Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Library of Classics: THE HITCHER IN THE DARK (1989)

For those just joining us, the Library of Classics consists of selections from the more unexpected or inexplicable holdings of the Albany Public Library, my main source for free movies. One that I've had my eye on for a while is Umberto Lenzi's Paura nel Buio, retitled in the U.S. and other markets to exploit the success of The Hitcher. Shriek Show released it on DVD as part of a Giallo Collection, but that label creates a false expectation that the film doesn't meet. On the other hand, you could come up with any expectation you want, and this film still wouldn't meet it.

A young man driving a Winnebago camper picks up a young woman hitchhiking on the road. She's annoyed that so many trucks, vans, etc. have gone by and only one son of a bitch, as she puts it, bothered to stop for her. The young man promptly hits the brakes, making the girl knock her head on the dashboard. "So I'm a son of a bitch?" he asks, but she strives to calm the situation. Cut to a long shot of the camper at night. Cue a woman's screams. Cut to the young woman's naked, dead body. The young man leans over her with bloody scissors in his hands, but he doesn't seem to realize what he's done. He seems genuinely confused. The only thing to do in such a situation, he decides, is to start shooting polaroids of the body. Then he feeds it to the local alligators.

It hasn't taken long for Lenzi (here directing as "Humphrey Humbert") to not just defy but spit on our genre expectations. He spent much of the 1980s making brutal horror films in the cannibal and zombie genres. You'd think he'd want to build up the driver's menace, get us scared before killing the girl -- or you'd think he'd show the driver killing the girl in gory fashion, since that's what he tended to do this decade. Instead, he does neither. So we can assume one of two things. On one hand, maybe he thinks it's enough to establish the menace of the driver by showing that he has killed somebody and might kill others later. On the other, Lenzi may just not give a crap this time.

Without ruling option two entirely, I think we have to go with our first choice. Lenzi isn't making a giallo here, but a psychological thriller or a woman-in-peril movie. The woman to be imperiled makes her appearance as the Winnebago of Evil pulls into a Virginia Beach amusement ground. A crowd has gathered around a young lady performing a desultory sort of dance to some dreadful synthesizer track playing on her boyfriend's boombox. Carlo M. Cordio bravely takes credit for this Eighties concoction, though it can't do his reputation as a composer any good. You can imagine why a crowd has formed. Is the girl drunk? Is she high? Is she going to take her top off? The answer to question three is no, but I'm not quite sure about the rest.

In a restaurant, the shades-sporting Winnebago driver bumps into Kevin, the girl's lunkish boyfriend, and is sullenly unresponsive when Kevin apologizes. He remains sullenly unresponsive behind his shades when two girls ask him if he wants to join them at the Madonna concert at the beach. Put off by his sullen unresponsiveness, one asks, "Who do you think you are, Mickey Rourke?" while the other concludes that he looks like a fag, anyway. Meanwhile, our driver observes that Kevin and his girlfriend are having a spat. She slaps him and storms out. Bingo.

(above) Josie Bissett storms out on Jason Saucier while Joe Balogh (see also below) looks on.

Before you can say, "Get the movie going, already!" the driver, one Mark Glazer, is offering the woman, Daniela Foster, a lift. He thinks Daniela's a nice name. It reminds him of a woman he knows, Danyetska. Daniela kind of looks like her, too, so he claims. He gets defensive when Daniela asks if Danyetska's a ballerina or spy. Don't make fun of her, he insists. She's about to quit this gig when she sees Kevin coming in his car in the rear view mirror. She crouches in the passenger seat so her pursuer won't notice her. With him safely past, she can try to be friends again with Mark. He wants to be friendly, after all. He offers her some Coke -- the fizzy soda in a thermos, that is, but not quite that innocuous. In fact, it isn't Coca-Cola at all. So always remember, children: when you're hitchhiking, never drink anything from Mr. Driver's thermos. The rest of Hitcher in the Dark will illustrate the importance of this point.

