Director – Ate de Jong, Screenplay – Brian Helgeland, Producers – John Byers & Mary Anne Page, Photography – Robin Vidgeon, Music – Hidden Faces, Visual Effects – Cinema Research Corporation & Randall William Cook, Makeup Effects – Steve Johnson, Production Design – Phillip Dean Foreman. Production Company – Goodman-Rosen/Josa High Street Pictures
Chad Lowe (Charlie Sykes), Kristy Swanson (Rachel Clark), Patrick Bergin (Beezle), C.J. Graham (Sergeant Bedlam), Adam Storke (Royce), Jarrett Lennon (Adam), Richard Farnsworth (Sam), Pamela Gidley (Clara)
Teenagers Charlie Sykes and Rachel Clark elope to Las Vegas. While taking a backroad, Charlie goes to sleep at the wheel. They are pulled over by a hideous cop who restrains Rachel with a set of living ‘hand cuffs’ and then vanishes with her. Charlie meets an old timer that tells him that Rachel has been taken to Hell – if Charlie wants to save her, he must travel the Highway to Hell and rescue her within 24 hours before she is seduced by The Devil.
Highway to Hell is a B+-budget movie that is buoyed considerably by the cheerful ingenuity of its concept – nothing less than a modern-day reworking of the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, one where Orpheus now travels into the underworld in a souped-up coupe.
What makes Highway to Hell so enjoyable is its sly series of in-jokes aimed at Judaeo-Christian mythology and afterlife cant. Along the way, Chad Lowe encounters the Good Intentions Paving Company, which crushes up and spits out people who offer excuses like “I just slept with the boss for the raise” or justifications for pulling the plug on life-support machines. There are witty asides – Adolf Hitler makes an appearance as a youthful upstart insisting he likes heavy metal and playing air guitar; place-cards at a restaurant table state ‘Reserve Pour Jerry Lewis’. An apple with a bite taken out of it sits in a display case just inside the doorway to Hell City – nothing is ever said about it, it just is. On the minus side, there is a looseness to the film – the temptations that Chad Lowe must face are routine – but the film is saved by its sly in-joking and black comic undertow.
Chad Lowe, permanently blinking as though he had been stoned throughout filming, gives an amazingly weedish performance. Kristy Swanson is typically bland. Where the film gains ground is in the inspired casting of Patrick Bergin, one of the most underrated actors in today’s business. Bergin gives the Devil a friendliness and a silky persuasiveness that is worryingly sympathetic.
This is a film with an enjoyable bite to it – and certainly one that is considerably more enjoyable than the other genre entry that director Ate de Jong made the same year – the immensely irritating Drop Dead Fred (1991). Subsequently, Ate de Jong returned to direct in his native Netherlands. Of course, screenwriter Brian Helgeland subsequently went onto a high profile career, writing the scripts for films like L.A. Confidential (1997), The Postman (1997), Mystic River (2003), Man on Fire (2004), Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant (2009) and The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009), before becoming a director with Payback (1999), A Knight’s Tale (2001), the fascinating Catholic horror film The Sin Eater/The Order (2003) and the true-life 42 (2013) about the first Black baseball player.