HITCH HIKE (1977) Blu-ray
Director: Pasquale Festa Campanile
RaroVideo USA

Smart, nasty-minded Italian crime thriller. RaroVideo’s Cinema Art Visions line has released, on Blu-ray, HITCH HIKE (a.k.a.: AUTOSTOP ROSSO SANGUE), the 1977 psychological noir suspenser from director Pasquale Festa Campanile (THE GIRL AND THE GENERAL, THE LIBERTINE), starring Franco Nero, Corinne Clery, and David Hess, and featuring a typically memorable, jangly score from Ennio Morricone. No one can seem to agree if HITCH HIKE, also titled THE NAKED PREY and DEATH DRIVE, even received a limited release here in the States back in ’77 — no one can even find the so-called novel, The Violence and the Fury by probably-fictitious author “Peter Kane,” upon which the movie is supposedly based. However, once it had a home video release here in 2002, HITCH HIKE developed a solid cult following, predicated on the movie’s full-bore violence and sexuality, and its increasingly tense, creepy vibe. RaroVideo’s very clean 1080p MPEG-4 AVC 1.78:1 Blu-ray looks quite good (90% of the time), while the DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo tracks, available in the original Italian with subtitles and an English dub, are entirely serviceable. Extras include a well-written, illustrated 8-page liner notes/essay by Bret Wood, and 2001’s Road to Ruin featurette, ported over from Blue Underground’s 2002 disc release, that features interviews with the cast and crew.

Bitter, frustrated, alcoholic hack reporter Walter Mancini (Franco Nero, DJANGO, FORCE 10 FROM NAVARONE) is on a hunting/camping trip in the American Southwest with his rich, stunningly beautiful, bitchy wife Eve (Corinne Clery, THE STORY OF O, MOONRAKER). They’ve been married for nine long years, and to make a long story short: they’re sick of each other. After contemplating shooting her, and then actually raping her in the back of a Land Rover — an act the passionate Eve can’t help but respond to physically — the Mancinis return to their campground where Walter further makes an insufferable ass of himself, insulting other campers before repeatedly verbally and physically abusing his wife. Fun trip. Too bad, then, when an increasingly pissed-off Eve later insists on picking up stranded motorist Adam Konitz (David Hess, THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, TV movie JACQUELINE SUSANN’S VALLEY OF THE DOLLS), as the couple heads towards L.A.. Almost immediately, Adam reveals himself to be a remorseless criminal who is fleeing to Mexico after stealing $2 million dollars, having killed a couple of cops in the process. Adam’s stated intention to rape Eve spurs the bickering couple to seek escape, but when they discover that Adam is also an escaped mental patient, they quickly realize they’re in over their heads.

As Bret Wood correctly points out in his well-written essay on HITCH HIKE included in this RaroVideo release, the “crazed hitchhiker” subgenre was well-established by the time Campanile’s thriller was shot in 1977. What makes HITCH HIKE such an interesting addition to the canon is not just its most notorious scene: the graphic “rape” (or is it?) of wife Eve by hitchhiker Adam (the threat of rape for a couple hijacked or held hostage by a criminal is a basic convention of this and many other suspense subgenres, a plot point that most movies either just tease or stop right before the act, or depict off-camera...but not Campanile). No, what makes HITCH HIKE so stimulating is Campanile’s refusal to excuse anyone here from blame — nobody comes off looking good. As we’re stuck with the three unpleasant lead characters in that crappy car, the suspense mounting, we get a broader picture of each one’s motivation and outlook...and it’s ain’t pretty. Critically, in the busy script by Campanile, Aldo Crudo (SUPER STOOGES VS. THE WONDER WOMEN, BEYOND THE DOOR), and Ottavio Jemma (SACCO AND VANZETTI, THE SEX MACHINE), the new twists in the story are informed by this constant readjustment of the three-way dynamics, making for an unusually smart exploiter.

