Why Doesn’t HIGHWAY TO HELL Have A Bigger Following?

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We’re in the middle of a Fangorian renaissance. Which is to say, two issues into the relaunched Fangoria and the magazine is better than it’s ever been. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed both issues so far, and the tease for the next one has me licking my chops. To pass the time, I’ve been paging through my old Fango collection where it’s always fascinating to re-read the hype for films that have long since faded from public consciousness.

Many of the movies covered in those pages seemed primed to explode into the hearts and minds of cult aficionados everywhere. In those days there was nothing like pouring over every word in an article because, in many cases, this was the only information you were liable to get. From there you never knew exactly when these things would show up. You either caught a few TV spots or a theatrical trailer, happened to see a black and white “Starts Today” ad in the entertainment section of the Friday newspaper, or waited for it to limp onto home video (if your store happened to carry it).

The old codger in me wants to tell everyone how much better that was. It wasn’t, of course. Having all the information you could ever need on your mobile device is certainly preferable to maybe seeing an ad on television and then hoping the movie comes to your town. But there was value in the old fashioned way. You anticipated a movie more, and because you really had to put some effort into seeking out the titles that interested you, sitting down with them was rewarding in a way that selecting a panel and clicking “Play” on your modern device simply is not.

Buy, hey, I’m a huge proponent of the digital age. Streaming services have made our lives convenient when it comes to tracking and catching new releases, and physical media continues to flourish in collector’s markets. Thousands of movies have been re-issued to Blu-ray and are ripe for rediscovery (or, in some cases, discovery).

Ate de Jong’s Highway to Hell is one of these. A movie that’s anonymity seems improbable. Each time I watch it, the same question gnaws at me: why doesn’t this have a larger cult following? It’s creative, energetic, loaded with versatile special effects, and happens to be incredibly well cast. The performers here know exactly what type of movie they’re in and wholeheartedly embrace the silliness without tipping their hats. Highway to Hell is a colorful road trip through a cartoon hell. How can anyone not love it?

The premise is wild: Young lovers (Kristy Swanson and Chad Lowe) are stopped on a quiet stretch of desert road, pulled over by the devious “Hell Cop” (played by one-time Jason Voorhees, C.J. Graham). He “arrests” Swanson and drives her, quite literally, to hell. Why, you might ask? Because she is a beautiful virgin and therefore quite valuable to the denizens of the underworld.

That’s just the start of the fun. Before we know what’s happening, Lowe crosses paths with an old gas station attendant (the great Richard Farnsworth) who outfits him with an angelic white car, arms him with holy weaponry, and sends him speeding down the highway to hell–destination, Hell City. He’s on a mission to rescue his bride-to-be from the devil himself (Patrick Bergin, having a blast) and it’s not going to be easy. There’s a surprisingly large scale Death Race 2000 set piece as drivers hurdle straight for the city. A donut shop for undead cops where Ben and Jerry Stiller make appearances. A crazed biker gang pursues Lowe at every turn and a devilish succubus wants to suck the innocence straight out of him. This doesn’t begin to cover everything, though it’s also a movie where Gilbert Gottfried shows up as Hitler.

Highway to Hell can be quite busy, sure. But it’s amazing just how much attention to detail is here. Everywhere you look, really. You can spend a whole lot of time talking about the design of the Hell Cop himself, from the pentagrams etched into his charred flesh, to the sunglasses bolted to his skull, and the literal handcuffs made from human hands that dangle off his belt. And he drives the most badass Mad Max mobile this side of George Miller. So secure is this thing that the doors actually vanish off its walls so nobody else can get inside.

All of this is preamble. My way of saying you can’t mention this film without mentioning the glorious special effects work of Steve Johnson. This movie is essentially one long sprawling showcase of late 80s/early 90s FX work and every bit of it is incredible. Whether we’re talking about the three-headed Cerberus dog that I spoiled in this article’s hero image, or any of the demons or zombies showcased throughout, it’s large scale on a relatively low budget. Boy, do I miss the ways when a “cheap” horror film could look like this.

So what happened?

Part of the problem is that the movie had dreadful distribution upon release. Anecdotally, none of my local video stores carried it. I can even remember begging my dad to drive me around to some surrounding towns in order to search their video stories. Those searches were equally fruitless. I didn’t see Highway to Hell until it debuted on HBO in what must’ve been the summer of 1992 and I clung forever to my recorded VHS tape. I showed everyone I knew: friends, high school dates, and even relatives. I can’t think of a single person who didn’t like it. But it wasn’t until eBay’s advent almost a decade after recording that broadcast that I was even able to get a copy of the official videocassette.

On the topic of distribution, Highway to Hell also lacked definitive key art. The VHS cover was awful and while the Kino Lorber Blu-ray is an excellent release, neither of the reversible covers make much of an impact. I recommended it to a friend of mine who remarked that he never would have known this movie was anything special. It deserved a beautiful, eye-catching bit of marketing as an extra push to get people jazzed. And the real shame of it is that there’s certainly no shortage of arresting visuals in this film. Pick any scene at random and you could probably make a great poster design out of it, which makes the lacking materials even more of a missed opportunity.

It’s a good case study for examining why some movies slip through the cracks. Highway the Hell was shot in 1989 and released in 1991. Nothing about its distribution worked. And because of this, the movie was essentially doomed. It wasn’t even like word of mouth could save it. When something’s that hard to come by, you can talk it up all you want. You were at the mercy of your local video stores in the early 90s. If they weren’t hip to what you wanted, you were entirely out of luck.

Compare the fate of Highway to Hell to something like Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive, another movie that had Fangoria readers chomping at the bit. Another movie that seemed to take a long time to come out (though this may have been mostly due to my excitement for it). When Dead Alive hit the United States, however, there was no missing it. Video stores had the posters up, almost every one of them carried it, a stream of professional blurbs bought it some additional credibility and, most importantly, the cover art was striking and awesome. Almost impossible to walk past without stopping for another look. Yes, some of the attention was coming off Peter Jackson’s notoriety as a cult filmmaker, though I think it’s still a fair comparison and explanation as to why one film became a revered cult classic while the other was relegated to a much smaller circle of adorning fans.

It’s something to consider, at least.

Highway to Hell never took off with cult aficionados the way other movies from the era did. It has its fans, though I think they’d be the first to agree that this movie remains well below the radar. And it shouldn’t. It’s weird and funny and engaging in a way that most movies aren’t. And while it’s fun to imagine what this movie’s lifecycle might’ve looked like had its original distributor given it the attention it deserved, there’s no time like to present to catch it. As mentioned, the Kino Lorber Blu-ray is a fantastic release, and the movie deserves a thin slot on the shelf of any collector. It’s great. Don’t miss it.

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