The road to hell is paved with good intentions. We are told as much in this early 90s low-budget oddity, and it’s shown to be literal. In the actual movie, it is apparent, the intentions are to be commended, but the movie itself not so much.
Highway to Hell is an ambitious attempt to intentionally create a camp classic featuring eye-popping visuals (for 1992) and mixing genres (horror-action-comedy) in a purposely zany attempt at being a cult movie. A VHS favorite in my wayward youth, Highway to Hell is now making its debut on DVD and Blu-ray, but the long wait has not been good for this one. The years have made the many shortcomings of the movie much more obvious and exceedingly painful.
A young couple, Charlie and Rachel (Chad Lowe and Kristy Swanson) on their way to Las Vegas to elope untiringly take a detour down a back road where the “hell cop” (CJ Graham) appears and arrests Rachel, taking her to hell (I guess it goes without saying) for a crime she did not commit. After getting some helpful tips from an old codger (Richard Farnsworth), who knows way too much about the underworld and the hell cop, Charlie heads down below armed with a homemade gun and a souped-up antique car to get Rachel back. Along the way Charlie finds himself literally racing with the devil (a charismatic Patrick Bergin), picking up an annoying young boy as a travel companion, and facing various monsters, some interesting, many not so.
Highway to Hell seems to falter at every turn in its attempt to mix the comic elements with those of action and horror. None of this manages to come together in a way that pays off. The script was written by a young Brian Helgeland, whose main credit at the time was writing A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 (1988). Anyone who believed he had a future as a distinguished scriptwriter and an Oscar winner had to be psychic. Helgeland’s script is neither smart nor witty and tries to cover its lack of creativity and originality by placing in random elements from better movies that preceded it.
Highway to Hell is directed by Ate de Jong, a Dutch filmmaker apparently well respected in his native land. In the US his greatest achievement is the all-but forgotten Beetlejuice rip-off Drop Dead Fred (1991) starring Phoebe Cates. I am unfamiliar with his Dutch movies, but judging from his two American films, it seems he is not one of the greater visionaries to come out of Europe. De Jong’s vision of hell isn’t very interesting, it looks like a scarcely populated post-apocalyptic world. The lack of imagination may be due to budgetary restraint, but he may have accidentally created one of the more optimistic views of hell as it appears to not have many inhabitants.
The cast is interesting, led by Irish character actor Patrick Bergin playing dual roles as the Devil and a sort-of underworld handyman. Bergin was at the stage in his career where he was expected to be a big star, but movies like Highway To Hell are what clearly ended that and eventually banished the amiable actor to SyFy channel originals and a life in direct-to-DVD hell. The principal lead is Chad Lowe, the less talented and charisma-challenged younger brother of Rob Lowe. Chad is a dull leading man and never gets the audience engaged enough in his character or exploits to carry a full film. A pre-Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992) Kristy Swanson is the female lead, but does nothing other than offer eye-candy as a damsel-in-continuous-distress. There are also a bunch of unfunny cameos by a whole host of celebrity personalities including Gilbert Gottfried (as Hitler, no less) and heavy metal hottie Lita Ford. The best known of the “guest” actors is a young Ben Stiller (in a terribly unfunny ad-libbed role), his sister Amy and their parents Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, who may have had to put forth a special effort to be this unfunny.
There are good things to be found in the movie, though, especially for fans of rubber monster effects. The quaint f/x are the best aspect in the movie and there are a good amount of them to allow the movie to retain a certain charm that comes from reliving a monster-fest from the golden age of VHS horror films. The authentic stunts, in this pre-CGI era, are good, giving this a fun would-be Mad Max quality. The make-up effects are practical and entertainingly done.
All the good, however, is far outweighed by the bad, which creeps up at every turn. The movie also comes to an abrupt, anti-climatic ending, leaving the viewer unsure if it was just that the makers ran out of ideas to ape or the budget ran out. Either way it just adds to the whole feeling of unfulfillment.
There is an obvious audience for this sort of stuff. In fact a small cult following has grown around this title. There was a time that I would have proudly led the rallying cry for this, but as I’ve stated the years have not been kind to Highway To Hell. The movie seems to be much more dated than it should, and not in a charming way. I think most of those involved in it would cringe at it today and so would the audience it is intended for. Highway to Hell is a smug, unsophisticated turkey that is strikingly dull and never as clever as it thinks it is.
*Audio Commentary with director Ate de Jong
*Interview with SFX Make-up Artist Steve Johnson
*Animated Montage of Images
*Original Theatrical Trailer
Highway To Hell is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Kino Studio Classics.