The situation is this: while we know that Mark will kill women on general principles, he has a special obsession over Daniela because of her purported resemblance to Danyetska -- his mother, who ran off with another man when poor Mark was young and fragile. During Daniela's captivity, he'll do a Vertigo on her, cutting and coloring her hair to make her better resemble his holy photograph of Mom. He also wants to screw her, but the confusing thing about this guy is, while he wants to screw her and wants to call her Danyetska, he doesn't actually seem to want to screw his mother. He doesn't call his victim "Mom," after all. But he blames the perversity of the situation for his failure to perform -- that and Daniela's innate whorishness. Still, he's determined to have her stay, and though he'd really like her to love him, he'll use the cuffs if he has to.

So the pattern is set for about 90 minutes of mental cat-and-mouse games as Mark tries to dominate Daniela and she tries to manipulate him into giving her chances to escape, all while Kevin tries to figure out what became of his girl. He eventually catches up with the Winnebago, only to be caught and tortured by Mark. In a scene Lenzi says was inspired by the Manson murders, Mark carves the word PIG into Kevin's hairy chest as if this will prove the man's unworthiness to "Danyetska." This comes the closest, I suppose, to being a gore highlight of a largely nonviolent film in the physical or effects sense of the word. Lenzi, who wrote the screenplay, is more interested in emotional violence here. He clearly had a portrait of modern evil in mind, though he complains in an interview that his producers forced him to change his desired "evil wins" finish to a revenge finale more typical of the Eighties.

I can credit Lenzi for trying, but he doesn't have the cast of actors to carry out his plan. The main name in the cast is Josie Bissett as Daniela. She went on to be a regular on Melrose Place, which may give you an idea of what to expect here. As for our villain, Lenzi says that actor Joe Balogh is better here than in the director's later Black Demons -- which may be reason to steer well clear of that film. Balogh is just too ordinary looking for his psycho role, and conveys no menace whatsoever. But maybe Lenzi wanted to depict the banality of evil. If so, Balogh was his man. Even if the acting had been better, I don't know if I'm really interested in a Lenzi film pitched, a few bloody moments aside, at the level of a Lifetime Original Movie. Hitcher in the Dark fails almost completely as an exploitation film. Whatever Lenzi's ambitions, he seems to have realized this himself. So he offers us extended footage of a wet T-shirt contest in mid-film as if it were a square-up reel. I've liked some Lenzi movies (Eaten Alive!, Rome Armed to the Teeth) and I know that some are bad, but I didn't expect any to be as lame as this one. The best I can say about it is that it was free -- for me, at least.

The trailer for Hitcher in the Dark is currently unavailable for embedding, but you can see it here. Truckertron has uploaded the introductory Virginia Beach scene, including Carlo Cordio's so-called music and Josie Bissett's so-called dancing as appreciated by a crowd of echt Eighties dorks.


Hans A. said...

Lenzi, for me, post-Nightmare City (1980), rarely shows any enthusiasm in his later works, especially the horror films. Hitcher, Ghosthouse, Hell's Gate, House of Witchcraft, and House of Lost Souls are cold and mostly bad. His best film of the 80s, beyond Nightmare City is the super-fun Ironmaster. Great review, though, of a lesser Lenzi.

hobbyfan said...

Uh, Sammy, your DVD box reads "Return of the Hitcher" as the movie's title, not "Hitcher in the Dark". You didn't screw this one up, didja? If you did, it'd be a first.

Samuel Wilson said...

Hans, I'd like to see Ironmaster because I dig sword&sorcery, though I resisted the Italian films back in the day.

Hobby: Strange to report, the poster is German, though the title is rendered in an alternate English version to make it even more exploitative of The Hitcher. The original Italian title translates, I believe, as something like "Fear of the Dark." Rest assured that the American DVD and the film itself are presented as "The Hitcher in the Dark."