The Hitchhiker – True Believer (03/11/86)

The episode opens with carefully composed shots of a priest killing himself.  The shots call attention to themselves, but in a good way.  They don’t take you out of the story, but they do let you know the director isn’t just a point-and-shoot guy — hey, it’s TV’s Carl Schenkel, director of the great Homebodies.

Tom Skerritt is playing the role he was born to play — Tom Skerritt.  The mustached, stoic, competent, weary everyman / manlyman he is portraying this time is Detective Frank Sheen.  He goes to the scene of the crime — an abandoned convent — but no one answers his knocks.  As he looks for another way in, a POV shot from inside the house begins shaking, a plastic tarp over the window melts and reveals Sheen standing in the snow below through the hole.  Way to go, Carl! [4]

He finds a way in and sees a nun sitting alone surrounded by a hundred candles.  He knocks on the glass door of the chapel, but she does not respond.  We do see that, like most TV nuns, she is a beautiful young woman.  He goes to the church to get a key and is a complete dick to the priest.

The priest tells him the house is infested by demons.  Years ago “a young nun desecrated the blessed sacrament by committing suicide on the holy altar.”  After hearing sounds of howling and banging on walls, and finding excrement smeared on the walls, the convent was shut down.

After that blatant bit of exposition, Sheen returns to the convent with the key.  He sees the young nun.  She says she was a novice here.  The dialogue is a little dry, but it is intriguingly shot.  Schenkel shoots her very close so that the entire frame is her cowl tented over her lovely face like she is peeking up from under the sheets.  If that was the intent, more kudos to Carl; if not, I really need to get some help.  She says she knows Sheen is a cop “by the bulge . . . of your gun.”  She tells him to watch out for the demon and walks away.

Sheen walks upstairs and finds the usual haunted house stuff — shaking, noises, being pushed down by an invisible demon.  He goes back to Father Exposition [1] for more info.  He tells Sheen there is no nun there, the convent has been closed since 1910.

He goes back — whew — to the convent, drinking from a liquor bottle he got from a diner.  Hitting the hooch in the room where the suicide occurred, he has a B&W flashback to an argument with his ex-wife and ex-daughter.  He lost his temper and smacked his daughter.  She ran out onto a fire escape and fell to her death.

Back in the abandoned convent, he hears a noise — his ex-wife Linda walks in.  Well, he seems to see Linda, but we see the young nun.  She says she doesn’t care about her new husband’s big house or big car — she mercifully ends the big list there.  She tells Sheen she wants him back.

I won’t even mention the doggie-style chalk outline of the the priest’s suicide. However, I did like that Schenkel had Sheen collapse in that pattern after getting drunk.

Meanwhile, Father Exposition finds an old newspaper about the novice who committed suicide at the convent.  The headline says February 19, 1912, but he said the convent had been abandoned since 1910.  Of course, the newspaper banner also says February 19th was a Thursday when it was actually a Monday, so it is clearly fake news.  The picture is of the nun. [3]  Even though this provides no useful information that he did not already know, he speeds out to the convent to see Sheen.  Spoiler: Sheen shoots him.

Sheen and Linda/Nun have just made out.  From behind, he says he loves her (no, I mean orally verbally).  She turns around and says, “I love you too, Daddy.”  He screams his daughter’s name.  The police find him in a corner blankly clicking empty chamber after empty chamber into his mouth.  The cops just let him click away, but how do they know he isn’t just Russian-Rouletting his way to the money-shot?

This is another one you don’t want to think about too much.  It is always complicated when a character sees someone different than the audience.  They were wise to cast an actress that had a small birthmark on her nose.  Even at that, I was not positive who I was seeing at least one time.   I believe it was the same actress at all times in the convent scenes. [5]  It was just jarring then that he screams his daughter’s name when we have a close-up of the woman we met as the nun.  Yeah, that was the jarring aspect.

