In what is basically ‘Ride with the Devil’ for the torture porn generation, a group of twenty-somethings are heading through Texas in an RV and make an ill-advised overnight stop in a remote location. After an evening of drinking, one of their number heads into the woods to take a leak. He stumbles upon a group of Satanists engaged in a ritual that involves naked women and flesh-eating. Next thing he’s running pell-mell back to the RV shouting at his pals to get the hell out of there.
So effectively does director Penelope Buitenhuis evoke the narrative beats of Jack Starrett’s B-movie classic that it comes as a shock that the gang don’t simply pile into the RV and head for the highway with their devil-worshipping nemeses in hot pursuit, setting the scene for an extended chase culminating in a high-speed battle with the forces of darkness.
Instead they react in a more or less realistic manner (ie. with drunken stupefaction), the Satanists ruthlessly exploit the element of surprise and their superior numbers, and things take a different turn. Elements of ‘The Devil’s Rain’ are discernible in the ghost town where the final act plays out, there’s more than a hint of ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, and the Satanists’ taste for human flesh during their rituals (a scene Buitenhuis sets up as an orgy takes a sudden swerve into cannibalism) is redolent of ‘The Hills Have Eyes’.
Although ‘Hard Ride to Hell’ has no real original ideas (how many films of its ilk do?), the chief pleasure is watching Buitenhuis shuffle and reshuffle a bunch of done-to-death tropes and still keep the pace sprightly, the tension simmering (despite some hamfisted stunt work and fight choreography) and the characters worth investing an hour and a half of your time in.
Eschewing the douchebag protagonists of, say, ‘Frozen’ – who are so far up themselves they put your average ouroborus to shame – ‘Hard Ride to Hell’ gives us a handful of twenty-somethings who are, by and large, okay types that it’s possible to route for instead of inspiring the audience fantasy stalk ‘n’ slash league (although Buitenhuis and her scriptwriters fail to avoid the cringe-worthy token-black-character-who-meets-a-bad-end cliché).
[Fantasy stalk ‘n’ slash league, if you’ve never played it, is the equivalent of the ‘Withnail’ drinking game but with more (onscreen) blood-letting and less (offscreen) chance of liver failure. An aggregate win requires correct prediction of the order of the characters’ deaths, who the final girl will be, who (if anyone) will make the heroic act of self-sacrifice, and whether the antagonist carks it in the final reel or survives/disappears in sequel-friendly stylee.]
The characters here are Danny (Brendan Perry), a new-man type riddled with worry over his wife Tessa (Laura Mennell) who has recently miscarried and been informed she’ll never be able to have children again. Joining them on a trip designed to take Tessa’s mind of things are Danny’s younger brother Jason (Sebastian Backi), their friend Dirk (Brandon Jay MacLaren) and his moody girlfriend Kerry (Katharine Isabelle). With the exception of Kerry and her amazing performing sulk, these are a likeable – if somewhat too nicey nicey – group of people, and thus ill-equipped to deal with the diabolical and dacryopyostic devilry of Jefe (Miguel Ferrer) and his lethiferous and Lucifer-loving legions.
It’s Dirk who espies Jefe and co. engaged in a sacrament dedicated to impregnating some poor unfortunate with Jefe’s heir. Jefe, we discover, is a Satanist of such sybaritic commitment to evil that (a) he’s conquered his own mortality, and (b) he was expelled from Aleister Crowley’s cabal (this is kind of like not being allowed to go down the pub with Oliver Reed and Keith Moon anymore because you drink too much). Dirk, it should be mentioned, is the token black character, which doesn’t bode well for his life expectancy. Incipient racism apart, it’s a pisser because MacLaren – a regular on ‘Being Erica’ – has an easy charisma and I’d have been quite happy with vanilla protagonist Danny given the boot and Dirk upgraded to leading man status.
All things not being equal, however, and the politics of low-budget filmmaking being about as discriminatory as any other social stricture in these supposedly free and democratic times, the cool black character is quickly sidelined. So, by default, Miguel Ferrer gets to walk away with the film as the steely-eyed Jefe. Carping aside, it’s a good turn. There are two pitfalls with such a character: cartoon villainy that plays to the gallery (Peter Stormare as the comedy Satan in ‘Constantine’ comes to mind), or bug-eyed overacting. Ferrer goes for a more classical approach, something akin to Jack Palance in ‘Shane’: supremely self-confident and authentically dangerous.
His immortality – and that, it is suggested in the predictability with which they pick themselves up and return to the fray, of his bike-riding henchmen – leads to a slew of unanswered questions: (a) if you’ve remained essentially undead for the better part of a century, during which technology has changed, why not just use the internet to hook with a chick who’s into the whole devil-worship scene and wants to make out with you?; (b) if you’re an immortal Satanic biker, why bother wearing a helmet – doesn’t it just make you look like a pussy?; and (c) why resort to crude and hands-on methods of pursuing and/or subduing your prey when you can call upon all manner of supernatural interventions?
All of which are just evidence of me being picky. Ultimately, low-budget cannibalistic devil-worshipping biker movies are spawned as delivery systems for gore, violence, nudity and hex-heavy imagery. ‘Hard Ride to Hell’ ticks all the boxes and throws in a bit of good old-fashioned cheesy bullshit as well. Hard not to like.