Thursday, April 18, 2013

Diary of a Teenage Hitchhiker (1979)

          Timing has a lot to do with how and why movies leave lasting impressions. Take, for example, this unremarkable telefilm about the dangers of catching car rides from strangers. Essentially an afterschool special with a higher level of menace (it aired in primetime), the picture tells the paper-thin story of Julie, an average California teenager from a good home who ignores myriad warning signs while hitching back and forth from the suburbs to her summer job at a fast-food joint on the beach. Julie is played by pint-sized bombshell Charlene Tilton, at the time a TV star on Dallas, and her costars include fell0w small-screen players Katherine Helmond, Christopher Knight, Craig T. Nelson, and Dick Van Patten. Viewers are treated to bland scenes of Julie debating the pros and cons of hitchhiking with her worried dad, plus vignettes of Julie’s romantic adventures with (gasp!) an older man. Meanwhile, Julie’s unfortunate friends get rides from skeezy dudes, including a rapist/serial killer who prowls the SoCal highways in a muscle car with darkly tinted windows. As directed by competent action guy Ted Post, Diary of a Teenage Hitchhiker is ordinary except when it lays on the horror-movie clichés—every time the serial killer is about to strike, Post cuts to a montage of detail shots as the murderer’s car revs up. And while the visual allusion to a pervert getting aroused is laughably obvious, it’s also crudely effective.
          Or at least it seemed that way when I was 10, which is where the whole business of timing enters the discussion. Watching this flick during its original broadcast, I was just old enough to grasp the storyline’s depiction of rape, and just young enough to buy into the paranoid implication that every footstep on the shoulder of a highway was a move into the path of a roaming murderer. Because of this collision between a fraught subject and a receptive viewer, the movie’s lurid mixture of cautionary-tale seriousness and exploitation-flick tackiness did a number on my young brain. Adding fuel to the pscyhological fire, the sight of Tilton and her sexy pals strutting around in skimpy shorts and tight T-shirts was enjoyable, but the cheap thrills were tainted by the subconscious knowledge that I was replicating the same male gaze as the flick’s psychotic antagonist. Anyway, you can see why these were not the easiest concepts for my preadolescent mind to process. Seen outside of its original context, Diary of a Teenage Hitchhiker loses much of its mojo, coming across as an overwrought thriller with a heavy-handed social message. That said, the nasty scenes are put across with gusto, and Tilton does a passable job of capturing the developmental moment when gaining independence seems like the most important thing in the world.

Diary of a Teenage Hitchhiker: FUNKY

1 comment:

The Mutt said...

How is it that Katherine Helmond has always looked old enough to be my mother, yet has also always turned me on?