We are never told what the first priest did that caused the nun/demon to drive him to suicide, but I think we can all make up our own story.  Also, another pair of hands give him the pistol he uses to kill himself.  I guess we can assume that was the nun/demon.  I suppose a priest was not as likely to be packing his own heat as a cop.

So maybe a little over-written with the jumping back and forth between the priest and the convent; and a little under-written on the characters and story.  This is a case where cell-phones would have actually improved a story.  Still, Schenkel keeps things moving along and gives us some good visuals.

Post-Post:

  • [1] Yeah, like Basil.
  • [2] Father Exposition then calls the diner looking for Sheen.  He asks if they have a customer about 40 — Tom Skerritt was 53 at the time.  F’in actors, man!
  • [3] Not unusual in the days before HD and dumbbell bloggers, but the story does not match the headline.  It is, at least, religion-related.  It is about church leaders publishing a guide “which will include sections on homosexuality.”  Probably not a how-to.  I thought the article was being a little harsh referring to the “Anglican Primate Archbishop,” but apparently Primates are a thing in the church.
  • [4] It would just be churlish to point out the inconsistency.  In in the DVD commentary, Schenkel points out in a future room-quake that the contents are not moving; it is just in Sheen’s mind.  If that is the case, who is imagining this room-quake?
  • [5] I take it as confirmation that the wife and daughter are not credited.  Because for flashbacks, you don’t need actors or sets.  It’s not real, right?
  • This is the second consecutive post to feature an incestuous relationship.
  • As Sheen is first driving to the convent, he has Reverend Nolan Powers from WGOD on the radio.  I appreciate the call-back even if it doesn’t make much sense.  1) Sheen is not a believer, so would not be listening to a Christian station, 2) this case is unrelated to Nolan Powers, so he is not doing research, 3) Powers died in the episode that which aired four months earlier (or maybe would be in an asylum).
  • The only IMDb credit for writer William Kelly.

The Hitchhiker – O.D. Feelin’ (01/28/86)

You touch me, he dies. If you’re not in the air in thirty seconds, he dies. You come back in, he dies.

God, the 1980s — cultural nadir of America.  The big-shoulder clothes, the rolled up jacket sleeves, the parachute pants, the over-produced music, the synths, the big hair, the punk motif, the MBA-mentality, the manic coke-snorting yuppies, The Hitchhiker. Confidence is not high.

Sandra Bernhard (playing the charmingly-named ‘Rat’) witnesses a drug deal.  She is pure 80’s homeless / punk chic with spiky bright yellow hair.  There is a Mexican Stand-Off between three white guys, a black guy and no Mexican guys that leaves them all dead guys.  Rat walks onto the scene and makes off with a wristwatch and a brick of cocaine.

She walks home tapping a crystal-knobbed cane in front of her.  Wise Man — a true 80’s dude with both a tiny pony-tail and a mullet — says to his rotund, inevitably-named associate Fool, “Look who’s tapping his way down the street.”  OK, Sandra Bernhard was always kinda androgynous, but I don’t get the use of his.

Wise Man and Fool follow Rat to her, by definition, Rat-infested home. They peek in the window and see that within seconds she has already thinned the herd by overdosing on the coke.

Damn them for actually giving me a good laugh as they enter her hovel via crashing through the window. They take the cocaine . . . I mean with them.  A few seconds after they leave, partners of the drug-dealers break in.  It’s just as well Rat OD’d or she would have been murdered twice by now anyway.  Looking out the window, one of them sees, “Wise Man and that fool” running away, so I guess Fool isn’t his given name.

The episode is wearing me down as usual, but this time in a good way.  Yeah, the 80’s atmosphere is awful, but if you look beyond that, there are some fun performances and dialogue here winning me over.  Sadly Fool does not survive the scene.[1]  His death forfeits logic and the laws of physics for a shock laugh, but that seems like a good trade to me this time.

