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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » The Hitchhiker: Volume 1
The Hitchhiker: Volume 1
HBO // Unrated // March 16, 2004
List Price: $34.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted March 14, 2004 | E-mail the Author
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When I first discovered HBO, it represented three things to me -- Fraggle Rock, incessant airings of The Beastmaster, and the anthology horror series The Hitchhiker. The latter began its premium cable run in 1983, continuing in various forms and on various outlets until its final episode bowed in early 1991. Free of the constraints of network television, The Hitchhiker was what The Twilight Zone would have turned out like if Rod Serling were a gorehound with a breast fetish. (It even had its own Rod Serling in Page Fletcher, whose appearances as the title character bookended each episode.) Buckets of blood, ample nudity, and abundant profanity differentiated The Hitchhiker from the horde of horror anthologies that would later rear their head throughout the '80s. The series also attracted directors such as Paul Verhoeven (Robocop), Roger Vadim (Barbarella), Phillip Noyce (Clear and Present Danger), George Mihalka (My Bloody Valentine), Mike Hodges (the original Get Carter), and Christian Duguay (The Assignment), as well as a number of familiar faces in front of the camera. HBO Home Video has collected ten episodes of The Hitchhiker for this inaugural two-disc release, which includes the following episodes:

Disc One

  • Last Scene (first aired 3/25/86): A fledgling director and his perky ingenue battle inexperience and a masked killer as they prepare for the pivotal last scene of their slasher flick.
  • Nightshift (10/15/85): A thieving, overbearing nurse spies a pricey ring on the finger of one of her new charges, though he's not quite ready to part with it yet... Stars Margot Kidder.
  • The Miracle of Alice Ames (7/15/89): An exploitive preacher doesn't have a convent so much as a brothel, and one of his new young converts exhibits stigmata while performing her missionary work. :snickers: Stars Joe Pantoliano.
  • Ghostwriter (1/7/86): Nothing propels book sales up the best-sellers' lists quite like a well-publicized death, and an unsuccessful writer discovers that sort of immortality when he plunges his car into a river, much to the chagrin of his unfaithful wife and scheming manager. Stars Willem Dafoe, M. Emmett Walsh, and Barry Bostwick.
  • Man's Best Friend (12/10/85): A dumped husband is convinced that everyone his wife associates with is responsible for their breakup, and his new four-legged friend makes short work of his enemies.

Disc Two

  • W.G.O.D. (first aired 11/26/85): An evangelist with an AM radio call-in show receives a series of dark messages from a source he never thought possible. Stars Gary Busey.
  • The Legendary Billy B. (3/31/87): An unrelenting writer for a tabloid rag hunts down a legendary rock star thought to be dead for decades. Stars Kirstie Alley and Brad Dourif.
  • Homebodies (3/17/87): A pair of mentally-unbalanced escaped felons bust into a model home looking for a safe but find something else entirely...
  • Why Are You Here? (3/10/87): The middle-aged faux-hipster host of a television show revolving around big city nightlife becomes ensnared in the life of the hard-partying daughter of a multimillionaire. Stars Brad Davis (Midnight Express) and Helen Hunt.
  • In the Name of Love (4/7/87): Death takes a holiday when an assassin seeks out rest and relaxation at a Parisian resort, only to see true love and her inescapable past collide.
As I watched the first episodes of this collection, I was instantly reminded why I was such a fan of The Hitchhiker. "Last Scene" and "Ghostwriter" in particular have numerous twists and turns in the plot, and just when it seems like some predictable twist is being telegraphed, things careen in another direction entirely. Many of these episodes on the first disc are effective at building a creepy, tense atmosphere, sustaining that suspense for much of their runtime. The first disc is a solid collection -- I didn't quite get the point of the ending in "The Miracle of Alice Ames", and "Man's Best Friend" got a little too over-the-top in its final moments for my tastes, but I enjoyed those five episodes enough that I was really looking forward to giving the next five a spin.

This collection assembles seemingly random episodes from The Hitchhiker's seven year run, meaning the suits at HBO Home Video had eighty-five episodes from which to choose. What the motivation was to pick some of the clunkers on the second disc was, I have no idea; none of them match up to their counterparts on the previous DVD. "The Legendary Billy B." is terrible -- I loathe Kirstie Alley, which I'm sure didn't help, but the constant rock-god fawning (by Andy Summers of The Police, who also wrote Billy's music for the episode), a meandering plot, and an unsatisfying conclusion make it seem more like warmed-over leftovers from Freddy's Nightmares than The Hitchhiker. "Why Are You Here?" is nearly as unwatchable. Okay, Jerry Rulack is a jackass with a lousy concept for a TV show (think E!'s Wild On with a fifty-seven year old male host in a bowtie and very little wild going on). Okay, he's determined to pursue a pretty girl nicknamed The Princess because it'd be a great story, except that it's really not. I just don't see the point. Uninteresting characters doing uninteresting things to reach an uninteresting conclusion. The other three episodes on the disc aren't bad, but they're still rather unremarkable. With as many episodes as HBO had to choose from, they could've done better than this.

