Thursday, February 4, 2010

Television Review: THE HITCHHIKER– 'The Legendary Billy B.' (1987, Chris Thomson)

Stars: 3.3 of 5.
Running Time: 29 minutes.
Season: 4, Episode 7.
Notable Cast or Crew: Kirstie Alley (CHEERS), Brad Dourif (ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEXT, THE EXORCIST III, CRITTERS 4, THE TWO TOWERS, etc., etc.), John Bear Curtis (THE 13TH WARRIOR, THE NEVERENDING STORY III), Andy Summers (guitarist for The Police). Written by L. M. Kit Carson (THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2, co-writer on PARIS, TEXAS; star of DAVID HOLZMAN'S DIARY, former spouse of Karen Black).
Best one-liner: "Darlin', the next time you enter into someone's life make sure there's an exit."

THE HITCHHIKER was yet another 80's Horror anthology series, in the same vein as THE NEW TWILIGHT ZONE, TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE, et al. It ran from 1983-1991, first appearing on HBO, and later on USA, so it prefigured the boundary-pushing (sex, language, violence) qualities of later series like TALES FROM THE CRYPT. While it was by no means the best or even second-best show of its kind, it did have its share of quality episodes. Most notable, however, are the sheer quantity of my all-time favorite actors to appear in episodes: people like Michael Ironside, Brad Dourif, Gary Busey, James Remar, John Glover, Willem Dafoe, Klaus Kinski, Bruce Greenwood, Geraldine Page, Elliott Gould, Michael Madsen, Franco Nero, Louise Fletcher, Joe Dallesandro, Bill Paxton, Fred Ward– holy shit! Those guest stars are likely only rivaled by the original TWILIGHT ZONE! But one thing becomes apparent, real fast– "The Hitchhiker" (our narrator) is NO Rod Serling. (In the bulk of the episodes, including this one, the Hitchhiker is played by Page Fletcher– the original Hitchhiker was Nicholas Campbell.)

As each episode begins, the main theme sounds eerily similar to the introductory strains of "Yah Mo B There," which is pretty damned terrifying in and of itself. The Hitchhiker wanders in, thumbin' for a ride, and returns from time to time to share his knuckleheaded observations about the events which have transpired. I'll get to his well-feathered inanities in a minute- but I will be reviewing a few of these in the coming weeks, generally not because of the quality of the show, but because of the quality of guest star. And I'll begin with one of the greats– Brad Dourif.

THE LEGENDARY BILLY B. is slightly weirder than your average HITCHHIKER episode. Written by Bizarro-Americana maestro L.M. Kit Carson, it's somehow the exact median point between THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 (which he wrote) and VELVET GOLDMINE. The plot: rag-mag reporter (Kirstie Alley) and her faithful Brit photographer (Andy Summers of The Police) hunt down the legendary Billy B., some kind of down-home combo of Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison who was infamously gunned down during a performance. They discover that he may have faked his own death and could be presently living in a creepy (CHAINSAW MASSACRE-esque?) house in the middle of nowhere. And Brad Dourif, whose character bears more than a passing resemblance to the notorious 'Chop-Top' from TCM 2, just might be the Legendary Billy B. Wow, wow, and wow. There's a lot going on here. And I seriously think this may have been an inspiration for VELVET GOLDMINE. (Along with CITIZEN KANE, of course.)

As these shows are wont to do, one of the characters is generally ripe and quite deserving of some ridiculous existential punishment. Here, it's Kirstie Alley as the 'journalist' who needs needs needs to get the scoop.

Everywhere she goes, she leaves behind a trail of smoldering craters where folks' lives used to be. She's always sounding off with the most preposterous remarks imaginable: "I'd fuck the devil sideways to get a front page by-line. Anybody would. ...And a lot of people do!" or, after catching a famous actor engaged in incest– "There's only two things this world needs more of– funny sex and wacky smut– and this has both!" In the Hitchhiker's introductory statement, he eloquently pontificates–

"For Jane L., famous person plus big scandal equals big headlines."

Simply poetry, Mr. Hitchhiker. Now go back to Rutger Hauer's finishing school for wayward boys, because you have a lot to learn.

Anyway, Kirstie Alley's "Jane L." is probably the most cartoonishly despicable media hound on the planet. When she finds out a woman has committed suicide because of her story, she screeches in anger– she's missed her chance for an interview with the deceased.

Anyway, the chain-smoking Jane L. (clad in a fur coat) coaxes her photog to take her to the rumored location of the legendary Billy B. They do, in fact, find him- and Dourif brings a hell of a lot to the role. He's taking that whole Summer of Love thing a bit too far, and he exudes a kind of quiet forboding.

"Don't it make you shiver just to hear my music?"

His drawlin' hippie is trembling and teary-eyed. The mere word "intense" does Dourif a disservice.

"You wanna know the taste of fame– it's like chewin'... all the time!"

The ultimate payoff is fairly predictable if you've ever seen an episode of TALES FROM THE CRYPT, but things get pretty damned weird along the way– John Bear Curtis puts Andy Summers in a headlock and shouts "I CAN'T HEAR YOU, INSECT MAN!"

which somehow makes even less sense in context, Brad Dourif gets his Chop Top moment,

and it all ends with that old sage- the Hitchhiker himself- returning to offer the benediction: "She traded their privacy to join the ranks for celebrity... forever." Your poignancy moves me, Hitchhiker.

-Sean Gill

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