Movie of the Month: Highway to Hell (1991)

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Every month one of us makes the other two watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Britnee made Brandon watch Highway to Hell (1991).

Britnee: “Where the toll is your soul,” and “If there’s one thing worse than dying and going to Hell, it’s not dying—and going to Hell,” are two taglines that grace the cover of my ratty old VHS copy of Ate de Jong’s Highway to Hell, and they both make it blatantly obvious that this is going to be a very “special” movie. I saw Highway to Hell for the first time over 10 years ago as a late night feature film on some cable network I can’t remember, and I just couldn’t get it out of my mind. This was more than just another typically mindless “bad” movie; it was a smart “bad” movie. The way elements of comedy, horror, adventure, and romance mixed into one magnificent, unforgettable film was brilliant, and it’s a crying shame that Highway to Hell never got the spotlight it so rightly deserves. At least it has some time to shine as my selection for July’s Movie of the Month.

Charlie (Chad Lowe) and Rachel (Kristy Swanson) are young, dumb, and totally in love. As the two lovebirds are on their way to elope in Las Vegas, Rachel gets kidnapped by Hellcop (a cop from Hell). Charlie journeys to Hell to save his soon-to-be bride from the devil himself. When one thinks of Hell, usually the image of a dark, underground lair full of goblins and flames is what comes to mind, but the Hell in Highway to Hell is a hot, endless desert with a sparse population (Ben Stiller, Jerry Stiller, Lita Ford, and Gilbert Gottfried all make appearances as citizens of Hell). The concept of Hell in this film is very interesting because the individuals that are in Hell each have a different experience. Some are stuck performing annoying everyday tasks for eternity, some are in a biker gang, some are chopped up in a huge wood chipper, etc.

Brandon, what are your thoughts on Hell in this film? Was de Jong attempting to send out some sort of message with the symbolism in Hell or was it all just campy fun?

Brandon: I think it’s best not to reach too deep for symbolism in this one. As I’m sure you could tell from our screening, I don’t think I was quite as jazzed about the film as you are, but there most certainly is something special about it, even as a late-night basic cable oddity. Hell, especially as a late-night basic cable oddity. I think in a lot of ways we had the perfect Highway to Hell experience. Watching a tattered VHS copy of the movie on a tiny TV, past my bedtime & with a couple of beers, feels like the ideal atmosphere for this film, tracking issues & all. I feel like if it had actually received a proper theater release, it would be a widely reviled flop that would have an unfair amount of people listing it as one of the worst films ever. As a basic cable gem that never made the leap to DVD, it sidestepped a lot of the ridicule and is mostly known only by those who herald it as a minor cult classic.

The reason I don’t think that too much stock should go into the movie’s symbolism is that the script is its most shallow element. There are occasional brilliant moments, (the sex demon scene & Jerry Stiller’s eternally suffering cop who desperately wants a cup of coffee that ain’t coming both come to mind), but for the most part the film doesn’t have a lot to say. There are so many missed opportunities in the plot & the absence of memorable one-liners that it’s difficult to put too much faith into what the movie’s visual symbolism is supposed to represent. The practical, not-fun answer to why a movie set in Hell was shot in the desert is probably that it’s super cheap to film in the desert, as opposed to building a set from scratch. However, I do believe the set design is what distinguishes the film from lesser late-night fare. Considering that Highway to Hell was obviously produced on a shoestring budget, it’s honestly incredible what the film pulled off visually. The art department really gave it their all here, building such an impressively hand-made & lived-in hellscape that it’s both totally understandable & a total shame that the script couldn’t keep up. That disparity makes it really tempting to look into the film’s imagery for some kind of symbolism or grand metaphor, but I just don’t think that anything’s actually there.

Britnee, do you also feel that the film’s impressive visual intensity & lackluster screenwriting were at war with one another? Could you picture the film’s reception & legacy having a greater impact if its script were a little tighter, or is there another missing element at play here?

Britnee: I agree that there’s a definite imbalance between the film’s script and visuals. Personally, I think it’s a good thing because it’s part of what makes the film so amazingly terrible. However, stepping away from my biased opinion, a better script would have bumped up this movie a bit and made it likeable to a broader audience. Maybe it would be good enough to be on DVD!  What’s sad is that there was enough money in the film’s budget for awesome visual effects and a decent script. According to IMDB, the film had an estimated budget of $9,000,000, which is totally shocking. I think that the film’s producers were just a little too excited about the film’s handful of special effects and spent all their time and money on them. I’m not going to hate on them because if I had a $9,000,000 budget for a film about Hell, I would do all sorts of stupid stuff with that money.

Come to think about it, I bet it was pretty expensive to get Gilbert Gottfried, Jerry Stiller, and Lita Ford to make such smallappearances. I didn’t mention Ben Stiller because he wasn’t really famous at this point; he was just tagging along with his dad. A good chunk of that budget probably went to these useless cameos.

Brandon, did you find the celebrity appearances to be rather annoying and unnecessary? Like Gilbert Gottfried as Hitler?

Brandon: It varies depending on the cameo. Gilbert Gottfried & Lita Ford got by basically on their mere presence, but honestly just the basic idea of Gottfriend playing Hitler is still funny enough to me now that an empty appearance in that costume feels worth it. And as I said earlier, Jerry Stiller desperately pleading for a cup of coffee for eternity was one of the highlights of the film. His son Ben wasn’t so bad as the befuddled grill cook either. The problem with the script wasn’t necessarily that it wasn’t playing with a full deck. There was a lot of potential in the plot scenarios & celebrity cameos. They just never were employed for a greater, cohesive whole, but instead were left to survive on their own merit as individual moments, seemingly disconnected.

