Hitcher in the Dark (1989)

MAY 10, 2021


One thing about the IMDb synopses for films is that they can be written by anyone, so they're sometimes a little "off". In many cases, it does some damage to the film by increasing expectations, but in the case of Hitcher in the Dark (Italian: Paura nel buio) it actually helped me enjoy the movie more than I expected. Per the IMDb, it's about a "Sick young man driving around in his daddy's camper, looking for lone stray females to kidnap, torture, rape, and murder", and while that's not wholly inaccurate ("rape" seems a stretch, more on that soon) it paints a picture of a sleazy, hard R, unpleasant movie. So I was pleasantly surprised to discover it's actually relatively tame in those departments; I was afraid I was going to want to take a shower after but by the end I was kind of taken aback by how restrained it was.

Perhaps I was putting too much stock into its director: Umberto Lenzi, who was responsible for movies like Cannibal Ferox (castration, breast impalements, animal killing), Eyeball (eye gouging), and Nightmare City (also eye gouging!). So my (admittedly limited) familiarity with the filmmaker and the aforementioned IMDb synopsis had me thinking it was going to be a difficult watch, but nah. The body count is two, and one is off-screen entirely, so there's actually not a lot of violence (many scuffles though). And I won't grandstand here as it's a sensitive topic and it's not for me to decide what to call it, but for what (little) it's worth, rape is a loaded word that suggests certain things, and yet that isn't possible here, as our killer is impotent, something we discover in a scene where his kidnap victim (Josie Bissett) is willingly offering herself to him. I have no desire to watch "rape revenge" type films like Last House on the Left or I Spit On Your Grave ever again, but I feel this falls well outside that sub-genre.

What's really going on here is that Mark is a rich boy (his father owns a hotel chain; allusions to a certain ex-politician were obviously not intentional) who drives his RV around Virginia, picking up hitchhiking women and killing them. But one day he picks up Bissett, whose name is similar to his mother's, and according to him they even look alike (a framed photo of mom looks nothing like Bissett, but it kinda works since he's crazy). So he kidnaps her but doesn't kill her; instead he cuts her hair off to make her look more like his mom, while she tries to keep him calm and hopes to find a way to escape if he will let his guard down enough. Meanwhile, her boyfriend is tipped off that she got into an RV (the two of them had a fight and she stormed off), so he drives around inspecting every Winnebago he sees, which produces a number of amusing diversions. At one point he walks into one that's parked, and we know that it's not the right one, but Lenzi has him just start inspecting clothes that he finds inside until the owner shows up, says "You smell like a thief from a mile away!" (huh?) and proceeds to fight him. Honestly I cared more about this stuff than Bissett's plight, wondering if the dolt would get himself killed without ever even coming close to his actual target.

Lenzi also stages a few would-be rescue scenes, like when two cops come across the RV parked illegally and start looking at the windows, only to let him go when they find out who his father is. The best is when a guy randomly breaks the passenger window to steal a discman in order to fence it (it's the 1980s, so this would still be a reasonable crime), and rather than go to a pawn shop or whatever, he does what any normal thief does: drives to a random wet T-shirt contest and asks the guys who are obviously trying to focus on other matters if they'd like to buy it. Luckily, our would-be hero just happens to be there and recognizes the discman as his girlfriend's! What luck!

But I mean, this is why the movie actually ends up working, because these silly moments aren't jarringly placed next to graphic violence or even that much unpleasantness. Bissett obviously doesn't love her situation, but he doesn't torture her or anything (the haircut is a more psychologically driven attack; outside of a couple bruises when they scuffle I don't think he causes her actual bodily harm in any meaningful way throughout the film, even after she stabs him!) and there isn't much else to the movie beyond their dynamic and her boyfriend's attempts to find her. So it's like a mildly sleazy thriller peppered with some silliness (I also love when some supporting characters say they're going to go see Madonna perform "on the beach" as if she was some unsigned local act), without the tonal shifts that can sink these things unless you're really in the mood. I mean, it's safe to assume it was inspired by The Hitcher, and yet there's nothing in it as gruesome as even the finger bit, let alone the truck ripping. How often can you say the Italian knockoff is easier to watch than the US original?

Lenzi shows up on an archival interview (he passed away a few years ago), discussing the cast and how he doesn't like the ending, which was forced on him by producers. I agree that it's a little odd, but it works better than most 11th hour additions, especially since it revolves around someone surviving when I wasn't sure exactly how they "died" in the first place (though I guess at one point that person's death would have been made explicit, and the new ending had them cut back on it so everything would work). Plus the final 15 seconds are just a triumph of absurdity; if I saw this with a crowd I'd probably still be cheering. There's also a commentary with Samm Deighan and Kat Ellinger, who I greatly prefer to the Hysteria Continues guys (Vinegar seems to alternate between the two teams), where even they (read: women) note how surprisingly "tame" it is and how it works to subvert expectations. Not as informative as some of their other tracks, but an enjoyable listen all the same, and I hope they are kept in the inner circle for VS' releases. The very awkward trailer is also included, if you want most of the plot points spoiled and a final moment that makes it look like Mark is the one who is in danger.

It's rare I enjoy any late '80s Italian productions; by this point money was hard to come by for genre stuff and the product suffered greatly. But this one came together just fine; it's a little repetitive since they barely ever leave the RV (Bissett never manages much of an escape; I think she gets about 50 feet away at one point), but that's OK - the fact that it's engaging at all given how dull the other movies of the era often were (such as Deep Blood, which I suffered through a couple weeks back, or Zombie 5, which this borrows some music from!). Good to know they were occasionally able to work around their newfound budgetary limitations and come up with something that hits the spot.

What say you?


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