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Home / Film / Feature Articles / Danger on the Road aka The Ballad of Howard Martin: Irvin Berwick’s Hitch Hike to Hell

Danger on the Road aka The Ballad of Howard Martin: Irvin Berwick’s Hitch Hike to Hell

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In the land of the killers, the mother’s boy will be king. That said, it takes a special kind to really stand out. In Irvin Berwick’s 1977 horror-that-could-have-been-ripped- straight-from- the-headlines film, Hitch Hike to Hell, we get a killer and a situation that not only gives you no easy answers, but also leaves a slight stain on your worldview for good measure. Hey, not unlike real life.

“There’s danger on the road, when you go thumbing a ride. You can never tell when you hitchhike to Hell. There's danger, there’s danger on the road.”
“Hitch Hike to Hell” by Nancy Adams

The title and wonderfully backwoods woe and worry of the country tinged theme song all spell out a 1970s-era scare film for potential hitchhikers. This was not an unknown tactic or worry by the late ’70s. Especially in the wake of the Zodiac Killer, who was still very much at large when this film was being made. There is a scare element to Hitchhike to Hell, for sure, but it is not the whole picture. Berwick and screen writer John Buckley created one nihilistic film where by the end, you have to ponder who or what exactly is the real villain.

Opening with an off screen female scream and a shot that goes into full color with the sight of a dead, bloody girl and that fantastically depressing ear worm of a song, Hitch Hike to Hell is letting us know from the beginning that we have purchased a ticket for one on the no fun train. A red van trails the soaked in sunshine and dirt hills of small town California, with its driver being one Howard Martin (Robert Gribbin). A clean-cut, good looking in a whole milk, bespectacled young man sort of way, Howard works for Baldwin Cleaners and while making his deliveries, likes to help out a stray hitchhiker or two along the way.

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However, this good Samaritan act does not go too well when he picks up a short haired girl who is heading towards San Francisco to get “…as far as I can get!” Particularly from her parents, which immediately sets him into lecture mode, telling her about how his sister Judy had also ran away from home, despite the fact that their mother “treated her like gold.” His arguments don’t register, leading Howard to lose his grip completely as he jabs that “I’m gonna do momma a favor!” and proceeds to beat, rape and ultimately murder this poor runaway.

Howard does get back to work in a haze, while his boss, Mr Baldwin (John Harmon), is visibly irritated and none too pleased with the excuse that his employee got lost after being late. His evening isn’t much better, with him arriving home to his overly doting mother (Dorothy Bennett), whose ninnying is as well meaning as it is unhealthy. Her stressing to him that “You’re all I got!” takes all the yellow highlighter markers to the phrase “familial dysfunction.”

The next day, Howard picks up another hitchhiker, a high school girl who thankfully loves her mother and is just looking for a simple ride. She makes her destination safe and sound, but meanwhile, Howard’s past exploits are starting to make the headlines. His Momma takes note of the recent spate of crime when he gets home. Wondering out loud if maybe Judy had suffered a similar fate, Howard’s mother adds that the murdered girl “had it coming.” It is growing very crystal clear for both why Howard is so messed up and the reason his sister left home.

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The police are alerted to the growing string of murders, with Captain J.W. Shaw (Russell Johnson) heading the case, along with his partner, Lieutenant Davis (Randy Echos). They have their work cut out for them when Howard picks up another hitchhiker in the form of young Gail (Jane Ratliff). She has been on the road for two months and when Howard mentions that her mother has got to be worried sick, she snaps “I hope she is!” Needless to say, he doesn’t handle it too well and Gail ends up meeting a similar fate of sexual assault and death. Howard ditches the body and Gail’s belongings, then hugs himself as if trying not to sob, before getting the van back to Baldwin’s. Naturally, he gets chewed out again for being late and missing one of the scheduled deliveries.

Momma worries about his new lack of appetite and sends him to the couch with a root beer. (Best product placement A&W ever had.) The TV greets Howard with a news report of Gail’s death, complete with a mention of the MO of strangulation via a wire hanger. He starts feeling bad, with his mother sending him to bed, where he starts moaning and screaming in his sleep. She rushes to his aid and comforts her adult son by getting into bed with him and holding him tight while he keeps saying, “I’m so cold, momma.” Howard probably never had a chance in this life.

He misses a day of work, but comes back with Mr. Baldwin being extra crabby and complaining about a blouse that was missing a ticket, before sending Howard off to attend to his routes. A dark-haired girl hitchhikes and almost gets picked up by Howard, before a man in a blue car gives her a ride first. He asks her about running away and she snaps that her parents don’t want here there and that she is better off on her own. The man in the blue car ends up being Lt. Davis, who brings her to the station to be talked to by Shaw. Pam (Beth Reis), a 16 year old runaway, gets offered the chance to go back home from Shaw, but she is headstrong about her plans of heading to New York to start a new life. Even after getting warned about the killer on the loose, she responds, “I’ll take my chances.” Shaw calls her parents, who are what experts would describe as “horrible.” Her mother acts put out at the idea of having to drive to Crescent City to pick her daughter up and her father actually yells at Shaw and tells him to never call again. Legally this makes Pam an emancipated minor (at least in the universe of this film) and all the authorities can do is drop her off at the edge of town and hope for the best.

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Howard’s running his deliveries and of course, inevitably crosses paths with the doomed Pam, who tells him all about her trip the station and reveals that she never wants to (understandably) see her mother again. He starts blinking, his face contorting to a realm of anguish and the worst kind of drive, with the film cutting to the van on the road, smartly denying the viewer the sights of Pam’s sad fate, making the whole affair even queasier. He gets back to work late, again, and has now lost his glasses, which just further irritates his living-off- of-Imodium-A-D boss. Later one while working on one of his model cars, flashes of his victims strike him and he ends up doubled over in pain, crying.