Wise Man goes to see The Chemist (played perfectly by Joe Flaherty). Whether it was intentional or not, his ditsy blonde assistant Orchid gets a laugh from me by calling him Wiseman [2] as if it were his name. While Chemist and Wise Man are weighing the cocaine, Orchid pours some champagne — hey, there’s a brick of coke right there! [3] We are tipped off that Orchid has slipped poison into one of the glasses.  Son-of-a-bitch if I wasn’t fooled again!  She killed The Chemist and she and Wise Man end up in the sack.

Orchid leaves Wise Man and takes the cocaine to The Duke.  The drug-dealers, always a step behind, find Wise Man and kill him.  Now he is Dead Man.  And on it goes through The Duke and Mr. Big.

The ending . . . well, I don’t even understand what happened.  It was fun and unexpected and looked great, though.  The Hitchhiker could use a lot more episodes like this.

Great stuff.

Post-Post:

  • [1] Played by the then ubiquitous, now dead, always likable Dennis Burkley.
  • [2] Unlike Arnold Schwarzenegger who just didn’t care when he pronounced Batman like it was his name.
  • [3] I’ve got an I Get a Kick Out of You shaped hole right there with nothing to go in it.  Yeah, I could have linked to Blazing Saddles, but I always wondered if Frankie really mentioned Cocaine.
  • The top picture caption is an Escape from New York reference.  I had mashed up a comparison, but they don’t look as similar as I remembered.

The Hitchhiker – In the Name of Love (04/07/87)

A couple of low-lifes go into a blues club where we hear blues so bad it is giving me the blues.  One of them orders a scotch and drops a $20 bill on the floor.  A stiletto heel stamps on it.  He says to the shapely owner Jackie Dresser, “You’re not my mother” which I don’t understand at all.  He follows her to the 2nd floor which is conveniently located upstairs.

She says a girl likes a little tenderness and says, “Tell me you like my smile.”  He replies, “Yeah, wrapped around my you-know-what.”  I am generally critical of the overuse of profanity but this is a drug kingpin and a whore — no need to be coy.  He cops a feel and discovers she has breast implants that are so bad they are actually on the outside.  While he is gawking at the gelatinous nippled blob in his hand, she kills him.  She puts her floozy wig on the corpse, kills his lackey, and leaves.

Turns out she is a hit-man [1].  The next day she meets with her handler to collect the $25,000 payment for the contract on the man she just killed.  He has another assignment for her, a blackmailer of women, but she says she is going on vacation.  There is literally nothing about the rest of this scene that I understand.

She writes on a piece of paper, and gives it to him.

“What’s this?” he asks.

“The hottest thing since Juliet.  At least that’s what I heard.”

“How do you know?”

“Phone book.  Try her out.”

It would seem that she is giving him the name of a substitute hit-man.  But who is Juliet? The most famous one is Juliet Capulet, but I don’t remember her being a killer (although her shenanigans were lethal to Romeo).  Googling “Juliet the Assassin” gives me nothing, so I am baffled.

Let’s say it is the name of a fill-in assassin . . . she found her in the phone book?  AAAAssassins r Us?  Is that before AAAA Bail Bonds?  And given what happens later, Jackie doesn’t know what she looks like?

Back at her place, she dolls up like she’s going to the prom.  Her bedroom is lined with pictures of a guy.  One of the pictures is signed “Bill Hagerman”.  Is this her boyfriend?  He signs his full name? It probably isn’t a movie star because she is in one picture with him.  I’m baffled.

She fantasizes aloud about going to the dance, then to the lookout where he will do things to her.  She suddenly takes off a shoe and throws it at the mirror. I have no idea why.  She is topless, though, so you make allowances.

She heads for a B&B in the mountains.  Her 1-week stay costs $4,500.  If a B&B charges me $4,500 one of the B’s better stand for you-know-what.  In her room, she makes a call to Bill.  She says she saw a handsome guy, “but not as handsome as you.”

