Sunday, 31 March 2013

Britsploitation from A-Z: T is for Take an Easy Ride (1976)

80s video box art. Take an Easy Ride didn't actually win an Oscar, you may be surprised to learn.
If you ask me (which you didn’t, but I’ll tell you anyway) the most disturbing British horror films of the 1970s weren’t anything put out by Hammer, Amicus, Tigon and the like, but the public information films (PIFs to their fans) of the era.  Set in a grim world with a sticky demise lurking round every corner, be it from an electricity substation, a child molester, or a rug placed on a polished floor, these short masterpieces of terror stuck in the minds of all who saw them.  Because they were funded by the Central Office of Information expressly to terrify people into being safer, more socially responsible citizens they could get away with stark imagery that even the most seasoned X film producer might think twice about.  One bleak freeze-frame of a child’s foot about to be impaled by a broken glass bottle is worth a hundred gory stabbings.
Kenneth F Rowles’ Take an Easy Ride borrows heavily from the doomy atmosphere and didactic tone of 70s PIFs but adds an extremely large dollop of exploitation.  In fact a more appropriate title might be Take a Sleazy Ride.  It’s a 40-minute long mock-documentary on the risks of hitch-hiking.  This being the world of sexploitation it’s only attractive young female hitch-hikers who matter, as the amazingly portentous (and amazingly sexist) narration makes clear:  ‘Every man has the opportunity to pick up a hitch-hiker.  For a lorry driver or commercial traveller it could cost him his job.  At times you may wish the wife and kids were out of the way as you pass that miniskirt thumbing a lift.  The producers of this film wish to give you the opportunity to judge for yourselves whether hitch-hiking should be banned.’
Aside from some unintentionally amusing vox pops (my favourite being the lorry driver who tells us ‘I never pick up girls, only chaps’), the film mainly consists of a series of short tales showing how young women’s predilection for thumbing a ride leads to disaster.  But unlike the usual horror portmanteau film, here the stories are all intercut with each other rather than following on consecutively.  This means Take an Easy Ride is very confusing but never boring.
A traumatised Swedish girl tells us her cautionary tale: Picked up by friendly young couple Alan and Margaret she’s whisked off to a hotel, plied with drink and then heavy-handedly seduced by the pair of them.  In the next few minutes we see an awful lot of pubic hair.  Then she’s abandoned.  It’s not made clear whether she was left to pay for the room, but if I was in her situation that would certainly be the most traumatic thing about it for me.
Meanwhile, two girls who are into drugs (and are therefore uncomplicatedly delineated as evil) rob a café then hitch a ride with an extremely pleasant man, only to slit his throat and steal the car at the first opportunity.  It’s not all doom and gloom though.  A pair of girls representing the full range of 70s sexploitation femininity – a brunette in a maxidress and a blonde in a miniskirt – hitch a ride with a terrifyingly ghoulish-looking but actually quite pleasant lorry driver who delivers them safe and sound to a rock festival (which consists mainly of stock footage from several years previously).
But it’s the remaining story, involving two other girls attempting to get to the same rock festival and with the feel of a British Last House on the Left, that Take an Easy Ride is most notorious for.  Their lift comes from a man whose face we never see – instead, the camera remains focused on his black driving gloves.  This sinister build-up turns out to be justified.  Shortly after picking up the two girls he makes advances toward them.  When these are rejected he’s soon chasing them into the countryside, savagely raping one and stabbing the other to death.  It’s as distasteful a scene as any to be found in Britsploitation.
Oh well, most of these girls’ hitch-hiking ventures have ended in tragedy for themselves or others, but at least one pair of girls made it to their stock footage festival and seemed to be having a lovely time.  So hitch-hiking’s not always guaranteed to end in disaster, right? Wrong.  The film ends with those festival attendees being picked up by Black Gloves and no doubt driven to a grisly end.
Watching Take an Easy Ride is a queasy experience as well as a confusing one.  Any habitual viewer of horror-tinged sexploitation will be used to hypocrisy, but because of the public information film look of the whole thing it seems starker than usual here.   This is summed up in a sequence where the black gloved menace, prior to picking up his victims, visits Soho.  Ostensibly it’s to alert us to his depraved tendencies, but the camera ensures we get a lingering eyeful of the covers of all the porn magazines he browses through.  Perhaps most unpleasant of all is the idea (exemplified in the bit of narration I quoted above), that everything that befalls these unfortunate girls is their own fault for hitch-hiking in the first place. Take an Easy Ride doesn’t even give us much in the way of unintentional humour or future TV stars embarrassing themselves to detract from its overall nastiness.  If I knew that someone was actually turned on by this film I’d find myself edging away from them.  The only thing that got me through the film’s 40 minutes was sheer morbid fascination.

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