Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Television Review: THE HITCHHIKER- 'Last Scene' (1986, Paul Verhoeven)

Stars: 3.5 of 5.
Running Time: 30 minutes.
Best one-liner: I don't know. Everything the Hitchhiker says.

What a better way to ease out of Rutger Hauer week, than to switch gears and do a Paul Verhoeven-directed episode of THE HITCHHIKER.

Verhoeven. Fresh off of FLESH + BLOOD and about to make ROBOCOP. There's some points for the plus column. Then, THE HITCHHIKER. It kinda taps into some of the same imagery as THE HITCHER. Horror + hitchhiking, yeah. L'il Hauer connection right there. And finally, there's the Hitchhiker himself. Hey, he's almost as good as Rutger Hauer, and he kinda looks like him, too, right? Well, maybe if Rutger Hauer had a bad date with a Flowbee and a propensity for flannel, and instead of terrorizing C. Thomas Howell, he just sat around on the roadside and made limp, cretinous observations about the matters at hand? Nevermind. I apologize. Maybe I'm too hard on the Hitchhiker. Maybe he'll step it up a notch with Verhoeven at the reins. Let's find out:

Five seconds in and we already know it's a Verhoeven flick.

Now the script is fun, but draws quite a bit on De Palma's BODY DOUBLE, and ends up, like nearly every episode of THE HITCHHIKER, being somewhat predictable. But Verhoeven is more than up to the task, and he injects it with some stirring imagery, much of which is influenced by William Friedkin's music video for Laura Branigan's "Self Control."

It was truly the Golden Age of the music video- sleazy dancers, lustrous neon, and snazzy costumes- in fact, BODY DOUBLE itself had tread similar ground a year prior with the Frankie Goes to Hollywood "Relax" setpiece. Paul "I make the movies America deserves" Verhoeven taps into a middle ground- he (naturally) embraces the more sordid elements, but clearly delights in the collision of vapid, self-important characters and yucks it up at the inherent hollowness of American pop culture (and THE HITCHHIKER itself?).

The plot is as follows- rookie filmmaker Peter Coyote's in the midst of a film which, as I said, bears more than passing similarities to BODY DOUBLE.

Things aren't going so well, and his lead actress (LaGena Hart) isn't demonstrating the depth necessary to pull off the film's crucial LAST SCENE.

The money men are getting nervous, and the more she tries to 'act,' the worse she gets. A desperate Coyote must take drastic measures- maybe she'd be better if she wasn't acting? Maybe all this movie needs is the terror to be REAL. Of course, such a gambit could always backfire...

I suppose there's shades here of Paul Bartel's quintessential 1968 short (which he remade as an AMAZING STORIES episode), THE SECRET CINEMA, whereupon a woman realizes that her entire life is a TRUMAN SHOW-esque exercise in cinematic cruelty.

As the Hitchhiker says, "Making movies can be a little like magic- manufacturing illusions and manipulating the way people feel. But when you fool around with what is and isn't real, you run the risk of being tricked by your own sleight of hand." Thanks, Mom.

It's times like these where I really appreciate the Cryptkeeper. He probably would've just said something like "FRIGHTS, camera, HACK-tion! I'm ready for my GROSS-up! Eeeeh-hee-hee-hee-hee-hee-heeeeeee!" And I would have been totally satisfied with that.

It develops into an enjoyably-paced quasi-meta-slasher that furnishes us with a fairly satisfying missing link between Verhoven's 1983 THE FOURTH MAN and his 1992 BASIC INSTINCT, with one scene in particular even foreshadowing the denouement of the latter film. The episode ends with a showdown at a swank n' sweaty nightclub, full of unusual, violent objets d'neon-art.

Sex and car crashes? Cronenberg and Verhoeven unknowingly cross paths again...

There's a great little bizarre moment as a spandexed, presumably well-oiled Spiderman dancer twirls about a less-than-impressed Peter Coyote. I can totally see Verhoeven carefully choreographing this throwaway interaction.

Anyway, life imitates art, somebody gets the last laugh, and the episode is over.

Thoughts? Hitchhiker?

"He bent the light and the shadows and called it truth. He used people like they were creatures of clay. But the truth, when it's bent, has a way of snapping back. And the creatures created, well, they often have the last laugh." Huh. That's actually not that bad, Hitchhiker. I mean we're not talking Rod Serling-level, but I think you'd have snared yourself an 'A' in a sixth grade language arts class, for sure. We may make a third-tier Hauer out of you yet! (Currently a fourth-tier Hauer.)

-Sean Gill

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