphics are superb; the critic quote on the cover, "A Lynchian view of the nightmarish underbelly of middle America" is a bid for an intellectual posture that the film scrupulously avoids.

The extras on the second disc give this presentation a heavy dose of attraction/repulsion. The most infamous of the films, the original Signal 30 is shown intact along with two others filmed at ten-year intervals. There are also excerpts from 15 other pictures. To quote Gomer Pyle, it's a regular kernel copious of taboo highway horror. There are some interview outtakes with content that didn't make it into the film, including policeman Butler's limitless, tearful praise for Richard Wayman and a gallery of stills that recount the history of the Highway Safety Foundation.  3

How does one define morbid curiosity? What makes it unhealthy? I've asked myself that many times, as I love many horror films and don't consider myself morbid or a sadist. I found my answer in the Roman Polanski film Repulsion. At the conclusion, Ian Hendry enters a bathroom and catches sight of what we know to be a rotting corpse immersed in bloody bathwater. Hendry immediately flinches, recoils and starts to leave. But he instead turns slowly around and draws right up close to the body. He wants to know, he has to know the truth of what's there. He doesn't want his mind to imagine horrors later in the form of nightmares. Some things one just has to see with one's own eyes, as they say. When the venue is humanistic and non-exploitative, I'm ready to contemplate horror as well as beauty.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Hell's Highway: The True Story of Highway Safety Films rates:
Movie: Very Good with some misjudged content
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Three complete driver's Ed shorts: Signal 30 (1959), Highways of Agony (1969), Options to Live (1979); excerpts from 15 classroom films, including Mechanized Death, Wheels of Tragedy, Carrier or Killer, Death on the Highway, The Third Killer, and more; deleted scenes, trailers, image galleries
Packaging: 2-disc Keep case
Reviewed: November 1, 2003


1. I saw one of these films in 1970, I don't know which one. It ended with a shock cut of a man pulling open the door of a wreck, so that a corpse fell forward into the camera. Half of its face, already sliced open, shifted like ice cream falling off a piece of pie. In retrospect, the staged shot seems a pretty ghoulish misuse of someone's dead body.

The film played for me like a blanket punishment dished out by unfeeling adults. I was deeply affected, but not traumatized, exactly. The audience of teens was marched into an auditorium without a choice and lectured to as if we were already guilty of something. We watched in silence broken by sharp gasps and a couple of short screams. San Bernardino had its sheltered kids and its hood population - this was the brothel of Southern California, as well as being home to a big branch of Hell's Angels.

The sheltered teen girls cringed and wilted at the horrors. It was stupid to show the film to them, as the ones I knew were incredibly responsible drivers. I knew one girl who had a bad injury accident a couple of years later in college which I'm sure was not her fault. A tough crwod at the back of the auditorium snickered at the gore and mocked the whole attempt to scare them. Maybe they hadn't seen any fatal accidents personally, but they surely considered themselves invulnerable.

I sided with the hoods on one count: for our own good, adults were commiting child abuse with these movies, slamming us with their reactionary morality and guilt-tripping conservatism. The films should have been voluntary and explained in a different context, or not shown at all.

I was deeply impressed by the movie, but it didn't affect my lousy driving habits. Only fast reflexes kept my bad judgment and immature infatuation with Bullitt and James Bond from killing myself behind the wheel.


2. Which is why I wonder sometimes why I feel so good driving my 1966 Mustang, with no shoulder safety belt and a rigid steering wheel pointing three sharp pieces of metal at my chest. So far, every time I've been hit by a newer vehicle, the heavy-gauge 60s car has plowed through the opposition like it was made of tinfoil. But trees and telephone poles scare me; I became a ridiculously safe driver as soon as I had kids. Hell's Highway certainly encourages one to think about these things.

3. A Response from Reader "X", 11/02/03:

Hi, Glenn -- can I ask you a question about the child molestation short they included? It wouldn't happen to be the one where they use missing bikes as an illustration of what happened to the children? Do the girls go off into the woods with the molester, and then the actual bodies are shown? If it is, Glenn, I could never buy this disc -- that particular short was shown in my First Grade class (I was one of those six-year-olds you were talking about), and it severely traumatized me. For years I had horrible night terrors reliving that film, and I've never forgotten it. My father and mother were so upset (as were many other parents) that they got the school to never show it again. In fact, when I was reading your review just now, and it came to that description . . . I can't describe the sick feeling I felt in my stomach; my face flushed -- to this day, and I'm 38 years old. I suppose it's a stupid reaction, but it terrified me. What the hell were they thinking showing us that shit??? And by the way, I grew up in Ohio, and those driving shorts were legendary when I was taking lessons, too -- Signal 30 was -- and still is -- being shown at the local driving school. - "X"

Savant here ... sounds like the same film to me. The footage isn't as extreme as you might think, just the idea of showing it to little kids makes my skin crawl. It might be good 'therapy' to exorcise the experience with a reviewing, look back in the bathtub like Ian Hendry, so to speak ... but that's your call, of course ... GE

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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