The police find Pam’s body, sending Shaw and Davis to the scene. The Captain blames himself, showing the sad state of affairs when the authorities feel more responsibility than the actual parents. However, they do find a pair of stray men’s glasses and the heat is on. Meanwhile, some rather silly instrumental music pops up and a young man (Don Lewis) approaches Howard’s van, looking for a ride. He starts telling Howard about how he is spreading his wings and that he is leaving his “nowhere home.” He tries to explain to Howard that he is “different,” which means nothing to a man mothered-to-bits and raised on potato soup and Wonder Bread. When asked about his mother, the young man declares her “the worst of all” and hilariously calls her “a peasant.” (Duly noted that this insult needs to make a come back. It is so tremendously ridiculous.) He tries explaining that she doesn’t accept him or his friends and when Howard tries to defend this woman he has never met, his hitchhiker (who is only credited as “Gay Boy,” which is a huge cop out on the film’s part, since the cat deserves an actual name) exclaims that, “I wouldn’t even care if that woman died.” His fate is pretty much sealed but given how much he tries to confide to Howard, his off screen death is particularly tragic.

Sure enough, the police end up finding his body, completely with hanger around the throat and note that hey have a real “psychopath” on their hands. (They are just now noting this??? Did someone replace the precinct’s Sanka with Folgers Crystals?) Davis states that they need to think about what kind of perpetrator drives around with coat hangers easily on hand. Things are only going to get more complicated between Baldwin being on the edge of firing the growingly erratic Howard, Davis getting the news of his wife’s pregnancy and the realization of the mess that this existence can create. When Howard ends up picking up eleven year old Lisa (Sheryl Lynn), a good kid who is running away to her grandmother’s after getting tired of hearing her parents fighting all the time over bills, the feeling in your stomach turns into a rock. Unlike the other victims, Lisa’s parents are actually not terrible as a whole and her mother flips out when she finds Lisa’s note. Davis mentions that surely the killer wouldn’t attack someone so young, but it does not take long to realize that assumption is a dangerous and depressing thing. However, it is this incident that plants the final seeds leading to the film’s understated and downer of an ending. To quote Andrew Eldritch, “It’s a small world and it smells funny. I’d buy another if it wasn’t for the money.”

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Hitch Hike to Hell, while no masterpiece, is a full on cynical view of a world where familial missteps on so many ends can lead to much pain and misery. Realistically, we are only given scraps here and there of both Howard’s and his victims’ backgrounds, but it is what we do know that paints a none too pleasant picture. Whether it is Pam’s wastes of egg and sperm donors of parents, the young guy’s family rejecting him and his friends due to his sexuality or even Howard’s mother’s disturbingly callous attitude towards her only daughter’s disappearance, there is an intrinsic understanding that the only real randomness at play here is the dumb luck of these lives intertwining. The relationship between Howard and his Mother is especially interesting. Instead of the shadows of parental abuse that we get in Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece, Psycho (1960), Howard’s mother clearly does love her son, but love is also criss-crossed with issues of control and blindness. The ease that she jumps in his bed, under the covers, to comfort her son, is distressing, as is the attitude towards a victim that is basically proxy Judy that she got what was coming to her. The fact that Howard’s go to with these substitute Judys is rape and murder is really disturbing. What the hell happened to this man and his sister? We are never given these answers and perhaps, that is for the best.

Berwick, a man with a wild career, including being a child piano prodigy and starting his directorial career off with 1959’s monster fun-schlock-film, The Monster of Piedras Blancas and ending it with 1979’s bizarro teen-crime film, Malibu High, created something quite notable with this film. It comes off a bit like a nastier ’70s TV movie-of-the-week, but is anchored by both its quiet nihilism and the performance of Robert Gribbin. While some of the actors are good, especially Johnson, who will forever be best known for his turn as The Professor on Sherwood Schwartz’s dumb and hugely popular 1960s sitcom, Gilligan’s Island, Hitch Hike to Hell is Gribbin’s show through and through. From earnest Boy Scout, to black eyed sex-killer and mixed-up man weeping in the fetal position over what he has done, Gribbin pulls it all off, creating a character who would have been a sleazy nebbish cardboard cut-out otherwise.

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Originally distributed by exploitation film maverick Harry Novak, Hitch Hike to Hell was released as a special edition DVD via Something Weird Video along with the great Kidnapped Coed (1976) back in 2002. That release is now out-of- print, as is all of Novak’s catalog with SWV. Kidnapped Coed has recently seen new life via a sweet Blu Ray release alongside the film Axe (1974) thanks to Severin, leaving Hitch Hike to Hell in limbo. For now. (Though the SWV DVD can still be had for a decent price and is definitely recommended.)

The lessons one can gleam from Hitch Hike to Hell are the following: never, ever go hitchhiking and if you’re lucky enough to be born into a functional, loving family that respects your boundaries, be very, very grateful.

About Heather Drain

Heather Drain is a fringe culture writer who has written for Dangerous Minds, Video Watchdog, Lunchmeat and Cashiers du Cinemart. She has also been a contributor to The Rialto Report, The Projection Booth, Paracinema, Cinema Head Cheese and, on occasion, as a guest writer at both Rupert Pupkin Speaks and Turner Classic's Movie Morlocks blog. Heather currently writes for Art Decades as well as her own site, Mondo Heather, and is the Music & Culture Editor at Diabolique Magazine.

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