04
Sep
10

Taking a trip with HBO’s The Hitchhiker

a Jess Part 2 Review
Ah, the heydays of HBO: the epitome of trash in a time when American popular culture was brimming with it. I remember HBO being perms, tight pants and boobs under the glossy neon lights of ‘80s nightlife. Despite it being off limits for a kid like me back in the 80s, rediscovering it now and seeing how terribly it has aged is probably much more fun. The Hitchhiker was a thriller/chiller series of morality tales and karmic vengeance, not unlike Tales from the Crypt or The Outer Limits, but the Hitchhiker preceded these two far more successful programs by a few years. Debuting 1984, the show featured multiple directors, and a different star actor or actress featured in the lead role; all set to a hip, synth-pop soundtrack. The narrator of each episode was an unnamed hitchhiker with a thick, luxurious mullet and pants so tight it’s no wonder he always walked in slow motion. The hitchhiker introduced and closed each story with some generic warning about the dangers of the flesh, etcetera, just with no groan inducing puns like the crypt keeper.

The DVD contains two discs with five select episodes on each. The episodes are not in sequential order, and are by different directors. The episodes are so different in feel from one to the other, the incongruity is noticeable. One thing they all have in common is plenty of sleaze. Naughty characters get their due with plenty of blood, nudity and death to go around. The real reason to pick up this DVD is that each episode stars one or more fan favorites and surprisingly big name talents who may or may not have been slumming it, or just found cutting their teeth on trash cinema. Most enjoyable are Margot Kidder, Willem Dafoe and Gary Busey among many others.

The episodes are all irresistible – Margot Kidder as a greedy nurse at an invalid home, Willem Dafoe as an author who fakes his own death, Brad Dourif as a hermit rock ex-superstar, and Joey Pantoliano as a sexually deviant cult leader. But if I have to choose a couple to highlight for you…

My personal favorite of the episodes is one entitled WGOD. It features Gary Busey as a radio televangelist with dark secret. Busey creates his character so classically; complete with trademark hand gestures and a southern-drawling machismo. His character, Reverend Power is the voice of WGOD and the “Tower of Power,” a Christian radio program. He offers righteous advice to callers dealing with such salacious problems as infidelity and carnal urges. Powers cares for an invalid mother who pines for her deceased younger son, who was much more popular, talented and well liked. Living in there the shadow of his brother makes Powers start to lose his grip…. Or is he truly being guilt-tripped from beyond? Here’s where the writing gets a little incongruous. Powers receives a call from a creepy, strangely effeminate, angry voice that states things like “I’m older than God!” and “All songs are about me,” along with scripture about resurrection while lighting up the dial pad in the shape of a cross. I was excited by what might turn out to be an epic battle between good and evil – an opportunistic televangelist and an angry, thieves-in-the-temple kind of Jesus. Who it really was on the phone was a bit less exciting, sadly. What makes this episode unique is that Busey’s character is not fully painted as a bad guy. He is actually authentically devout from what we see. Yes, he eventually has to face his inner demons but the reveal at the end conjures more pity than terror.

“I want you to take it back to Washington, New York or Buddha-land, just stay off God’s case!” – Gary Busey’s character to an Asian reporter.

The most disturbing of all in this set is the abstract and oddly artistic “Homebodies” featuring Helen Hunt as a beautiful, rich young debutante whose inner pain and loneliness are numbed by her late-night heroin use. A washed up, coked up, D-list celebrity hosts a reality show about “the nightlife” and searches for the most extreme, taboo breaking behaviors in the way people party. He isn’t having any luck as the people at the club identify him immediately as a phoney. Things turn around in the men’s restroom when a primping, snorting, giggling male friend of Helen Hunt’s character finds him and invites him to document “the princess” and her evening. From there he is led by Hunt and her posse of thrill-seekers to a back alley where a man lay dying. One of Helen’s posse of worshippers shot him so that Helen could expand her collection of quotes before death. The episode spirals downhill into a frantic evening of obtaining drugs and doing them; watching The Princess degrade to a tearful heroin junkie amongst her pink, plush teenager’s bedroom. Getting more and more inebriated, it isn’t long before the fearless reporter is left too stoned to defend himself against becoming a contributor to Helen’s sick collection. This episode is disturbing, and it took me a few more attempts to have felt like “I get it.” It’s actually pretty powerful.
If you enjoy seeing hidden gems of the work of your favorite actors and actresses that star in these episodes, you definitely should buy this DVD. Volume 2 and 3 also are available, as well as the complete seasons on both VHS and DVD, though rare. If you are lucky like I was, you may be able to find them for $3.50 in the DVD bin at TJ Maxx, but if not, keep looking. And for god’s sake, if you see a hitchhiker with nut cameltoe, do pick him up – he won’t get much farther without a truckload of baby powder down there.

*Author’s note: Hulu.com features a number of episodes of The Hitchhiker available for free, albeit with commercials.


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