Eerie Episodes: “MASTERS OF HORROR: Pick Me Up”Fearful Features,Movies/TV,News Ken W. Hanley
To be perfectly honest, it’s shocking that “Pick Me Up”- in concept as well as in present execution- never found itself previously adapted in the horror genre. Considering both of the urban legends it’s based off, each of which have been individually adapted in projects such as THE HITCHER and BREAKDOWN, as well as the post-SCREAM slasher boom in the ‘90s, a project like “Pick Me Up” would seem to be a no-brainer, at the very least on paper. Nevertheless, it wasn’t until MASTERS OF HORROR came along that the project specifically took life, allowing the concept to run wild even if its within the constraint of a limited budget and TV schedule.
For those unfamiliar, “Pick Me Up” follows a broken-down bus full of people who encounter two different serial killers both pulled from paranoid urban legends. On one hand, there’s an ominous, violent truck driver who aims to kill everyone he picks up. On the other hand, there’s a charming yet sadistic hitchhiker who kills all those who pick him up. And then there’s the lone straggler who is caught between them, haunted by a troubled past and determined to outwit them both.
Out of all the episodes of MASTERS OF HORROR’s first season, “Pick Me Up” is certainly the most old-school, and that would likely be attributed to the talent behind it. With a fairly limited scope and cast, David J. Schow’s script is complimentary to both urban legends and presents each villain as a dually charismatic and creepy presence. Behind the camera, however, Larry Cohen tries to keep the visuals as interesting as possible, even if his ambitions are somewhat restricted by the medium.
“Pick Me Up” is also surprisingly unconventional, almost as if Schow and Cohen intentionally wanted to keep the episode far from the fright fare of its time. While there’s one particularly sadistic sequence at a hotel room, the episode is surprisingly bare on violence, with most of the kills either implied or shown as aftermath; in essence, the episode takes advantage of its premium cable freedom in the language department more than the blood and gore. And with a diverse cast, most of whom seem to be far from the Abercrombie and Fitch mold, there’s an inherently down-to-earth quality that keeps the story rooted in its American urban legend beginnings.
Speaking of, “Pick Me Up”’s cast is also surprisingly great, with the villains certainly outshining the rest of the cast. For die-hard horror fans, the reunion of Cohen with frequent star Michael Moriarty will be the highlight of the episode, with Moriarty chewing the scenery and spewing sociopathic one-liners with sinister relish. Meanwhile, Warren Kole is great as Moriarty’s foil, convincing as both an innocent bystander and vicious killer. And while Fairuza Balk’s lead performance is also strong, horror hounds will also appreciate appearances by MANIAC COP star Laurene Landon and an early cameo from Michael Eklund in “Pick Me Up” as well.
Overall, while one can only imagine what “Pick Me Up” would look like with a studio budget and a longer run time, it’s current iteration is interesting and fairly creepy in its own right. Surprisingly restrained and frequently fun, “Pick Me Up” benefits from the talent behind and in front of the camera in a big, bad way, especially given Cohen’s track record for making the most out of the bizarre. And in the grand scheme of MASTERS OF HORROR, especially in its first season, “Pick Me Up” retains the original filmmaker’s cinematic voice in a way some of the episodes do not, which is likely why the episode plays so well a decade later.