Pick Me Up (US - DVD R1)
Thumb a ride with Gabe and Larry Cohen's Master's of Horror entree...
Mother always told you not to pick up hitchhikers, and Father always told you not to take rides from strangers. But what happens when an evil, hitchhiker murdering truck driver picks up an evil, driver-murdering hitchhiker? More over, what if they started fighting over slaughter territory? And what if you were a young, recent divorcee trapped in the middle? Why folks, I believe we've got ourselves a successful gimmick here.
Personally, the two wildcards on the Masters of Horror slate were always Joe Dante and Larry Cohen. Neither director has a single horror film on their resume, strictly speaking (neither does John Landis for that matter, but he's not as intriguing a filmmaker), and both are often overlooked by genre fans. Dante actually delivered for me (sort of), but he had the unfair advantage of having the best concept behind his episode. Now I come to Cohen, and I actually find myself impressed.
Larry Cohen, if you aren't familiar, has been around forever, mostly working in television and on various B-Movie genres, including horror, blaxploitation, Sci-Fi, and Westerns. What's interesting about his episode is that he did not write it (splatter-punk pioneer David J. Schow holds that honour), as Cohen has actually seen more success as a writer than a director (few of his films have even seen wide release). Cohen created such TV shows as Branded and The Invaders (a major inspiration on John Carpenter's They Live), and most recently had two telephone based thrillers released under different directors ( Phone Booth and Cellular).
Cohen's work can be distinguished with a basic, single sentence hook ('There's a killer mutant baby', 'An ancient Aztec bird-God is eating New Yorkers', 'There's a new desert delight that's turning consumers into mindless zombies') that is the basis for a twisty-turny, and always entertaining plot. Most, if not all, of his films are infused with a healthy does of tongue-in-cheek humour, and a smidgen of allegorical undertones. For the most part, Cohen's films were all very low budget, and entirely misunderstood by critics upon their initial releases.
Pick Me Up is the type of story Cohen could've easily come up with himself, and it fits neatly into his repertoire. Like all the other Masters of Horror short films, it has its limitation, not the least of which being the overwhelming pre-release hype. I've got a review copy of the first six episodes coming as I write this, and already covered Carpenter's and Gordon's episodes before, so I'll try to keep my comments on the series as a whole to a minimum for now, but I have to mention the fact that none of these films have lived up to expectations yet. There is an inherent budget constrictive problem here, but fortunately budget constraints are a Larry Cohen specialty.
Pick Me Up may actually be my second favourite of the series so far, just behind Dante's Homecoming. I wanted to love Carpenter's and Argento's episodes, but found myself undeniably disappointed. Though Cohen's film runs mostly on concept (one that my girlfriend, bless her heart, swears she came up with in High School creative writing class), there is still quite a bit of celebration to be had here.
The biggest party should be thrown for Michael Moriarty who plays Wheeler, the demented truck driver. Moriarty, who's worked with Cohen on several other occasions, is always good, but here he's electric. Wheeler is similar, yet entirely unlike any other serial killer I've ever seen on film, and most of it comes down to his speech patterns and personality ticks. In contrast, but just as cool, is Warren Kole (an actor I was not familiar with) as Walker, the hitchhiker. Figuring that the plot revolves around these two antagonists, these performances go a long way in making the final product worth watching. And let’s not forget the always dependable oddity that is Fairuza Balk, who only disappears a little bit in the shadow of these tyrants.
Like every other entree in the series, an hour seems to be the wrong runtime. This particular story would work better as a thirty-minute short, or an expanded feature length film. As is, the story feels stretched in some spots and stilted in others. Ambition gets the better of Cohen on occasion, but occasionally this ambition brings about some fine visuals, like an overturning semi-truck, or a well orchestrated crane shot that checks out three rooms in a seedy hotel from above. It's all a bit touch and go, but I liked it, and think Cohen was just the man for the job.
