In 2005, Showtime began airing Masters of Horror. Each standalone episode of this anthology film is an hour long horror film by a significant, famous, or rising horror director. Producer Mick Garris got some surprising names to agree to create horror films with no restrictions, including directors who hadn’t made films in years.
In Pick Me Up, a bus breaks down in the middle of nowhere. Stacia decides to hitchhike instead of waiting for help. Unfortunately for her, she winds up trapped in the middle of a battle between two rival serial killers over territory. Wheeler drives a truck and kills hitchhikers; Walker hitchhikes and kills anyone who picks him up. The two take turns going after the everyone who was on the bus, fighting to be the one to take down all the potential victims first.
Larry Cohen is one of the Masters of Horror directors who used his episode as his calling card. His horror and sci-fi films are brutally dark. I’m reluctant to call films like It’s Alive, God Told Me To, and The Stuff horror/comedies, but there’s definitely a mocking tone to the films. Cohen’s bizarre b-movies had bite. His career started in Westerns and ended as an acclaimed genre screenwriter. Screenplays like Phone Booth, Cellular, and Captivity (aka the film that killed the wave of gore brought on by Saw) caused major bidding wars. Cohen was a one of a kind creative who could make the most ordinary concepts strange and terrifying. His films are nothing alike in plot buy uniquely him.
“Pick Me Up” has a very dry sense of humor. The draw here is the gags Cohen brings to life from David J. Schow’s screenplay (adapted from his own short story). Wheeler and Walker don’t take the easy way out, so to speak, and you genuinely can’t tell what’s going to happen next. This is a slasher film for the horror fan who’s seen everything. There are scares and kills in this film I’ve never seen anywhere else.
More surprising is the use of guns in the film. In traditional slashers, guns are rarely used by the killer. It’s just not what plays well onscreen. Horror has violence, but the violence needs to feel like there’s a fair shot of survival. Guns are too definite, and these killer don’t miss their mark when they use them.
The closest character to a traditional slasher figure is the survivor girl. Stacia (played by Fairuza Balk) is onscreen for less than a minute before she pulls out a nasty looking knife and threatens a man for looking at her the wrong way. It takes a good while to get back to Stacia, but when we do, it’s worth the wait. The other victims of the bus breakdown aren’t quite as up to the task of surviving as Stacia. She’s the perfect combination of the best traits of everyone else we meet from the bus.
The biggest problem with Pick Me Up is the character development. This is one of the largest casts in an episode of Masters of Horror. There’s not enough time to do more than shade a few characters with some details. Birdie is a flirt. The guy she’s with is a bit too trusting. Marie doesn’t trust anyone. Her boyfriend trusts everyone. So much focus is placed on Walker and Wheeler increasing their body counts that there’s no time to build up tension.
It’s a structural problem as much as a problem of perspective. Slasher films have a formula that serves them well enough. “Pick Me Up” is riffing on the notion of the slasher film with its rival killers competing for their territory concept. The ideas are clever enough, but I imagine they work better as a story than a film. The simple solution would be to shift some events around to allow us to follow Stacia as she sets off on her own before showing off what happened to her fellow passengers and everyone else in the area. Instead, most of the cast falls victim to some very strange kills before we find out what motel Stacia walked to.
There’s one more detail about Larry Cohen and Pick Me Up I think you should know. This is the last film Cohen ever directed. He actually retired from directing films to focus on screenwriting before Masters of Horror went into production. He was convinced to make this one last film, and it’s largely a tribute to his career. This is a bizarre, gory, deconstruction of the slasher film with the tone and acting style of a Western. It’s low concept, very dense like his sci-fi/horror films, and driven by a study into the absurdity of the human condition.
As different as Wheeler, Walker, and Stacie are, they all still follow the same patterns of human behavior (when not, you know, being serial killers or picking fights with everyone). They wants a better meal than the snacks available at a truck stop or vending machine. They want a quiet room with a bed for a good price. They want to look out for their own interests, but help other people with advice when they can. The world survives on pleasantries, and Walker and Wheeler use that to fulfill their dreams. Shame that Stacie has been hurt too many times to take a smile and a compliment as a sign to trust someone.
Content warning: cruelty to animals, gore, violence against women, foul language, flashing light
Up Next: S1E12: “Haekel’s Tale,” directed by John McNaughton