Saturday, 19 February 2011

Paul Verhoeven Film Restrospective - The Hitchhiker: Last Scene

The Hitchhiker was a 30 minute anthology TV series from the mid-80's and was also one of the first programs to appear on the newly created American cable TV channel, HBO. Being an anthology series, each week a different story was told with a different cast playing different characters. The only connecting thread was that of The Hitchhiker, who did no more than provide bookends to the story in the same way Rod Sterling did with The Twilight Zone.

Although largely forgotten now, the series does feature a considerable number of actors and directors who have gone onto far better things. Bill Paxton (Aliens, Twister, Titanic), Willem Dafoe (Spider-Man, Finding Nemo), and Michael Madsen (Reservoir Dogs, Kill Bill, Thelma And Louise) have all appeared in episodes while Phillip Noyce (Salt, Patriot Games) directed 4 of them.

Paul Verhoeven directed a single episode of The Hitchhiker titled Last Scene. In it, Peter Coyote (E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, Erin Brockovich) plays a movie director, trying to get an actress into the correct emotional state to shoot the last scene of his slasher movie. Even though many people have never heard of it, and even less have seen it, Last Scene may very well be the most important thing Paul Verhoeven ever directed. 

When he started his career, it was relatively easy for him to make the films he wanted in Holland, but by the time of Spetters and The 4th Man, it was proving increasingly difficult to find financing. Verhoeven dabbled with Hollywood by making Flesh+Blood, but even then, he managed to do so without ever leaving Europe. Unsure whether he'd have the freedom to make the films as he wanted to, and also nervous about leaving behind the country he knew and loved, he agreed to go to America and direct an episode of The Hitchhiker as a trial run for a Hollywood career as he'd only be required for a few weeks. If he hated it, he could easily return to Holland.

As it turned out, he had a fantastic time, quickly deciding before production had even finished to make the transition to Hollywood full time. Had he not made this episode of a TV show, he would have stayed at home and there would be no Robocop, Total Recall or Basic Instinct, or at least in the forms that we all know and love.

So, how is his first stab at Hollywood? Is Last Scene any good? Well, yes and no. It's OK but not great. Verhoeven had a choice of what episode he wanted to direct, and he chose this episode as it blurred the lines between fantasy and reality. There are many moments where you think you are watching the actress being chased by serial killer, only to find you are watching the film that they are making. This is deliberately confusing and Verhoeven is having great fun twisting our sense of reality. In that sense, this episode could easily be seen as a forerunner to Total Recall, where you also don't know what is real and what isn't.

As this is a TV show, Verhoeven does hold back on his usual style of full on sex and violence, but as this is an HBO show, there he doesn't hold back entirely. What I did find amusing, and I presume this was deliberate, was a moment later in the episode where the characters go to a night club on fancy dress night. The club has many references to other horror films on display, including a recreation of an important and horrific moment from The 4th Man. Despite this though, the episode seems rather bland and cheap, which can only be expected given the limited budget available.

All in all, it was one of the better episodes of an OK TV show but nothing too special. I'd give it a 5.5 as the only real things of interest is that Verhoeven directed it and what it allowed to happen after filming had been completed. That makes it an interesting footnote in an interesting career.

Talking of footnotes, when I started this retrospective, I thought I would have to give up on finding this episode. It may have been posted online, but it would probably take me ages to find. Imagine my delight when I popped into HMV in Braintree and found the DVD for the bargain price of less than £2. It was worth that price for the commentary alone, which is where Verhoeven talks in great depth about how important this episode was for him in allowing his move to Hollywood. The other episodes on the disk have been quite average so far. When I finish watching them, I will try and update this blog.

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