“Lady, when you’re fishing, the bait doesn’t ask stupid questions.”
With films like It’s Alive, Q: The Winged Serpent, God Told Me To, and Black Caesar on his resume, I’d argue that director Larry Cohen is less a “Master of Horror” and more a “Master of Cheese.” The folks at Showtime didn’t think so, though, and now B-movie auteur Cohen now has his name in lights with other “Masters” such as John Carpenter and Dario Argento. For his entry in the anthology series, Cohen has crafted Pick Me Up, a backwoods tale of truckers, motels, and hitchhiking gone wrong.
A bus breaks down on the side of a road during a long cross-country trip. One passenger (Fairuza Balk, The Craft) sets off on her own, walking down one way toward a motel. Two other passengers hitch a ride with a passing trucker (Michael Moriarty, Law & Order), heading the other direction toward a trading post. The remaining passengers are then found by a hiker (Warren Kole, One Last Thing…) with a thing for snake skins. Over the next day and night, all of these people’s lives will intersect in different ways, many of their secrets will be revealed, and a lot of them will end up dead.
It’s tricky discussing the story in any detail without giving away dozens of spoilers, but I’ll give it a shot anyhow. The characters move around their world of backwoods rest stops and middle-of-nowhere motels like characters on a chess board. There are two opposing forces, minor characters get picked off first like pawns, and it ends up with the two most powerful characters facing off, for a prize of sorts. OK, so it’s not quite as intricate as chess, but you get the idea.
Although Fairuza Balk gets top billing, and although this feels like an ensemble piece at times, Michael Moriarty is the real star here. As a quirky truck driver who is a lot more than he seems, Moriarty hams it up big time, stealing all his scenes away from his co-stars. At one point, a character mentions how Moriarty’s character appears “normal” on the surface. I don’t quite see that, as he comes across as pretty nasty right from the start and, about 20 minutes in, we see him playing around with guns and being your basic menace right from the start. Balk brings a lot of intensity and even a little dark humor to her role and Warren Kole is more of a standard villain, with a few great “charming psycho” moments.
Aside from a few visual flourishes here and there, Cohen’s direction is mostly workmanlike. In the bonus features, Cohen makes his case by explaining that he wanted to keep the focus on the actors and their performances. He also reveals that there was a lot of improvisation on the set and that it was an “unpredictable” production. With that in mind, perhaps Cohen should be applauded for managing to tie all the various loose ends together at the end.
Picture quality here is mostly good, although there seemed to be some shimmering during shots with fog. The sound comes across nicely, in both 5.1 and 2.0 flavors. In the commentary and the featurettes, Cohen comes across as a true-blue New Yorker, talking a mile a minute about everyone and everything. In the commentary, he tends to describe action on screen, but he also goes over some interesting bits, such as what scenes were improvised, and how the crew managed to get the whole thing made despite constant rains. Other featurettes go over Cohen’s career and his thoughts about the creation of Pick Me Up. The three cast interviews offer some amusing anecdotes from the set, and the actors all show a lot of enthusiasm for the project. The “Script to Screen” and “Behind the Scenes” featurettes consist of raw footage from the production, revealing all the work that goes into getting just one scene on camera. There’s also a segment from the early cable series Fantasy Film Festival, in which future director Mick Garris (The Stand) interviews a young Cohen about It’s Alive and its sequel. Other extras include trailers, a still gallery, a Cohen text bio, the screenplay, and a screen saver on DVD-ROM.
Pick Me Up isn’t exactly a masterpiece of nonstop unrelenting terror, but it did make for an amusing time-killer.