With the movie’s opening credit sequence, director Campanile isn’t coy about complicating things for us, positioning Nero as the nominal villain of the piece even though the genre’s conventions demand we root for him to vanquish Hess when they eventually meet. Before we understand that Nero is on a hunting trip with his wife Clery, we see him repeatedly “scope” her with his rifle, smiling at the thought of killing her, before he bags a deer. Transporting the kill back to camp, Nero debases his wife, exposing and grabbing at her breasts while telling her she’s only alive because she “f*cks so well,” and wondering how she’d look, instead of the deer, roasting over a fire. Campanile and his scripters don’t stop there; Nero ups the violence by viciously throwing her into the back of the Land Rover, where he rapes her. Clery fights back...but eventually — and willingly — succumbs, making us wonder what it is, exactly, that keeps her with such an animal. Later, at the camp, the couple’s fights become nastier (he insults other campers before she enjoys rough, insulting sex with him again). This discombobulation of the viewer’s expectations (“Wait,” we ask, “are these two the heroes of this movie?”) is amplified by Campanile’s substitution of central Italy’s Gran Sasso mountains for the American desert, a budgetary necessity that turns into a subtle yet powerful plus for the movie, particularly for American viewers, who further wonder who the hell these people are, and where, exactly, they’re going (it sorta looks like the U.S. at first, with its mocked-up gas stations and English road signs, but then it definitely doesn’t, giving the movie a vaguely “waking dream” feel that’s perfect for this actioner’s psychological foundation).

HITCH HIKE doesn’t waste any time, either, in getting down to what it needs to do in terms of satisfying the conventions of the thriller genre. As Nero and Clery travel in that cramped old car, literally towing the emotional baggage of their marriage behind them (the expensive camper — she always drives because she’s in charge of the money — is a nice visual metaphor for their trouble; he married the boss’ daughter, and his resulting self-pity and rage disgusts her). Once Hess is picked up, he immediately shows his true colors (from the back seat he grabs Clery several times, right in front of Nero, before he asks her to “suck his c*ck,” prompting Nero to flip out), and the psychological battle between these three is backed up by consistent, convincing action. There are fistfights and truck chases, and Hess’ killing of the two CHiPs officers is particularly well staged — the Hitchcockian vistas are punctuated by that memorably gory head shot — while composer Morricone (THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST) has some fun with his insipid “There’s Music Everywhere” theme song amusingly popping up at the most inopportune times.

The threat of Clery’s rape is the story’s fulcrum, and Campanile doesn’t shy away from staging it for viewers wanting an exploitation payoff. What makes it more interesting than similar scenes in other exploiters, though, is how thoroughly Campanile implicates the viewer — you want to see this beautiful actress raped, he seems to say to the viewer; well...you’re going to have to pay for that wish (not unlike what Peckinpah did in STRAW DOGS). All throughout the beginning of the movie, the director takes every chance he can showing Clery’s spectacular body, in various stages of dress, being ogled or groped. We’re not supposed to enjoy seeing such objectification...but we clearly do and he knows it, and it primes us, to our chagrin, for the rape scene. What’s so smart about HITCH HIKE’s script, and Clery’s carefully modulated performance, is that we can never really tell what her motivations are, leading up to and including the rape. Did she ignore Nero’s advice to not pick up stranded Hess just to annoy her husband, or to subconsciously start something, anything, that hopefully might lead to the end of her hateful marriage? When they discover Hess’ game plan, she continues to insult Nero, slagging him off to a surprised Hess, when she should be working with Nero to present a unified front. When Hess has them pull over and camp for the night, why doesn’t she end the confrontation then and there, when she has ample time to take down one of the rifles from the camper's cabinet and shoot Hess without any trouble (the director makes sure we see how long she has to decide, giving her more than enough time to shoot, before she inexplicably decides not to)? When Hess ties up Nero, telling him he’s going to have sex with Clery that first night, why does she respond so quickly and readily to his kisses, as she looks over impassively at her bound, screaming husband (only Hess getting shot by one of his accomplices ends the rape...or lovemaking, if you’d rather).

