Hellgate Blu-ray and DVD Review
Directed by William A. Levey
Written by Michael O'Rourke
1989, Region 2 (PAL), 87 minutes, Rated 18 (UK)
DVD released on 3rd February 2014
Ron Palillo as Matt
Abigail Wolcott as Josie
Carel Trichardt as Lucas
Petrea Curran as Pam
Evan J. Kissler as Chuck
Joanne Warde as Bobby
Two young couples plan a vacation together in a 'lonely mountain cabin' only a stones throw away from a town with its own spooky legend: The Hellgate Hitchhiker; a young girl who was killed and now wanders the back roads looking for somebody to... do something with. I'm not particularly sure what, as the legend as well as the film in general is quite sketchy in places.
Turns out the hitchhiker ghost girl has her eye on one of the four friends after he gave her a lift home and they started a bit of a make-out session. Now the friends have to do something that includes checking out the graveyard, the cursed ghost town and the girl's house. Turns out there's no logical reason for anything that happens in Hellgate (again, both the town AND the film) people just do what they want to do with no particular motive or logic.
This is my third attempt at reviewing Arrow's release of Hellgate. Being brought up in a three video shop town I was very lucky to have had access to a wide selection of titles, but somehow Hellgate was not one of them. It had no place in my heart and on first viewing I have to confess I was extremely disappointed and left feeling that Arrow was starting to scrape the bottom of the cult film barrel. But Arrow films aren't typical film releases. Arrow titles are chosen and made with great care and attention as tribute to some of the most loved entries in home entertainment. I couldn't help but feel that my ignorance to the film was more to blame for my judgment so felt a second sitting was in order.
The story starts to make a bit more sense when you look at it from the point of view of the ghosts, which is probably why there's a 20 minute exposition backstory.
Young and beautiful Josie (Abigail Wolcott) is killed by bikers in front of her dad (Carel Trichardt) who swears an undying hatred towards all strangers. He finds a crystal that brings dead things back to life and, although they become monstrous, homicidal and prone to explosion, he chooses to use it on the grave of his daughter. Now years later she is still seen wandering the backroads looking for people to take back to Hellgate.
When she meets medical student Matt (Ron Palillo) she sees something she desires in him (possibly his custom licence plate that reads THEHERO), leads him to her house and so begins their very short lived affair. Chased away by her father, Matt then drives to the cabin where he decides hilariously to tell his girlfriend Pam (Petrea Curran) some of the details while doing her from behind.
It's then that you realise the genius of Hellgate. Seeing Matt, bareback, on top of a naked, post-coital Pam, uttering the words 'and that's the story' suddenly shines a whole different kind of light on the movie. Hellgate is a journey into the ridiculous. There's so many plot holes you can hide a whole other story in them, but what you are left with is a compilation of visual gags, terrible decisions and ludicrous conversations that somehow link together a basic narrative. And it's the moments that you discover yourself that make it so entertaining.
Even though the script is abysmal, the banter is painful to watch and the acting feels like a pantomime for the hard of hearing, it's the little gems scattered throughout that make Hellgate worth watching. There are moments that make no sense or follow no rational logic like talking heads in fridges (a random cameo from director William A. Levey), a diner with a 'conduct your rape outside' policy, exploding zombie turtles, and the most ludicrous example of a twisted ankle plot device of all time. These are only some of the weird moments that will stick with you and where you draw the line between intentional or ironic humour is up to you. Did Levey want the waitress to be flirtatious and confident or was the intention always to make her ludicrously inappropriate? Was Mike ranting about sharing food supposed to shoehorn depth into his relationship with Pam or was it a random statement that has no purpose?
My favourite moment, which never fails to make me laugh, is when friend Bobby (Joanne Warde) refuses to follow the rest of her friends (maybe because of her twisted ankle? who knows) so Matt and Pam tell her to stay put, which makes sense, but then for no reason that Bobby's character would justify, Pam shouts 'DON'T DRINK' at her, which felt completely unnecessary. Less than 5 seconds later Bobby starts necking a bottle of JD. Go figure. This may read as really mundane on paper (or monitor), but watching it happening on screen is unbelievably comical.
