Thursday, April 8, 2010

Television Review: THE HITCHHIKER- 'W.G.O.D.' (1985, Mike Hodges)

Stars: 4 of 5.
Running Time: 26 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Directed by Mike Hodges (GET CARTER, PULP). Starring Gary Busey, Geraldine Page (THE BEGUILED, THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL, INTERIORS), Robert Ito (SOYLENT GREEN, THE ADVENTURES OF BUCKAROO BANZAI). Written by Tom Baum (who did CARNY with Gary Busey and Jodie Foster).
Best one-liner: See review.

Well, folks, it's that time again. Time for more HITCHHIKER. Today, we've got a curious episode- one that takes itself seriously and, surprisingly, deserves to be taken seriously. It comes to us courtesy of director Mike Hodges, writer Tom Baum, and stars Gary Busey and Geraldine Page- altogether higher standards of production than us HITCHHIKER viewers are accustomed to.

Our story centers around a hardcore, evangelical radio preacher (on the AM frequency of WGOD, naturally) played by one Mr. Gary Busey. He truly pours his body, heart, and soul into this performance. He is connected- he's electrifying, terrifying, and borderline possessed. It's just the sort of performance which convinces me that if he wasn't perceived as something of a whack job by the community, he'd be one of the most respected, acclaimed actors working today. (Thank God he got an Oscar nomination while he was still reasonably normal; now they have no choice but to invite him back as an attendee, year after year!)

We begin with a leisurely helicopter shot, gliding above the landscape surrounding a radio station- I'm unsure if it's meant to be God's perspective or the POV of radio waves, but we descend to Earth to find Busey answering the phones and preaching up a storm. It's a joy to watch- kind of like when Burgess Meredith is riffin' on the English language in THE MANITOU. Words and sheer physicality emanate from Busey with natural, demented vigor. For a moment, I wondered if perhaps now we can imagine what it would have been like to watch Mozart go bananas on a harpischord in his prime. "THE AIRWAVES BELONG TO GOD!" "Can ya hear me, Dade County?!" "JEEEEEEE-SUS!" "Tower of power! Tower of power!" "How may Gawwwwwwd help you?"

Note the upcoming callers: 'Child Abuser,' 'Fatty,' and 'Seduced and Abandoned.'

Advice to a serial-adulterer: "Now I know you're hot for this man! And the only married man you're not hot for is your I lyin'? Dump this turkey!" Before things can reach transfigurative levels, we get a nasty little dose of reality.

"No matter how big he is, there's one caller up there he doesn't want to hear from."

What is this wetness? Something is dripping. It almost feels like an enormous, soggy... towel has been draped upon me like a shroud. Wait- Hitchhiker, do you know anything about this?

Back in the studio, some investigative journalists (led by Robert Ito) arrive and announce their intention to do a piece on the Reverend Busey. Busey bristles: "You just remember here- God's the story, not me, and He's got nothin' to hide!" Busey naturally slips his actual personality into the character, and, in its own way, it only makes his performance all the more spot-on. Like Busey, the Reverend is the sort of man who greets strangers with a hearty slap on the back and a friendly, toothy smile. But even at this early point in the narrative, Busey allows us a glimpse of something deeply damaged lurking in the shadows beneath the Reverend's glossy exterior. Ito's reporter reveals that he's an agnostic to which Busey replies- "That's a pretty glib attitude you're ridin'– it may not get you into hey-ven!"

Unusual events begin to transpire inside the radio station, beginning with some aural feedback that can only be described as some kind of supernatural transference. A perturbed Busey leads the reporters away from station headquarters and to his family home, and finally convinces them to leave him alone. It must be noted that Busey tours the town in a ginormous white luxury car featuring a fittingly absurd hood ornament:

Once inside, we're entreated to an inkling of the Reverend's upbringing as he ascends the stairs to a space which recalls childhood repression and psychological imprisonment.

We meet his mother (played by Geraldine Page, widely considered to be one of the greatest actresses of all time) who listens incessantly to recordings of her dead son (and the Reverend's brother) eerily singing. Despite some elements of cliché, it's actually kind of scary.

Busey heads to a rally where he riles up the locals and makes anti-scientific pronouncements such as "God wants you to have faith in him, not chemicals!," and anti-abortion statements like "I don't want a dead Jesus! I DON'T WANT A DEAD JESUS!!!" Needless to say, Busey is fantastic.

That evening, at home, Busey receives more frightening transmissions through his television. Suspecting the "TV people" of "tamperin' with my machinery!," a crazed Busey braves a thunderstorm to return to his station, where (literally?) all hell breaks loose.

I won't reveal too much about what happens next, but there's a few moments perhaps inspired by HAUSU (or at least THE SHINING), and we notably see, in my opinion, the first genuine scare in the entire HITCHHIKER series. (But it has more to do with the high stakes raised through the performances of Busey and Page than any trappings of 'scariness.') Then, after a satisfying conclusion which I shan't go into, guess what?

Yeah, we're all done here.

Despite your best efforts, Hitchhiker: four stars.

-Sean Gill

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