Johnny, the local tennis pro, is massaging a middle-aged blonde when he spots Jackie.  They go out to eat, but the blonde finds them and accuses him of standing her up.  After a scene in the restaurant, Jackie and the Johnny go out to his convertible and she also puts her top down.

That night, she makes a call to Bill and the camera pans across a shrine of photos that Jackie is keeping.  She is on the phone again: “You were so wrong about him.  He’s sensitive and shy and so sexy.  I can’t keep my hands off him.  I swear I haven’t felt this way about anybody since you.”

It takes only seconds to get Jackie’s third topless scene, frankly the only reason to keep watching.  She and Johnny are in bed making out.  I don’t know where he was during that phone call.

The next morning, the blonde pounds on Jackie’s door looking for Johnny.  She is just coming out of the shower, and we almost get another look.  We see more of her pictures.  It appears that Bill cheated on Jackie so she killed him, launching her life of crime.

Jackie goes to Johnny’s room to tell him the blonde is looking for him and admits she isn’t married.  She sees he has a file of B&W pictures of their hook-up last night.  He was going to blackmail her, so she kills him.

The blonde comes back and breaks into Johnny’s room.  She sees a body in the bed, and says, “You slut” which makes no sense.  From her POV, she can only see a little of the person’s head.  Why would she assume it was Jackie alone in Johnny’s room?  She sees someone walking to Johnny’s convertible and uses a remote detonator to blow it up.

This also problematic.  The blonde looks out the window and sees someone walking toward Johnny’s car.  True, Jackie is wearing a hat, but it is clearly not Johnny.  On top of that, as seen in the picture, SHE EVEN TAKES OFF THE HAT AND LOOKS BACK AT THE BLONDE!  You’re thinking, she wants to kill Jackie too for banging Johnny — but blonde says, “Goodbye Johnny” before she detonates the bomb.

Surprise!  Blondie is meeting with Jackie’s boss.  She is dressed more stylishly and is sporting a punky new ‘do that looks good on her.  She is a hit-man too.[1]  She apologizes for taking so long, says she couldn’t shake the bimbo her target was with.  She collects her $25k.  Her handler says he didn’t realize she was an imitator of Jackie.  But she doesn’t even know who Jackie is.

He has a newspaper with a picture of Johnny dead in bed.  As she walks away, he calls after her, “Who was the guy in the car?”  Hmmmm, two guests at the B&B are missing.  One is found dead in his room.  Who could the burnt body be?

This one rivals The Miracle of Alice Ames for making my head spin.  I was repeatedly puzzled by the dialog, motivations, and logic.  That’s too bad because there is a good episode to be had here.  The sub-plot about the old boyfriend is unnecessary.  I guess it is to explain how she became an assassin — it is her boyfriend that she is killing on each contract.  But who cares why she became a hit-man?  The basic mistaken identity twist would have been sufficient.

These problems hobble a nice performance by Lucy Gutteridge as Jackie.  She is believable as the rough prostitute, but when the wig came off she transformed into a lovely woman for the rest of the episode.  And what a smile.  And those eyes.  Susan Tyrrell is also good, making a similar transformation.  I completely bought her as the frumpy housewife, but at the end she was surprisingly believable as the spunky punky hit-man.[1]

On the basis of their two performances, I kind of liked it, but boy did that script need another pass.

Post-Post:

  • [1] I will not be writing hit-woman.
  • Lucy Gutteridge starred in the vastly underrated Top Secret!.
  • It took 3 story credits and 1 teleplay credit to come up with this.
  • The director is responsible for 5 episodes of Ray Bradbury Theater.

The Hitchhiker – Why Are You Here? (03/10/87)

I’ll say this for The Miracle of Alice Ames, at least it wasn’t painful just to watch.  Why Are You Here? is the most visually offensive episode since New Year’s Day.