Video: These ten episodes are presented in their original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. The footage looks dated, representative of its age and comparatively low-budget cable origins, offering limited detail and a fair amount of film grain buzzing throughout. Its more dimly-lit moments are often so murky that it's difficult to tell what's happening on-screen. Some objects in the background are also prone to mild shimmering. None of these flaws are particularly unexpected, and fans of the series are likely to be pleased, though not bowled over.

Audio: The specs I've seen floating around claim that The Hitchhiker includes a set of Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks, though this is incorrect. Each episode can be viewed in Dolby 2.0 surround or in mono. The audio quality is fine, though its origins as an mid-'80s television show still shine through. Dialogue remains discernable throughout, and some of the background effects, such as a clinking belt in the early moments of "Last Scene", are impressively clear. The music in each episode maintains a presence in the surrounds, along with some periodic scattered effects. Don't expect a roaring subwoofer, crystalline highs, or sound effects leaping from channel to channel, but what's provided here is more than adequate.

The Hitchhiker is closed captioned and also includes subtitles in English, French, and Spanish.

Supplements: Unusual for a television series of its age, half of the episodes in this collection are accompanied by audio commentaries. Disc one has the lion's share, including Paul Verhoeven on "Last Scene", director Philip Noyce and producer Lewis Chesler on "Nightshift" and "Man's Best Friend", and director Carl Schenkel on "Ghostwriter" and the second disc's "Homebodies". Verhoeven spends his commentary not really talking about the episode itself, but how it was such a turning point in his life. He delves in-depth into his career as a European filmmaker and discusses how "The Last Scene" was his first American (well, Canadian-American) production, steering him towards a career in Hollywood. In fact, he first read the script to Robocop on the flight to Vancouver.

Philip Noyce and Lewis Chesler take a different approach than Verhoeven in their commentary for "Nightshift". They actually focus on The Hitchhiker, though in a more general sense, rarely touching on the episode itself. Chesler spends a lot of time discussing the genesis and concept of the series, such as its status as the first significant U.S./Canadian co-production, how talent was attracted for the series both in front of and behind the camera, its status as HBO's first scripted series, and the methods by which episodes were penned and filmed, more like a feature film than episodic television. Noyce speaks at length about his unusual rehearsal techniques and prompts Chesler to talk about the budget of the series, and how at $500K-$600K a pop, nearly all of the first season's production budget had been spent after the first seven episodes. Their second commentary, "Man's Best Friend", has an unusual amount of overlap, with several of the same conversations told in incrementally different ways. They do focus a bit more on the episode this time, though, such as how the animal trainer had to direct the dog with silent hand gestures.

The remaining two commentaries are provided by Carl Schenkel, who passed away in December 2003, presumably not long after his tracks were recorded. He spends more time touching on the episodes than the other three commentators, noting a nasty spat with HBO over the content of one scene, the talent of Willem Dafoe and the terror he inspires, and lying, cheating, and stealing to acquire a two-camera setup. Schenkel also discusses the difficulty of shooting in Canada because there wasn't an established crew in the area. People were actually flown in from New Zealand, and he opines that those transplants may have formed the basis of the film industry in Vancouver. Schenkel ends his commentary for "Homebodies" by saying "there wasn't much to say about this one", and...he really doesn't. Among the highlights, between lengthy gaps, are James Remar consistently making his younger co-star cry whenever he walked into the room and Schenkel shooting the opening sequence on black and white film so no one could go back and change his intent.

A number of online retailers are also listing "additional scenes" as a bonus feature on this set. If any extra footage has been included, they've been incorporated into the episodes themselves. There are no submenus or anything to that effect, at least.

The disc includes a set of static 4x3 menus, with each episode introduced by a submenu listing the creative talent behind the episode alongside a brief synopsis. An always-welcome "Play All" feature allows the five episodes on each disc to be viewed in succession.

Conclusion: A stronger assortment of episodes from The Hitchhiker would've netted a much stronger recommendation. As much as I enjoyed the episodes and commentaries on the first disc of the set, it's tough to suggest shelling out between $25 and $30 for that alone. The commentaries alone are entertaining and informative enough to warrant at least a rental, and more casual fans of the series may want to go that route or keep their eyes open for an eventual price drop.

Related Releases: Koch is releasing the first 26 episodes of The Hitchhiker on DVD in Canada this April. Although it doesn't appear to have any of the extras from HBO's domestic release, fans of the series may want to consider importing the box. The temptation is even tougher to resist when taking into account that their 26-episode collection is considerably cheaper than HBO's 10-episode set, despite the assumed lack of those great commentary tracks.
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