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Fans of ‘Mad Max,’ Young Love, and Greek Mythology Should Watch ‘Highway to Hell’

A tragic Greek legend gets a fun revamp in this hella overlooked comedy from the director of ‘Drop Dead Fred’ and the writer of ‘L.A. Confidential.’
Hell Cop
By  · Published on February 15th, 2020

Welcome to The Prime Sublime, a weekly column dedicated to the underseen and underloved films buried beneath page after page of far more popular fare on Amazon’s Prime Video collection. We’re not just cherry-picking obscure titles, though, as these are movies that we find beautiful in their own, often unique ways. You might even say we think they’re sublime…

“Sublime /səˈblīm/: of such excellence, grandeur, or beauty as to inspire great admiration or awe”

The story of Orpheus and Eurydice is one of the most romantic and tragic tales in Greek mythology. In the lore, Eurydice dies after being bitten by a snake, and Orpheus enters the Underworld to bring his beloved back from the dead. That’s the general cusp of the story anyway, and it doesn’t have a happy ending.

Meanwhile, Highway to Hell is a fun reimagining of the story that combines elements of the Greek fable with comedy, action, adventure, and its own wacky ideas. The movie was directed by Ate De Jong from a screenplay by Brian Helgeland, who are best known for popular movies like Drop Dead Fred and L.A. Confidential, respectively. Given this, it’s quite surprising that this gem isn’t more well-known. Of course, one of the great things about movies is that it’s never too late to discover them.

What’s it about?

Highway to Hell is loosely inspired by the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, but it doesn’t authentically adhere to the same template. For a start, the couple in question here, Charlie (Chad Lowe) and Rachel (Kristy Swanson), are on their way to Las Vegas to elope until the bride-to-be gets kidnapped by a demonic police officer, Hell Cop (C.J. Graham), and taken to the realm of the damned to be turned into a dishonest woman.

As it turns out, Satan is looking for a new virgin bride to add to his collection. But Charlie isn’t willing to let the Dark Lord steal his significant other, so he gets a better vehicle, grabs a gun, and heads into Hell with his trusty dog in an effort to save Rachel and bring her back to the land of the living. Before he can rescue her, however, he must contend with evil chefs, biker gangs, car troubles, temptation, and the Devil himself.

What makes it sublime?

More than anything, Highway to Hell is a lot of fun. Despite the inherently horrific nature of the premise, the film doesn’t take itself too seriously, and fans of De Jong’s Drop Dead Fred will likely enjoy its quirky sense of humor. But it also works as an action-adventure movie with some stakes involved, as Charlie must navigate Hell’s sandy terrains and overcome some interesting obstacles before time runs out for Rachel.

This version of Hell also just happens to be one of the most entertaining in the pop culture lexicon. It’s essentially a Mad Max-esque desert highway that’s also seen its fair share of car chases. But the doomed population can also stop at a diner for a snack of the human flesh variety and enjoy a coffee that’s hotter than lava. Naturally, there are also nightclubs and casinos, because gambling and partying is sinful behavior.

The movie has a lot of fun with its hellish ideas, and that’s where most of the laughs come from. For example, there’s a scene where Hitler, Attila the Hun, and Cleopatra sit around a table, arguing and telling bad jokes. Elsewhere, there are mechanics whose sole purpose is to mock people with car troubles as opposed to helping them out. And in what is one of the most on-the-nose references in the movie, there’s a paving company called “Good Intentions.” That said, the movie is littered with little nods to mythology and pop culture.

Highway to Hell is a short, sweet, and focused movie, but it does a great job at world-building and taking viewers on a tour through this realm’s bizarre corners. You’ll want to spend more time in this oddball universe when the end credits roll, and it’s a damn shame that a sequel never got made. Still, sometimes it’s better to leave viewers wanting more and let their imaginations fill in the blanks.

Fans of practical effects and good monster make-up will also have a ball with Highway to Hell. Hell Cop is an outstanding villain whose scarred face is like a cross between Freddy Krueger and a monstrosity from a Clive Barker story. Steve Johnson — whose monster movie credits include A Nightmare On Elm Street 4: The Dream Master and Blade II — was tasked with making Hell Cop look scary, and he knocked it out of the park.

If that’s not enough to sell you, the movie also features cameos from the entire Stiller family who were around in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Ben is a particular highlight as a roadside chef, mindlessly roaming around trying to convince people to eat his meat.

And in conclusion…

Highway to Hell is a triumph of modest charms that will entertain fans of genre hybrids, as well as those who enjoy films with a weird sense of humor. The film’s mishmash qualities blend together more than efficiently, and while it’s a comedy first and foremost, the movie isn’t without an ample amount of thrills either. The final showdown will have you on the edge of your seat, and some of you might even find the movie romantic.

Want more sublime Prime finds? Of course you do.

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Kieran is a Contributor to the website you're currently reading. He also loves the movie Varsity Blues.