A limo rolls up in front of a club and an unctuous windbag pops his head out of the sun-roof.  He is “Jerry Rulack, Duke of the Night” on the TV show Night Sight.  I give the episode credit for its prescience in predicting the future of TV.  Not so much for predicting reality shows like The Kardashians, but for predicting how shitty TV in general would be.  The show being filmed in this episode is like every DJ portrayed on TV — they would draw an audience of close to zero.

Jerry gets out of the limo and leads us to “. . . clubs like this.  Currently the hottest or coolest club in town.”  He promises to take us in and ask the question which is apparently the beloved catch-phrase of the series which is sweeping the nation:  “Why are you here?”

We follow him through the crowd in the club.  A mixture of punks, dandies, flashing lights and coke-heads.  Nothing wipes that game-show host smile off his face, though.  And the finger-snapping — what the hell is all that finger-snapping for?  He approaches a woman at the bar who is dressed like the widow at a Corleone funeral and asks her name.  She is the only character I don’t hate so far as she screams “F*** off!” in his smirking face.  Then he springs his A-material, “Why are you here?” and she just scream-screams in his face.  And he never missed a snap with those fingers.

He travels through the club filming more weirdos, punks, coke-snorters, and — the horror! — two gay guys.  The blaring music, flashing lights, frequent camera edits and finger-snapping go on and on and on.  He sees a couple making out and asks his idiotic signature question, “Why are you here?”  The woman shows her boobs and the episode even manages to make that boring.

Jerry interviews some dandy in the coke-room.  He appears to be wearing a blazer over a wife-beater which shows way too much chest hair.  Was there ever a time when this would have been cool?  He also appears to be using a make-up pencil to accentuate his butt-chin.  He leads Jerry and his crew up to a private area to see “the most beautiful, sweetest, sought after, fought over, richest girl” in town.

The girl turns out to be Helen Hunt up in the VIP room surrounded by hanger-ons.  Jerry asks his usual insipid question, “Why are you here?”  She says, “Nowhere else to go,” and he gives her insipid answer a big raspberry, thumbs-down and childish face. Honestly, who would watch this shit? And who would watch this shit?

With the exception of Jerry’s barely-seen crew, every character in this episode is repulsive.  I had hopes that Helen Hunt might elevate the material, but was disappointed.  She has always seemed like a nice person, but she is just grossly miscast in this role.  Maybe her relatability was supposed to be a counterpoint to her bum-exploitation [1] and crack-smoking [2], but it really just made me want to watch Twister again.  Unfortunately Brad Davis, who is on screen nearly every second, is dreadful.

There actually was something here that could have been salvaged.  It was a target-rich environment for satire — the club scene, reality TV, divas — but nothing lands.

Garbage.

Post-Post:

  • [1] In the homeless meaning, not anal.
  • [2] In the drug meaning, not anal.
  • Rated 3rd worst episode of the series in IMDb’s increasingly credible ratings.
  • Also from this director:  The Legendary Billy B.  Despite being born in New Zealand and working down-under during the 1980’s, even Ray Bradbury Theater knew better than to hire him.

The Hitchhiker – Homebodies (03/17/87)

The episode begins with a bit of German Expressionism; and I believe that expression is ausgezeichnet! [1]  It was an unexpected bit of black & white artistry in a frequently dreary series with rain, fog, shadows, odd angles, Kafkaesque police, and big-ass clocks just scary in their size and starkness.  I guess a whole episode in this style would have been too much, but what an awesome opening!  Alas, it was just a Traum.

Brainiacs Jimmy and Ron have just busted out of jail, but they aren’t exactly besties.  The older, tougher Ron is only tolerating Jimmy so he can help him find a house with a safe containing payroll cash.  They have stopped to hold up a gas station.  Since they are already on their way to a big payday, I assume they’re going to shake it down for some cheese nachos and Red Bull.