For instance, consider the little kid our doofus of a hero saves from the Satanic Mechanic. What the Hell (to steal a bad joke from a bad movie) was up with that little kid? From the moment he’s introduced as an innocent moppet from Hell, everything in the script screams for him to eventually reveal himself as an evil demon, but it never comes to be. He’s exactly what he presents himself as: a hilariously trite little tyke with nothing but positive things to say about the hero. Much like with Kristy Swanson’s non-entity of a love-interest, the little kid is basically just waiting around to be saved by the bland everyman hero. This adds a lot of camp value to his performance, which had become one of my favorite elements in play by the end of the film, but it does point to a script that has no idea what to do with everything it brought to the table . . . except for to blow it up in the desert.

Britnee, speaking of saving women & children and blowing things up in the desert, you first suggested we watch this film because it reminded you of the Mad Max franchise and I’d like to hear more of your thoughts on that connection before we wrap it up. Also, do you have any thoughts on the Totally Not Evil Moppet the protagonist befriends in Hell? I think I’m warming up to that little booger.

Britnee: One of the reasons that I chose Highway to Hell for Movie of the Month was because Mad Max: Fury Road was getting ready to hit theaters, and I thought it would be interesting to discuss a film that was obviously influenced by Mad Max movies. Hellcop, the motorcycle gang, the super-secret tricked out car, and the numerous car chases on dusty desert roads are just a few things in Highway to Hell that mirror Mad Max. This brings me back to my first question about the reasoning behind Hell being an empty desert. Yes, there was probably no symbolism with Hell being a desert and it was easy on the budget, but I’m just now realizing that this could just be the result of an influence from the Mad Max films.

The Totally Not Evil Moppet (aka Adam) was an over-exaggerated version of an average innocent child, and I agree that he seems like an evil demon in disguise. Plus, he was pretty much the devil’s adopted son, so it makes sense for him to be demonic. Every time his squeaky little voice screams “Charlie!” I cringe, waiting for his teeth to get sharp. His big dopey eyes and stringy hair doesn’t make it much better. What really cracks me up about this kid is that he doesn’t seem to have that big of a problem living in Hell and having the Satanic Mechanic as a father. He was probably a demon child all along, befriending Charlie in order to get his assistance to escape Hell and wreak havoc on the living. Ate de Jong, where is Highway to Hell 2: Adam’s on the Loose?

Brandon, speaking of Ate de Jong, I recently checked out his filmography, and it’s interesting to say the least. He’s anaward-winning Dutch filmmaker, and the majority of his films are on the more serious side and completely opposite of Highway to Hell. What are your thoughts on this? Can you think of any other directors that have failed when going outside their comfort zone?

Brandon: Honestly, when I first saw Ate de Jong’s name appear in the opening credits I assumed it was a fake alias, as if Lynch or Cronenberg had taken a quick made-for-TV paycheck project to fund something more worthwhile. It definitely surprises me that de Jong has such an extensive list of credits on his IMDb page, with a lot of titles in the wartime melodrama genre. What’s even more surprising is that the same year Highway to Hell was released de Jong also helmed the cult comedy Drop Dead Fred. I’ve personally never seen Drop Dead Fred but it does have a pretty positive reputation among folks in our age range and it is somewhat of a surprise that de Jong’s only other American title (as far as I can tell) was a big budget action comedy that never made it past basic cable.

As far as directors failing outside of their usual genres go, it’s hard for me not to think of the recent record-breaking blockbuster Jurassic World as an example, if not only because the wound is so fresh. The director, Colin Trevorrow’s first feature was a small-scale, entertaining sci-fi romance called Safety Not Guaranteed. Jumping from that humble, but admirable beginning directly into an outrageously expensive action film was a mistake for Trevorrow’s growth as an artist (but not for the growth of his bank account) that left him looking a little foolish in my eye. Ate de Jong was seemingly in similar too-big-studio-for-his-britches water with Highway to Hell, as was the inspiration you cited, George Miller, when he made Beyond Thunderdome. When making large scale action movies like this it doesn’t really matter how incredible your visuals or action choreography are if a large number of people involved in the script-writing process are just going to spoil the goodwill.

Lagniappe:

Brandon: I do feel like I was a little unfair to Highway to Hell, which does have its occasional charms as a hidden gem. Now that I know what the film’s limitations are & the fact that the Adam character is most definitely not a demon child, but something much more terrifying (an actual child) I feel like I would enjoy it much more on a second viewing. If nothing else I’d love to spend more time with the mutant sex demon. There was a whole lotta weirdness packed into that all-too-brief scene. Too bad the movie’s difficult to get your hands on, since I’m fairly certain the only home video copy that exists in the world is Britnee’s ratty VHS.

Britnee:  I forgot to mention that AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” does not play at any point in the movie. I think this is super funny because when I tell people about this flick, the first they usually say is “Did someone seriously make a movie based on that song?” Sadly, Highway to Hell wasn’t cool enough for the song to be in the movie, but there’s some of the strangest songs I’ve ever heard on the soundtrack. Some unknown band called Hidden Faces did the music for the film, and the singer sounds like he’s singing through his butt. Just one of the many fun things that can be found in Highway to Hell. God I love this movie.

Upcoming Movie of the Months:
August: Brandon presents Babe 2: Pig in the City (1998)
September: Britnee presents The Boyfriend School (1990)

-The Swampflix Crew

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7 thoughts on “Movie of the Month: Highway to Hell (1991)

  1. Pingback: The Same Year Ate de Jong Directed the Would-Be Cult Classic Highway to Hell (1991), He Also Directed the Actual Cult Classic Drop Dead Fred (1991) |

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