I feel fortunate that I grew up in the 80s – for me it was one of the best decades to be a horror fan and some of the most important works of the genre emerged in the “Decade of Decadence” – movies that might have been lost in the theatres became cult classics by finding audiences on VHS. One of my favourites growing up was “The Hitcher” – Rutger Hauer, C. Thomas Howell and Jennifer Jason Leigh caught up in a cat and mouse game along a vast stretch of highway as a hitch-hiking psycho taunts and torments a motorist travelling across the country. Director Robert Harmon delivered a truly satisfying horror/thriller that still stands up today (forget about the remake – the original is the only way to go).
Fast forward almost two decades and I remember getting very excited to learn that Harmon was directing “Highwaymen” for New Line Cinema – another horror/thriller which smashes together the psycho killer and the road movie genres. I read a number of articles prior to its release and most horror fans seemed excited to see Harmon return to themes explored in “The Hitcher”. But for some reason the film did not get the wide theatrical release everyone was anticipating, and New Line did not seem to spend any energy or money promoting the film. Horror had started to heat up again in the new millennium but this movie was never given a chance to find an audience in theatres – and it was unceremoniously dumped onto DVD with little to no fanfare.
Watching the movie it is clear that the studio was not behind it, and I suspect that the Director may not have been involved in the final cut. It has a running time of only about one hour and fifteen minutes – and that is with a time-killing (but very cool) opening sequence to run the overall running time up to even hit that mark. There is clearly something missing from the film – it seems to be lacking a well-defined second act – there is a set-up and a conclusion but the middle seems to have been truncated.
What we do get, however, is a highly entertaining road movie with a hero Cray (Jim Caviezel) in a far from street-legal 1968 Plymouth Barracuda hunting down a serial killer Fargo (Colm Feore) who stalks the roadways in a 1972 Cadillac El Dorado searching for victims who he can run down in his car and then drive away in the murder weapon. The set-up is very cool – the killer worked for his father’s automobile insurance company and developed a taste for vehicular mayhem by studying photos of crash victims. When the photos are no longer enough he begins to run victims down and take his own photos of the carnage. When he runs down Cray’s wife Cray pursues him, smashing into Fargo’s car, mutilating his body and sending him to the hospital. Cray spends three years in jail for his deeds and begins to receive newspaper clippings of other hit and run accidents – accidents which would appear to the police as random acts but Cray recognizes that Fargo is back on the roads seeking out victims. After he is released from jail Cray gets a Hemi-powered super car and begins roaming the backroads of America (actually Toronto and Hamilton Ontario) in search of Fargo. Fargo is missing limbs and is really just a brain controlling the weapon he drives – making stops on the way to do repairs to his vehicle, and himself. Cray will stop at nothing to get revenge on Fargo, even if it means using a would-be victim Molly (Rhona Mitra) as bait.
There are some truly excellent car stunts in the film and Harmon creates some incredible tension and suspense including an amazing sequence when Molly is trapped inside an over-turned car being dragged behind Fargo’s car on a chain as Cray tries to rescue her. The film also has some very beautiful cinematography which makes you feel a bit cheated when they start rushing the film to get to the end. This film probably does not have enough of an audience to justify the release of a Director’s Cut but I would be very interested to see what Harmon’s original cut of the film looked like.
I love horror movies, and I love old muscle cars. Some of the coolest cars around can be found in the horror genre – the various Cudas in the “Phantasm” series (the later sequels used different ones – my favourite is the ’71 in the original), “Christine”, Sam and Dean’s ’67 Impala, all of the cars of “Death Proof”. If you like cars like that you have to see “Highwaymen” – the ’68 Barracuda is absolutely amazing!
If you don’t care about cars you still need to see this film. It is not as good as “The Hitcher”, but it is a very cool take on the slasher genre. The killer is not physically intimidating – Cray is trying to get him out of his car – but when he is behind the wheel he is unstoppable and the film makes the car an extension of the killer. I always enjoy movies where we have the killer being hunted by someone who knows what they are doing – and when you put the person behind the wheel of a ’68 Barracuda it’s even better (sorry I’m talking about the car again).
I watched it again to write this article and the movie stands up ten years after it was dumped onto video by New Line. The movie pre-dates “Death Proof” and while the characters are nowhere near as well developed as the characters in “Death Proof” I think “Highwaymen” holds its own against Tarantino’s killer in a car classic. The performances are good and I always love seeing Feore play a villain (those outside of Canada may not be as familiar with him but he is an incredible actor who could do Shakespeare in his sleep!)
My recommendation – get some drinks, popcorn and do a double feature – “The Hitcher” followed by “Highwaymen” and take an evening to appreciate the contributions of Robert Harmon – an overlooked & underrated director who has clocked some serious mileage exploring some of the best horrors the highways have to offer!