Masters of Horror: Pick Me Up (2006)
When a bus breaks down in the middle of nowhere, the passengers split. Some decide to stay at the bus and wait for help, some accept an offer of a life from a truck driver and Stacia, a female traveller, opts to walk to the next motel or town. But it turns out that the group have been caught in a bizarre turf war between two serial killers – one who drives trucks and murders hitchhikers and another who hitchhikes and murders the drivers. Now they both have their sights set on Stacia and a cat-and-mouse game begins as to who will have the honour of murdering her first.
One of my favourite episodes of the Masters of Horror series, Pick Me Up is a sharp and black-humoured take on the great urban legends of hitchhiking – is the person flagging down a ride going to be a mass-murdering psychopath, or is the person driving going to want to string you up on a meat hook somewhere? It’s a familiar trope for horror and one which is the focus of this episode from the first series. The ‘Master of Horror’ at the helm of this one is the late Larry Cohen, responsible for such cult hits as Maniac Cop, It’s Alive and Q, The Winged Serpent.
It’s no secret that there are two serial killers on the loose in this episode and so the story wastes little time in getting their dirty deeds out into the open. The material is played slightly tongue-in-cheek, with Cohen poking lots of fun at the usual conventions for this type of story – broken down vehicle in the middle of nowhere, truckers saving the day, sleazy motel rooms, etc. The characters from the broken-down bus are all fully self-aware of the folklore surrounding hitchhikers and random people showing up in the middle of nowhere to offer assistance and it’s perversely funny to see one female lecture her boyfriend about being murdered and being called cranky and paranoid, only to suffer the fate a few minutes later.
The main thing that’s different about Pick Me Up that is focuses on the antagonists rather than the protagonist. Usually, the final girl is the one who gets the most screen time and plot development but here, the script opts to feature the serial killers as the main stars. It’s an interesting take on the material which isn’t done enough in horror as we get a glimpse into their psyches and the reasoning behind the slaughter. More attention is paid to their natures, rather than their deeds, and so this episode isn’t full of blood, even if one scene inside a motel room may make some people squeamish, despite there being a reasonable body count for such a short feature. The threat poses by both men is expressed mainly through the quality performances of the two leads.
Long-time Cohen collaborator Michael Moriarty stars as Wheeler, the truck-driving serial killer, and he steals the show in virtually every scene he’s in. Moriarty was always good at playing eccentric characters and you never quite knew what you were going to get with him. But his wily veteran schtick is the perfect match for Warren Kole’s brash upstart, Walker, who comes off as the ‘not quite the boy next door.’ Poor Fairuza Balk gets caught in the middle here, with a one-dimensional screaming female role which could have been given to anyone. The fact her character carries a knife with her and has the bad ass goth girl thing going on should have been the signal for the script to have her standing up to the killers more often. Instead, she spends the second half of the episode tied up and desperately trying to escape. The two men are so well-connected in their few scenes together, that she ends up playing second fiddle.
Pick Me Up it at its best during these tense scenes of one-upmanship between the two serial killers. The first, a meeting outside a motel room, is full of double-entendres and subtle nuances, where both characters are virtually talking in code to each other whilst their female target stands idly in the middle. The second, a more open-ended discussion about their true intentions in the front seat of the cabin, is like watching two stags competing to be the alpha. It’s such a shame that it takes too long for the two to cross paths and a good twenty minutes are wasted before they do. The cat-and-mouse narrative works perfectly for a short feature like this and Pick Me Up reaches its logical conclusion before it runs out of road or does a u-turn and goes back over itself. There’s some just time for one more sting in the tail right at the end, which leaves a very Tales from the Crypt-esque taste in the mouth.
Pick Me Up is a great example of a competent director ‘getting’ the Masters of Horror format and working it to its most profitable within the time constraints: plenty of suspense, genuine eeriness, outbursts of violence, unpredictable and all tinged with a morbid humour to keep it entertaining. It’s not the best episode of the series but it might very well be the most enjoyable.
Pick Me Up
Director(s): Larry Cohen
Writer(s): Mick Garris, David J. Schow (teleplay)
Actor(s): Fairuza Balk, Michael Moriarty, Warren Kole, Laurene Landon, Malcom Kennard, Tom Pickett
Duration: 58 mins