As in other Masters of Horror release, the overall image here is lacking in detail. Dark scenes, of which there are many, have a lot of digital blocking and low level noise problems. I'm most disappointed by the dull, dishwater colours, which are a symptom of the overall lack of brightness. The anamorphic, 1.78:1 widescreen adds a certain air of respectability and cinematic ambition, but the compression isn't exactly top of the line. Black levels are respectable. I'm guessing these weren't filmed in HD or anything, but there's no reason such a new film, big budget or not, should look so mediocre.
Also adding a boost to the production value is a fine 5.1 Dolby Digital surround track. This mix goes well beyond what one usually sees in a TV show, save some of HBO's larger budgeted series. The soundtrack is a bit lacking, and thinly orchestrated, but it sounds nice and has a full bass bottom. Dialogue is centred and clear, and there is no obvious distortion. The track could do with a little bit of directional effects tweaking, or better yet more directional effects all together, but your rear channels will still get a decent workout.
These Masters of Horror releases are usually worth their meagre price tags for their special features alone. If you are a fan of any particular director, you'll want to pick up their episode for the extras. This disc is no exception.
We start with a two main featurettes, Death on the Highway: An Interview with Larry Cohen and Working With a Master: Larry Cohen. These probably should've been edited together, as both follow Cohen from his early TV work to the making of Pick Me Up, though one is mostly from Cohen's P.O.V., and the other from those he's worked with through out his life. Personally, I'd already read Kim Newman's Nightmare Movies book, which has a pretty lengthy chapter about Cohen, and I've seen a lot of the man's films, but I still found plenty to learn here. Fans should probably understand that this is the closest to a feature length expose on the writer/director we'll ever see.
Cohen's solo commentary track is a mile a minute. It kind of makes you want to pause the DVD so the poor guy can catch his breath. Unfortunately Cohen spends a little too much time describing on screen events and telling us stuff we already learned from the featurettes to warrant the listening for anyone but the biggest fans. Budding filmmakers may enjoy the track for the descriptions of how to get some good shots fast and cheap. Maybe Cohen should just give a seminar.
There are interviews, each around ten minutes, with the three lead actors. Moriarty is a weird guy. Either he's a method actor still in character at the time of the interview, or he really is a bit mad. He goes off on a long tangent about his inspiration for the character, an abortionist, who he sees as hateful, sterilized baby killers. Obviously not a Pro-Choice kind of guy, but pretty interesting, and a big fan of Cohen. Warren Kole and Fairuza Balk are a lot less intense, and have nothing but love for their director. In fact, no one really talks about anything but how much they love Cohen. The only surprise of the disc, meaning a departure from the other DVDs in the series, is a television interview with Cohen from a TV show entitled Fantasy Film Festival. This is cute as the interviewer is a young Mick Garris, the series producer and director of several made-for-TV Stephen King films.
The features are rounded out with a behind the scenes montage (which is dry, and can mostly be found in bits and pieces during the docs), a script to screen comparison (another Masters of Horror DVD regular), a Cohen text bio, and a set of Masters of Horror trailers.
Problematic, but probably my second favourite in the series so far (just behind the equally problematic Homecoming), Pick Me Up is an enjoyable little thriller that Larry Cohen fans should enjoy. The DVD is a little lacking in the video field, but has a nice sound mix and a bang up set of special features. If anything, this disc has reawakened my personal interest in the director, and I plan on tracking down copies of The Stuff and Q: The Winged Serpent as soon as I can. I wish I would've bought them before they went out of print.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 18th October 2006
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 English, Dolby Surround 2.0 English
Extras: Death on the Highway: An Interview with Larry Cohen, Working With a Master: Larry Cohen, Director Commentary, Behind the Scenes, Fantasy Film Festival: Mick Garris Interviews Larry Cohen, Cast Interviews, Trailers, Script to Screen, Bio, Stills
Easter Egg: No
Director: Larry Cohen
Cast: Michael Moriarty, Fairuza Balk, Warren Kole
Length: 58 minutes
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