Movie Review: “Hard Ride to Hell”

“There are countless tiers to every subset of films, and those loosely classified as “genre films” are no different. You have ones where every nickel of a multi-million dollar budget is on screen despite the screenplay trafficking in noted cliches, the production is well acted, has amazing visuals, and the lighting is spot on. It’s clear as day that no expense was spared to bring life to a script that is a B-movie at its heart. Think “Alien”, “Terminator 2”, and “The Abyss”.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have films that appear to be closer to someone’s first movie – films that lack much money, have a limited number of sets, poor or sparse lighting, and actors who are one step removed from Dinner Theater. I point to the original “Friday the 13th” as one where you could almost see the strings holding up the sets, yet it went on to be enough of a hit to justify an endless string of sequels.

   But there is a middle ground, however, and those are the genre pictures I tend to gravitate towards. They’re usually low budget, but they make up for it with enthusiasm and manage to squeeze enough fake blood out of a stone to entertain. You see this across all types of genre films, yet horror tends to really stand out here. The production will hire at least one name actor to anchor the film, throw plenty of blood at the screen, add a few action sequences, include at least one scene with boobs that are there for no other reason than to be shown off, and boom – you have a low budget horror film.

   This is the category “Hard Ride to Hell” falls into – a genre picture that owes plenty to the lower budget efforts of Roger Corman and Ken Russell, two filmmakers who were never above going low to get the job done. The budget for most of their early films combined was probably less than what’s spent on catering for a single Marvel movie, yet they managed to overcome adversity with a hearty mix of ingenuity and grit.

   Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of either in “Hard Ride to Hell”, a movie focused on a group of friends as they take a camping trip through Canada south Texas. Along the way, they meet a knife salesman who may or may not be what he seems, and encounter a biker gang that loves to play with fire.

   By that I mean they’re bikers who sold their souls to the devil and are focused on enacting a ritual to give birth to the anti-Christ. Once discovered, the kids (all played by 20-something Canadian actors), must flee to an abandoned mining town and make a stand in the church. Which, for some reason, is populated by a priest wearing a magic talisman who knows more than he initially lets on about the bikers’ history.

   It’s a lot to take in during a weekend get-away.

   The bikers are led by Jefe, ably played by Miguel Ferrer. Showing what a true professional is, Ferrer, may he rest in peace, elevates the material whenever he’s on screen. I’ve been a fan of his for decades and the intensity and focus he brings to this limited role helps immensely. I’m not saying he’s slumming it here, because Ferrer is the kind of guy who would take any role no matter how small or obscure just for the job. I hate that he’s gone, because movies need more character actors like him.

   Brent Stait also stands out as Bob, the knife salesman. His backstory is kept intentionally vague, which works in his favor. He’s super cheesy in everything he says, but there’s a low key country charm combined with a devil-may-care attitude he brings to the role that’s rather endearing. He also knows how to drop a great deadpan look that made me laugh. As wonky as he is at first, it works in the story’s favor. Whenever he’s on screen, you can’t help but watch just to see what he does next. He also has a shoulder holder for his knives, and you can make of that what you will in terms of head canon for his character.

   The rest of the cast is filled with actors whose faces you might know from all the shows shot across Canada from the last decade. Laura Mennell (“Project Blue Book”), Brandon Jay McLaren (“Tucker & Dale vs. Evil”), and Brendan Penny (“Chesapeake Shores”) lead the road trippers. They have a decent enough chemistry between them, but still come off as stilted. Mennell fares the best despite spending the majority of time either yelling or writhing around acting possessed. There’s a running gag involving Penny being turned into a pin cushion that I found hilarious. Whether it was intentionally meant to be so or not, I couldn’t say.

   The make-up effects are old school practical efforts that should not go unnoticed. With the hell bikers also being a cross between cannibals and vampires, the amount of blood is ratcheted up whenever they encounter someone new. I enjoyed the look of the damage they inflict on their victims and the make-up team did respectable work.

   The script repeats a number of phrases over and over which isn’t the same thing as set up/pay-off. I don’t recall any memorable lines, though Ferrer telling Stait how he’s enjoyed the challenge for the first time in forever after a quickie fight did make me snicker. It’s a basic story that takes longer than it should to get to the stand off at the end, but everyone has to start somewhere.

   Is any of the film worth while? Not particularly. The film looks low budget, the acting isn’t particularly memorable, the paltry sets look like the back country of Canada instead of Texas (though I can’t mock that too hard considering the river sequence in “Midnight Run” takes place “outside of” Amarillo), and the bloodshed is average. Films like this thrive on a high body count with plenty of gore and while the makeup effects are solid, there isn’t enough of it.

   “Hard Ride to Hell” isn’t the best pick for a genre film, but it’s a decent curiosity if you want to check out a bunch of TV actors before they were names, with a really good turn by Miguel Ferrer as a proper heavy. It’s also short, so for a 90 minute quick hit so if you’re in the market for a horror film starring hell bikers, here you go.

   It’s streaming on Amazon Prime now.

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