Sometimes you’ll watch a movie and be so amazed by an unknown actor that you’ll make it a point to try and track down everything else they’ve ever done. Such was the case when I first watched Wes Craven’s 1972 horror classic, The Last House on the Left. I thought that the movie’s lead villain, Krug Stillo, was one of the most sadistic and hateful bad guys ever put on film and he was played by one of the scuzziest-looking actors I’d ever seen, David Hess. He was so convincing as a vile psychopath that I almost believed that Wes Craven must have held his auditions inside a maximum security prison. It turns out that Hess actually had an extensive background in music and songwriting (his biggest hit being Pat Boone’s “Speedy Gonzales”!), but after Last House on the Left, you just knew he was going to be typecast as a psycho for the rest of his acting career. Of course, I was so impressed by his work in Last House that I made sure to seek out some of the other B-movies where he played evil villains. One of them was Ruggero Deodato’s House on the Edge of the Park and while the movie itself wasn’t that great, Hess was still a lot of fun to watch and he got one of the funniest death scenes of all time. Hess would assume his psychotic persona for a much better film in 1977 when he was cast in the Italian exploitation thriller, Hitch-Hike. This is one of those underrated B-movies that may not sound like much on paper, but watching it, you find yourself pleasantly surprised at how solid and well-made it really is. Besides, Hess would also be cast alongside legendary actor Franco Nero and who wouldn’t want to see a showdown between Krug Stillo and Django?
The two protagonists in Hitch-Hike are a journalist named Walter Mancini (Franco Nero) and his wife, Eve (Corinne Clery), who are travelling on a road trip through California with a trailer attached to their car. Walter is an alcoholic brute who is very dissatisfied with the idea that his career is going nowhere and that he is forced to live off his wife’s money. In the opening scenes of the film, Walter practically tries to rape Eve on two separate occasions, which is an interesting way to establish your “hero”, to say the least. They soon pick up a hitchhiker named Adam Konitz (David Hess) and while most rational people would never, EVER pick up a hitchhiker who looks like David Hess, the couple has spent so much time bickering and fighting that his presence helps relieve the tension. However, things wind up getting much worse for them when it turns out that Konitz is an insane psychopath who is also a wanted fugitive after stealing $2 million in a bank robbery. Konitz takes the couple hostage and intends to force them to drive him across the border into Mexico, but he wants to have some sadistic fun with them in the meantime. He actually proposes an idea for Walter to write a book about Konitz in order to revive his fledgling career. Walter hopes to use this proposal as an opportunity to ensure the survival of himself and his wife, but even though his relationship with Eve has gotten really bad, can he just sit back and watch another man rape her? There are several complications throughout this journey, such as Konitz’s accomplices from the bank robbery showing up to reclaim their money, and Franco Nero provides one of the funniest damn things I’ve ever seen in a film when he has a complete meltdown over his car not starting.
I guess the rationale behind Hitch-Hike is that if David Hess is playing the villain, you can make the audience root for ANYBODY! As stated earlier, the opening scenes establish Walter as the most unlikable protagonist imaginable and could have easily sunk the movie. However, Franco Nero somehow finds a way to make the role work and make the viewer care about what happens to Walter. Even though you don’t necessarily like Walter, Nero is pretty fun to watch and the movie’s refusal to turn him into a standard good guy actually adds a lot more intrigue to the proceedings. The storyline of a couple being terrorized by an evil hitchhiker is as standard as you can get, but Hitch-Hike doesn’t always tell its story in a standard fashion. There’s a lot of ambiguity in the characters of Walter and Eve and their interactions with Konitz are interesting to watch. Even though Walter treats his wife so badly at the beginning of the film, you wonder if he’s going to find redemption by rescuing her from this sadistic villain. And while Eve acts repulsed by Konitz, one is left wondering whether her troubled relationship with her husband might make life on the run with Konitz and $2 million seem like a much better option. I must admit there were moments when Hitch-Hike managed to genuinely surprise me and that the film doesn’t always go in the direction you expect it to. It all leads to a surprising twist ending, where you realize that if Walter had been established as your standard likable good guy at the outset, the twist wouldn’t have worked. The action in Hitch-Hike is greatly enhanced by a terrific music score from the legendary Ennio Morricone… but I should concede that he does make one misstep by treating the viewer to a laughably bad 1970s hippie song called “Sunshine” which is repeated numerous times throughout the film. Here are some highlights from Hitch-Hike with the godawful song playing over them.
Okay, okay, I guess even the best composers make mistakes. Throughout his career, Morricone has scored about 500 films and TV productions and the thing that’s always stood out about him is that no matter what the project, he’s always given it his very best. Even when Morricone has been forced to compose music for a less-than-stellar B-movie, he almost always manages to provide the film with a very unique and memorable score. His score for Hitch-Hike is also very unique and memorable and makes the film way more interesting than it might have been, but you could probably say that about virtually aspect of the film. It was directed by Pasquale Festa Campanile, a filmmaker who was mainly known for doing comedies (with titles like When Women Had Tails!) and rarely ever did a thriller or exploitation films. However, he shows himself to have great skill for directing this sort of material and does a solid job at staging suspense scenes and building tension, particularly during a Duel-inspired sequence where Konitz chases the couple down in a large truck. In all departments, Hitch-Hike is a cut above your average exploitation B-movie. It’s a lot more intelligent and well-written than you’d expect from a Eurotrash crime thriller, and the entertaining performances from the three leads carry things along nicely. Along with The Last House on the Left and House on the Edge of the Park, Hitch-Hike makes up a chapter in the “David Hess rape/revenge trilogy” and his fans shouldn’t be disappointed. Hitch-Hike was never released theatrically in North America and pretty much remained in complete obscurity for a couple of decades until it received a DVD release from Blue Underground several years ago. It remains highly underrated, but B-movie aficionados are advised to give it look and will be surprised to find that Hitch-Hike is not just a fun and campy exploitation picture, but a *gasp* legitimately good movie!