While on a cross-country drive, a bitter writer (Franco Nero) and his beautiful wife (Corinne Cléry) pick up a stranded motorist (David Hess). But, when this hitcher turns out to be a depraved psychopath, their road trip takes a vicious detour into sex and savagery where the miles are marked in mayhem and vengeance is the ultimate rule of thumb. (From Raro’s official synopsis)
Pasquale Festa Campanile’s Hitch-Hike (Italian: Autostop rosso sangue; aka: Death Drive and Naked Prey, 1977) was born out of the consecutive popularities of the Italian horror and poliziotteschi (or Eurocrime) genres. As a sort of crossover event, it borrows elements from each genre, while also paying homage to the American-made road thrillers of the late ‘60s and ‘70s. These include vague visual references to the subgenre’s iconography – movies like Steven Spielberg’s Duel (Campanile pays random homage to the killer semi truck movie during a single scene, 1971) and Mario Bava’s Rabid Dogs (which has a very similar kidnapping plot, 1972). But it seems to me that Campanile’s dominant influence was Sam Peckinpah, specifically the road-themed crime flicks The Getaway (1972) and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974). The three leads are typecast and fulfill their roles in expected ways. Franco Nero plays the handsome, emotionally despondent protagonist (though, spoiler, he’s a complete bastard), Corinne Cléry spends a lot of the film naked and abused, while David Hess is violent and cruel. That said, all three actors bring their A-game, especially Hess, who had thoroughly developed his Last House on the Left persona by 1977.
The screenplay (by Campanile, Ottavio Jemma, and Aldo Crudo) is based on The Violence and the Fury, a novel by Peter Kane, and it is a study of misogyny – one that plays games with the audience’s morality. In all, the film’s opinion on men is more venomous than its opinion on women, because, even in her righteous anger, Cléry’s Eve is the victim in almost every situation. Initially, Hitch-Hike pretends that the violence made against Eve is all in good fun. Nero’s Walter making lewd comments in front of strangers and plays at raping his wife when they make love. But, as the film proceeds and Hess takes the couple hostage, Campanile rubs the audience’s noses in the ugliest misogyny for almost an hour straight. We are willing witnesses when the camera scans Eve’s nude and near-nude body (usually from Hess’ point-of-view) and unwilling witnesses to the brutal assaults on that same body. Nero’s resentment of his wife even manifests in the scenes where he defends her, since he’s defending his manhood and “property,” not the woman he loves.
This is where the Peckinpah-isms help illustrate the rough and disturbing tone of Hitch-Hike. As in the cases of Straw Dogs (1971), The Getaway, and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, sexual assault is a central issue that, if viewed from the male main character’s point-of-view, is just another challenge to his masculinity. However, when the film is reframed from the woman’s point-of-view, it becomes a story of bestial threat on her person and sanity – a protracted, convoluted version of the rape/revenge tradition, told largely from the perspective of the rapists. There is also a violent homosexual duo that shows up later in the film, which is another oddly specific Peckinpah-ism that adds an additional layer to the male cast’s pathological hatred of women. It’s not even a matter of subtext – Nero’s character flat-out states (falsely, of course) that homosexual men are creating an idealistic society separate from women. Campanile fails to deliver on the same ethical intricacies as Peckinpah and, ultimately, Hitch-Hike is a too attached to its Italian-flavoured machismo to inspire the same intellectual conversations as Straw Dogs or Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. Still, it’s a more complex comment on cinematic violence and gender roles than most critics seem willing to admit.
Campanile’s career as a director was typical of his contemporaries in that it followed trends, but Hitch-Hike was still an unusual film in his catalogue. Following writing stints on comparatively classy flicks, like Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard (Italian Il Gattopardo, 1963), he found success in comedies – specifically sex comedies, like When Women Had Tails (Italian: Quando le Donne Avevano la Coda, 1970), The Libertine (Italian: La Matriarca, 1969), and The Gamecock (Italian: La sculacciata, 1974). His penchant for funny softcore doesn’t translate very well into the thriller arena, as every sex scene is dripping with cruel, sado-masochistic intent. However, given his reputation for T&A slapstick, he does an admirable job with the dangerous, road-bound action and maintains a dreadfully and angry tone.
Hitch-Hike was released on anamorphic DVD by Anchor Bay entertainment (it is long out of print) and it appeared on Blu-ray in multiple territories, including Japan via Maxam Inc., Germany via Ascot Elite, the UK via 88 Films, and now Raro Video in the US. I don’t have access to any of the other discs for a direct comparison, but, based on the fact that these releases were separated by only a couple of years, I’m going to guess they were taken from the same source. I’m also guessing that the source was the same company that supplies Raro, Blue Underground, Scream Factory, and others with their lesser Italian transfers, because this 1.78:1, 1080p transfer is marred with telecine scanner noise as well as DNR smoothing, which was probably employed to counteract the noise (when the box art says that the transfer is ‘new’ and taken from the 35mm negative it is telling the truth – it’s just not an exclusive scan). This is disappointing, but not unexpected. At this point, most Italian genre fans are usually left anticipating the worst (from multiple companies – this isn’t a Raro only problem by any means) and measuring that against the DVD copies they already own. As in many cases, this is a substantial upgrade over the compressed and muted SD release. The noise increases and decreases throughout the film, as does the occasional print damage. The open-matte, 1.78:1 framing leads to some issues as well, specifically jagged edges at the top of the screen, as if the frame has been cut with a rusty knife. I assume the intended 1.85:1 framing would’ve covered the issues. Given the coming and going of framing issues, noise increases, print damage artifacts, and inconsistencies in the gamma/contrast/brightness levels, I assume that this scan was assembled from multiple prints.
Hitch-Hike is presented in both its original mono Italian and English dubs in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. As per usual, both tracks are dubbed, because the film was shot without sound. In this case, the English track is superior on almost every level. Technically speaking, it is louder, cleaner, and features better depth than the tinnier and flatter Italian track. Aesthetically speaking, it is preferable, because the majority of the cast was speaking English on set, and because Nero, Hess, and Clery all dubbed themselves. The lip-sync is occasionally off, of course, but the tone and inflections match. Ennio Morricone’s original score is easily one of the most appealing elements, even though it’s sometimes applied at inopportune moments. The driving, rock-themed cues are contrasted with moaning ‘banjo jazz’ and a nauseating hippy folk tune and all of the music sounds pretty tight on the English language track, despite the occasional low volume during dialogue-heavy sequences.
Road to Ruin (26:30, SD) – Interviews with Nero, Hess, Clery, and assistant director Neri Parenti, each of whom discuss their careers (Parenti also discusses Campanile’s career) and their time on the film. Hess and Nero tell tales of friendship (which was tested when Nero broke Hess’ nose while filming a fist fight), while Clery and Parenti laugh about Nero’s pretensions. Sadly, the ridiculous alternate happy ending that was hobbled together for some film markets is not included here.
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