What makes the next night’s actual rape so perverse, though, is how Campanile shoots it like a soft, eroticized, even romantic encounter. Just prior to the rape, we're encouraged to think Clery is emotionally stronger than both of them, insightfully insulting them as weaklings who use her, rather than truly make love with her (she says Nero just “jerks off” with her body, while Hess has to use a gun to get what he wants). And yet, she's clearly goading on Hess right when he’s threatening to rape her, calling him (and Nero) “faggot," when she knows Hess is boastful/worried about his sexual prowess. Is this smart survival, or is it more like the rough foreplay she had with Nero at the campground? Clery, totally nude, lies there limp at first, trying to deny Hess the satisfaction of having her sexually, while a tied-up, crying Nero watches in a rage. Does she lie limp to deny Ness...or to inflame him into taking her the way we already know she enjoys? Whichever way it is, she eventually succumbs to Hess, kissing him back repeatedly and wildly embracing him — all the while making sure to stare at Nero — as Hess brings her to a shattering climax, as she’s beautifully framed in the warm glow of the camp fire (Campanile is careful to have it look like Hess is making love to her, as opposed to Nero’s earlier violent, slapping rape). Is she giving herself to Hess to survive the ordeal, as most critics seem to think, while sticking it to Nero, showing the cruel abuser what it’s like to have a “real” man satisfy her? Or is she truly just a “whore,” as Nero repeatedly calls her — a woman who enjoys provoking a man into dominating her as her reprehensible, impotent husband tearfully watches? We can’t know for sure, and that’s what’s so good about HITCH HIKE; it’s unpleasant exploitation, linking our own prurient interests with characters we can’t quite comfortably fathom. SPOILER ALERT! After this seismic event, the movie spirals down into full-blown noir doom, as we're further tricked into thinking Walter has forgiven Eve, after she (finally) zaps Adam, as he's about to kill Walter (Campanile gives us the iconic image of rifle-toting Clery, magnificent-looking fully nude, wielding the ultimate phallic assertion of her dominance). Just like noir classics THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE or DOUBLE INDEMNITY, murder-for-sex turns corrosive, and Walter and Eva increase their hate-filled bickering, as Walter decides to keep the stolen money (he says it's payment for "damages," which prompts Eve to snort about his precious "Latin pride"...with Walter topping her, sneering her fidelity is hardly worth a million). Campanile ties the story up perfectly in the final freeze-frame (I won't spoil the last twist), where Walter truly becomes just like Adam: another charamatic psychotic, roaming America's backroads, waiting for his next unsuspecting prey.

The 1080p MPEG-4 AVC 1.78:1 Blu-ray transfer looks extremely sharp, most of the time, with image detail mostly consistent, grain structure fine, color perhaps a tad muddy, contrast blown out a bit, and blacks okay...until they're not (in the same scene, with Nero and Clery talking in the car at night, one shot can look crystal clear, with deep blacks, and the succeeding shot with a snowstorm of noise). Overall: quite impressive considering the title's obscurity. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo English and Italian tracks aren't too distinguished in terms of separation effects, but they have hefty re-recording levels. If you understand Italian, obviously go with that track, but if not, I recommend listening to the English dub with the subtitles on. The three leads originally delivered their lines in English, so the match is better, plus, the subtitles describe the Italian track, so you get to compare the two (info varies, which makes it fun). The only extra here, besides Wood's essay, is 2001’s "Road to Ruin" featurette, ported over from Blue Underground’s 2002 disc release, that features interviews with the cast and crew. It runs 26:27, and it's quite entertaining. Assistant director Neri Parenti gives some good background on the production, including Campanile's decision to fake the U.S. locales in Italy (Parenti thought they were going to...Minnesota or someplace), as well as an amusing story about Nero showing his own movies at night to the sleepy crew. Nero and Clery have differing views on how they "handled" each other on set, while Nero seems a little dismissive of Hess' abilities to convincingly throw a fake punch (Nero busted Hess' nose, according to Hess. Nero doesn't mention it). What's missing — and really needed — is some solid info on the movie's release: where it played, and how much it made, and its critical reception at the time. (Paul Mavis)