Jimmy keeps the elderly clerk occupied with some mindless small-talk while Ron cases the joint.  When he brings some beer to the register, the clerk asks him for ID despite him being 34 years old.  Panicky Jimmy pulls out a pistol, and the old guy awesomely pulls out one of his own.  Ron awesomely pulls the clerk over the counter and throws him into a display.  He takes the pistol from Jimmy and points it at the clerk.  The old man says, “Please, I got a wife and kid!”  I’m on your side, dude, but your kid must be in his fifties by now.

Left to Right: Ron, phallic symbol, Jimmy

The old clerk is again awesome as he turns over some shelves and makes a run for it.  Of course, circling the aisle in a 400 square foot gas station convenience store isn’t much of an escape plan, but he had guts.  Ron pumps him full of leaded.  Apparently his thorough casing of the joint overlooked the two monitors sitting prominently on the counter.  They flee, with Jimmy taking an awesome tumble out the door.

Jimmy leads them to a model home which they break into.  There is supposed to be a safe in the basement.  While Ron goes treasure-hunting, Jimmy checks out the house.  When he spots a creepy kid sitting on the stairs, he panics and tries to get Ron to leave.  In a struggle, they fall over the railing and a gunshot rings out — and you better remember it or nothing else will make any sense at all.  They are busted by the whole family — little Billy, his attractive parents and their hot 20 year old blonde daughter Denise.

Ron demands to know where the safe is, but they deny there is a safe.  Ron takes the daughter upstairs looking for a big score and also the loot, while Jimmy holds the gun on Mom, Dad and Billy.  When Mom & Dad hear Denise’s screams from upstairs, they beg Jimmy to go up and stop Ron or at least close the door.  Seeing the nice family, Jimmy feels a part of him is missing.  More than anything in the world, he longs to be part of a family like this.

Denise gets away from Ron and runs downstairs.  Wanting to help the family, Jimmy points the gun at Ron. That goes about as you expect — Ron takes the gun from him and murders the entire family.  Again, this is awesomely — sorry — executed.

The next morning, a car pulls up outside the model home.  A realtor shows the house to a woman. Inside, we see that Billy, Denise, Mom and Dad are actually mannequins being used as HomeFill to make the home seem more homely.  One is more homely than the others, though.  Among the beautiful, well-dressed family sits sleazy Ron, clearly a real human.

A happy, less-crazy, neatly-dressed Jimmy comes down stairs and speaks to the mannequins before leaving.  The realtor tells the woman Jimmy is on the construction crew.  The crew is around the mannequins so much, they treat them like people.  Especially Denise, I suspect.

The house-shopper sees that Ron has bloody shirt and runs screaming from the house like she has seen black mold.

The episode is just full of interesting compositions, cuts and tracking shots.

The craftsmanship on this episode blows away every other episode so far. The opening black & white scene, a lot of creative camera-work, and some good perform-ances make this one something special.  The ending seemed like a complete non-sequitur until I did a rewind.  I deduct points from myself for that, not from the episode.

Yeah, you could raise a lot of questions about the logic of the denouement, but why would ya?  Just enjoy it — nobody likes a nit-picking dumb-ass giving his . . . dopey . . . unsolicited . . . opinions . . . . or something.

Great stuff.

Post-Post:

  • [1] I originally wrote Scheiss, gratuitously showing off a dirty German word I learned in the gymnasium; no, not das Gymnasium, an actual gymnasium.  But the episode deserved better, even in jest. And also deserved a better jest.
  • What Morgan Reeves (Denise) did in the 1990s:  One Stormy Night . . . interesting; Night Sins . . . steamy; Winter Heat . . . yeah, baby; Half a Dozen Babies — d’oh!
  • This might be the first episode not available on YouTube.  And why does the DVD stick it the 8th track behind vastly inferior episodes (they are not chronological)? Why are they keeping this hidden, man?
  • Title Analysis:  Good job.  Simple, but relates to the mannequins in the house as well as Jimmy’s longing for a home and family.