(1991) Directed by Ate de Jong; Written by Brian Helgeland; Starring: Chad Lowe, Christy Swanson, Patrick Bergin, Richard Farnsworth, Adam Storke and Pamela Gidley
Available on Blu-ray and DVD
“We on purpose didn’t make Hell an awful place for people to be, because we wanted to take it away from a religious feeling. We didn’t want to portray Hell as a Christian Hell. We wanted to portray Hell as an iconic Hell… a combination of the mythical and the moral...” – Ate de Jong (from DVD commentary)
“You can’t phone Hell. You can drive there, but you can’t phone Hell.” – Sam (Richard Farnsworth)
Note: A capsule review of this film originally appeared in the early days of this blog.
The first time I watched Highway to Hell (no relation to the AC/DC song) on late night cable TV, I wasn’t expecting much, but something about it intrigued me. Instead of changing the channel, I was compelled to keep watching, sucked in by its quirky charms. While the film never made a huge splash among the greater community of film fans, it continued to pop up on cable now and then, and gradually developed a bit of a following. My prerogative (no, scratch that), my public service with “The Once Over Twice” is to discuss the neglected, forgotten and unloved artifacts from our recent past, such as this film.
Dutch director Ate de Jong (Drop Dead Fred) described Highway to Hell as a “mythological action film.” Brian Helgeland’s (L.A. Confidential) script is full of odd comic bits, Mad Max-style road chases, and multiple references to classic mythology. Shot mainly in Arizona on a budget of approximately $6 million, Highway to Hell was completed in 1989, but it sat on the shelf due to its financially strapped distributor, Hemdale Film Corporation. It would be another two years (three years in the U.S.) before it saw a minimal theatrical release. The film’s distribution woes didn’t end there. Although it wound up on VHS, the movie didn’t make it to DVD until 2016.
Charlie Sykes (Chad Lowe) and Rachel Clark (Kristy Swanson) are an ordinary young couple, thrown into extraordinary circumstances. On their way to Las Vegas to elope, they end up on an isolated highway. After ignoring the dire warnings of a lonely gas station owner, their car is transported to a parallel stretch of road, and Rachel is abducted by the fearsome Hellcop* (C.J. Graham). Charlie must rise to the challenge, and embark on a quest to get her back. Lowe does a nice job in his approach to the role. He’s not awed or overwhelmed by the weird sights of hell, just focused on finding Rachel before the Hellcop takes her to Hell City.
* One of Hell’s most memorable denizens, the Hellcop drives a fire-spewing supercharged police car, and his face is covered in biblical passages etched into the skin. According to de Jong, the actor became claustrophobic in the makeup, designed by practical effects wizard Steve Johnson.
Patrick Bergin is suitably charming as the satanic mechanic Beezle, who’s secretly orchestrating Rachel’s abduction. Bergin illustrates how evil can be friendly and seductive, as he fixes more than cars. He can get you whatever your heart desires, for a steep price. Beezle pretends to be on Charlie’s side, while he has his designs on Rachel.
The real standout is Richard Farnsworth, with his quiet, understated performance as Sam, the gas station attendant. Decades after his sweetheart Clara (Pamela Gidley) succumbed to a similar fate as Rachel, Sam endeavors to assist Charlie with his quest. Farnsworth adds a level of depth and credibility to a small role that other, lesser actors might not have invested as much energy in.
Ate de Jong’s Hell is full of debauchery and petty torments, including a strip club run by Jimmy Hoffa, and a coffee shop frequented by cops, where coffee and donuts are kept just out of reach. The film features cameo appearances by the entire Stiller family (Jerry, Ben, Amy and Anne Meara) and Gilbert Gottfried as Hitler (in a master stroke of casting). There’s also a cool Cerberus (with stop-motion animation by Randall William Cook), and Kevin Peter Hall as Charon. But by far, my favorite gag is the road crew of multiple Andy Warhol clones, employed by the “Good Intentions Paving Company.” Why are they there? Why did Mr. Warhol deserve such a fate? The world may never know, but it’s an amazing sight to behold.
Was Highway to Hell simply a victim of bad timing and poor distribution? Yes and no. While the movie didn’t get a fair shake out of the gates, it didn’t exactly have “blockbuster” written all over it, with its twisted sense of humor and bizarre situations. It seemed destined for a second life on home video, where it could reach a more specific audience. When all’s said and done, the basic plot follows a rather predictable trajectory (… guy gets girl, guy loses girl, guy drives into the hoary nether regions of hell to retrieve girl), but it’s the unique characters and string of crazy hit and miss (mostly hit) gags that make Highway to Hell something special. Now that it’s finally available on DVD (and Blu-ray) after all this time, you have no excuse to miss it.