Written by: David J. Schow
Directed by: Larry Cohen
Starring: Fairuza Balk, Michael Moriarty and Warren Kole
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
ďThey're not human beings; they're just snakes in the snow."
The opening shot of Pick Me Up features a snake, which feels appropriate enough since the tale is slithery, sneaky, and hard to get a grasp of for about half its runtime. That itís helmed by Larry Cohen isnít all that surprising given that his filmography is littered with subversive, off-the-wall material. As such, it follows that heíd be drawn to a story like the one presented here, which begins with maybe the most clichť concept imaginable when a vehicle breaks down in the middle of nowhere, leaving its passengers stranded at the mercy of the elements and whatever psychopath is bound to come their way.
In this case, itís an entire busload of passengers that gets stuck. Some of them (like Fairuza Balkís character) just start walking to the next town, while others stick around and hope someone comes along. Conveniently enough, a kindly trucker named Wheeler (Michael Moriarty) does show up and offer to transport as many people as he can into town. Meanwhile, the remaining passengers and the bus driver stay behind, only to be stalked by a psychopath thatís hanging out in the nearby woods (Warren Kole).
Okay, that still sounds pretty standard and familiar, but the real story isnít with Koleís psycho--we know thereís something up with him when he strolls in like some kind of enigmatic Billy Zane-in-Demon Knight style badass and starts talking to that snake (after it gets run over). Heís clearly nuts, and we know heíll probably be gutting someone soon enough. On the flip side, Moriartyís trucker is more questionable. He jokes that he probably has to be a calculating killer since he fits the stereotype by being unusually disarming with a slight Bronx-flavored menace. Pick Me Up is at its most tense when itís teasing all of this out for viewers; thereís a wonderfully wrought scene early on where Wheeler teases a store clerk about not having a gun. You canít tell if heís doing it as some really weird small talk or if it gets his rocks off to make people feel uncomfortable and threatened.
As it turns out, he is a maniac that savors that ambiguity and uncertainty. He seems to enjoy this sort of playful, psychological foreplay more so than the actual act of killing itself, which is wholly unlike his more direct counterpart in Kole. By contrast, heís the type of guy who goes in guns blazing and revels in physically torturing his victims. So thatís the big hook in Pick Me Up: thereís not one, but two murderers looking to pick off stranded travelers. This isnít much of a spoiler (itís part of the official synopsis), but it is the revelation that finally gives the film some shape. When this happens, it actually settles down into more formulaic stuff like sleazy, gory motel room trysts and a girl (Balk) being caught in between the two maniacs. Thatís kind of fun in the sense that the dynamic is shifted since Balk has nowhere to run, and she does an okay job in a severely underwritten role; by the end, she literally finds herself stuck between these two guys as they banter and bicker of their methods.
The central concept is neat, but thatís about it; with Cohen involved, itís obviously not played too straight and seems self-aware right out of the gate as it pokes and prods at the conventions of this type of story. It doesnít really explore too far beyond the initial ďhey thereís two instead of oneĒ revelation, but watching the cool, calculating Moriarty play of off the more obviously unhinged Kole works well enough. Finding a point to it is a little difficult; I suppose one might argue that each represents a certain type of horror, with the former representing a more cerebral approach and the latter carrying the banner for the more visceral, gore-soaked horror. Still, Pick Me Up never favors either, preferring instead to just embrace this madness, and itís not satiric like most of Cohenís work. Instead, itís just silly and occasionally clever, which is probably why it ends on a shot that reminds us that this is just a mad, mad world indeed.
Weíre left with a perfectly serviceable Masters of Horror entry thatís fun if not a bit forgettable, especially when compared to Cohenís more outrageous and poignant works. More gabby than most slashers, itís also occasionally grimy and atmospheric as Balk moves from seedy motels to the fog and frost-laden highway. For the most part, Iíd say Cohen wrings about all the effectiveness he can out of this concept as itís scripted here for a 50 minute short; I imagine if it were stretched out to feature length, the two killer reveal would seem like a bigger deal, and the idea of victims getting caught in the middle of such a turf war is intriguing and perhaps undercut by the short length here (for one thing, thereís no real climax--it just sort of ends (literally) by accident). While itís a middle of the road episode, Anchor Bayís DVD is still top notch, featuring another strong presentation and a host of extras. Instead of picking this one up, though, youíre better off just streaming it. Rent it!
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