An unusual combination of the Orpheus myth, contemporary horror and pop-culture satire, HIGHWAY TO HELL is an engaging if not always successful genre entry.
Young Charlie Sykes (Chad Lowe) is eloping to Las Vegas with his girlfriend Rachel Clark (Kristy Swanson). Fearful that Rachel's disapproving parents might have sent the cops after them, Charlie decides to take a back road through the desert. He stops at the Last Chance gas station for a fill-up,
and Sam (Richard Farnsworth), the elderly proprietor, warns him to stay awake on the road ahead. But Charlie falls asleep at the wheel and nearly crashes his car; the couple are then confronted by the Hellcop (C.J. Graham), a hulking scarred figure who kidnaps Rachel and spirits her away to the
Racing back to Sam for help, Charlie learns that numerous young women--including Sam's own fiancee Clara--have disappeared on the road over the years, and that if he means to rescue Rachel, he must catch up with the Hellcop before he reaches Hell City. Sam lends Charlie his old car, a rifle and
some shells, and after being chased by a real cop, Charlie manages to drive through a dimensional barrier and into hell itself.
Rachel, meanwhile, has attempted to escape the Hellcop when he stops at Pluto's Diner, but she is grabbed by a biker gang led by the hotheaded young Royce (Adam Storke), who hands her back over to the demonic officer. After his own run-in with Royce's gang, Charlie catches up to Hellcop, but is
run off the road by him after a chase. His damaged car is picked up by Beezlebub (Patrick Bergin), an easygoing mechanic who claims to be able to fix anything and has a young boy named Adam (Jarrett Lennon) assisting him. Beezlebub tells Charlie that Rachel is safe from claiming by the devil when
Charlie admits she's not a virgin; he then fixes Charlie's car and sees him off. But Adam stows away in the car, and reveals to Charlie that his entire family was killed by Hellcop. Charlie promises to take Adam back to earth with him once he rescues Rachel.
Arriving at Hoffa's casino, Charlie discovers Rachel trapped in a cage and attempts to free her, but Hellcop shows up and shoots him before spiriting Rachel away again. Beezlebub, who has been looking for Adam, "fixes" Charlie and revives him, then attempts to talk Charlie out of his attempted
rescue. He fails, and Adam stays behind with Beezlebub as Charlie drives on. He eventually catches up to Hellcop's car, parked outside some caves; there he meets Royce's girlfriend, who turns out to be Clara (Pamela Gidley). She warns Charlie that he, like herself, will be forced to make a choice
that might doom him if he presses on, but he does, and successfully resists the temptations of a demon disguised as Rachel.
Crossing the river Styx, Charlie finds Rachel in the devil's lair; the dark lord tries to tempt Rachel into staying, but Charlie talks him into letting them leave. Fending off more of hell's denizens and eluding the pursuing Hellcop, Charlie and Rachel once again encounter Beezlebub, who they
realize is actually the devil himself. Charlie insists on taking Adam with him, and Beezlebub, who admires the young man's goodness of spirit, agrees to a contest: if Charlie can outrace the Hellcop, he can take Rachel and Adam back, but if not, he'll have to leave them both behind. Using a nitro
booster hidden in Sam's car, Charlie wins the race and emerges back on earth--but the angry Hellcop follows them and attempts to kill Charlie before being blown away by Rachel with Sam's shotgun.
A surprisingly capable little horror comedy, HIGHWAY TO HELL could have become something of a cult item with the proper handling. Unfortunately, embattled distributor Hemdale kept it on the shelf for over a year and then dumped it out for a quickie release with a lousy ad campaign. The movie
deserved better. Although its mixture of comedy and chills is somewhat uneven, Brian Helgeland's screenplay is consistently inventive, and director Ate De Jong (DROP DEAD FRED) offers a fast-paced and generally entertaining ride with some good action scenes and in-jokes.
One of the funniest sights in hell is the "Good Intentions Paving Company," which turns people who say things like "I only slept with my boss to advance my professional career" into road surfacing. There's also a throwaway shot of a table in the lounge at Hoffa's casino which has spaces reserved
for the likes of Moammar Qaddafi, D.W. Botha and ... Jerry Lewis.
On the horror side, HIGHWAY TO HELL benefits from strong makeup effects by Steve Johnson (particularly Hellcop's inscription-carved face) and brief stop-motion sequences by Randall William Cook. The subplot involving Charlie's attempts to bring Adam back to the real world is not as maudlin as one
might expect, and the action sequences are well-executed. The actors generally acquit themselves well, with Lowe a sympathetic hero and Swanson (BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER) bringing pluck and energy to what is largely a thankless role. Bergin (SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY, LOVE CRIMES) has less to do
than his star billing might suggest, but does a good job nonetheless as the well-spoken devil.
Although some of the sequences appear to suffer from lack of coverage, De Jong does provide the film with a strong visual look and an offbeat atmosphere; Robin Vidgeon's sun-baked photography gives the desert locations a forbidding feel; and the score by Hidden Faces is properly eccentric. HIGHWAY
TO HELL is no masterpiece, but it is a genuine video find. (Violence, profanity, sexual situations.)
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