Thanks to the special features, finding out that all the cast (with the exception of lead actor Ron Palillo) is African I felt unfair to suggest that the acting is terrible, but it is like criticising an awful piece of modern art but then finding out it was done by a blind cat. It doesn't change how I feel about it but it does slightly justify it. It's Ron Palillo (the actual American) who is the biggest focus, as he not only finds himself way too funny but by the third time he uses his 'you're an asshole' routine you want to tear off his arm and beat him with it. On the flip side as Matt inexplicably attracts all women like flies to shit, finds the concept of six pies hilarious and is the worst boyfriend of all time, you hardly compare him to a legitimate human being.
If I was reviewing Hellgate like a normal movie I would complain about director Levey's habit of playing every piece of set destruction in slow motion in case, god forbid, you miss it. And that the last 4 minutes of the film has the quickest and weakest wrap up of plot points imaginable. However, as Hellgate exists outside the realms of reality I can't fault its consistency. I want so very much to talk about the end but I genuinely don't want to spoil the surprise if/when you watch it. Let's just say that after skipping back eight times I'm still struggling to work out why Ronald Regan ended up crashing into the gunsmith store.
Hellgate is either a piece of sheer comedy genius or a string of terrible decisions that somehow paid off in the long run. Regardless it is a film that should be laughed AT if not necessarily WITH and the more times you watch the film the more you will collect the little moments of ridiculousness and enjoy it. By my fourth viewing I've found so many fantastic little moments that I think of it more like The Rocky Horror Picture Show without the songs than a normal 80's horror film. The big question is, if you can make it through the first sitting or not - which you will have to be a very tolerant and open-minded person to go through. Had I only watched Hellgate the once I would have rated it really poorly but then never quite understood why Arrow would choose this title for their catalogue. It's no surprise really that there is only a limited run of 1000 copies of Hellgate being released. I'm not even sure there are 1000 people who would tolerate this film but there are definitely 1000 Arrowholics out there who want to show off their collections and those who do grab their copy will enjoy the hours spent dissecting the film and shouting 'WHO WOULD DO THAT?' at the characters.
Video and Audio:
Though it's a dual format release I only have the DVD copy to refer to but both sound and screen quality is pretty good with its Widescreen presentation and Dolby AC-3 audio. Director Levey proudly describes that one of the aerial shots was taken during a monsoon and even with the size and quality of my TV I can't make out any proof of its watery existence. An amazing trick considering it's just a case of angling the lights. There's a few shots that are a little more grainy than I'd expect but still a very high quality restoration.
This is another Arrow film that would have benefited from an audio commentary even if not the director I'm sure they could have found a critic to talk about it. After watching it five times in one week I'D be happy to record a commentary and I hardly even know the film. But what we do have (in reverse order) is:
- An oddly included 8 minute interview with Puppet Master creator Kenneth J. Hall on the direct to VHS horror boom and its box-art downfall.
- A 13 minute interview with scholar and film maker Howard S. Berger (what's with all the middle initials?) called Alien Invasion, Blaxploitation and Ghost-Busting Mayhem, which is not as exciting as the title. It is however a vital inclusion to the disc as it's a critical look at Hellgate and perfectly articulates the unintended charm of the film.
- Road to Perdition, B-Movie Style is a 35 minute documentary with Director William A, Levey discussing the origins of his career and of the film and the complications of making an American movie in Africa. Half way through the interview takes a look at what it was like as a white man living in Africa during the 1990s. Though the interview takes an unexpectedly political tone it's still enthralling.
- All together there are just under an hour of special features and surprisingly no trailer. I always judge Arrow Films on a different scale from other films so though it seems generous when you compare it to its release of Class of Nuke 'em High or Invasion of the Body Snatchers it feels a little lacking and definitely clutching at straws. The brief interview with Kenneth J. Hall may be an offcut to a much larger, future interview but for now just seems like something needed to pad out the list of features on the back of the DVD/Blu-ray box.
Fun Facts: one of the vintage cars has the licence plate SETSHOP clearly on show obviously from the prop company they hired the car from, even though the story pans over 2 days the characters never change their clothes (and even though they all undress for sex at least once) and at the end of the film there is a pair of women's legs sticking out a shop window for absolutely no reason. Finally you have to pause the film at 00:27:15 and as the image burns into your mind, let it sink in that there is no reason nor follow up to this anywhere in the movie