Starting with the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916 and continuing with the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1921, the United States government provided subsidies for road building that quite literally paved the way for the sprawling system of highways we use today. Without these early pieces of legislation, the mere notion of the personal automobile would have been delayed or even sidelined entirely for a sustained societal commitment to railway travel. Without cars, there would have been no CARS 2 or even CARS 3, fewer hitchhikers, more tandem bicycles, no drive-thru fast food, and certainly no highway maniacs, freeway killers, or the movies about them – 1989’s THE FREEWAY MANIAC included. It should also be mentioned that freeways differ from highways because they are toll-free, as the name implies. This is an important distinction because if this movie involved highways, there would be multiple scenes of characters stuck at a tool booth while fumbling around for spare change.
The film opens with a medium shot of a ceramic “COOKIE TIME” jar made to look like a clock, sitting on a kitchen countertop. Crayon drawings adorn the refrigerator. Two lovers, still in their clothes, are dry-humping on the kitchen table making a racket. For them, it’s not cookie time – it’s time to make the donuts. The woman (Kathryn Hauber) has a strange and sudden awareness that she’s being watched. She stops the action and heads upstairs while the man (George Nicholas) is left behind to blow smoke rings to pass the time until she returns.
When she reaches her adolescent son’s room, she accuses him of voyeurism, calling him a monster. He responds without a word by killing her, and then killing the male suitor. A random shot of a clown bop bag seems to suggest this could be the reason for his psychotic tendencies.
Years later, it’s a code red for the staff of the local hospital for the criminally insane, because a patient named Arthur (James Jude Courtney) just escaped the facility after killing an orderly who claimed to know karate – he didn’t know enough – and now he’s loose on campus. A guard chases him all the way up to a watch tower, but the bigger and stronger Arthur just bludgeons him before tossing him several feet to the ground below. Not content to merely walk back down the way he came, the patient dives onto the guard’s body and crushes any remaining life-force before fleeing the scene.
Elsewhere, after finding her beau cheating on her with another woman, Linda (Loren Winters, who co-produced the film) leaves that jerk in the dust to move forward with her acting career. Her agent, Steven (Donald Hotton), implores her to actually show up for the auditions he’s booking for her instead of flaking out all the time. After driving for a short while, her convertible overheats and breaks down on a remote section of road. She finds a service station within walking distance – what luck! But the mechanic is a lecherous creep – dammit! She’s saved from one awful situation and thrown into another when Arthur shows up – for some reason, he’s wearing a large and loud blazer he stole from a dog owner after strangling him – and kills the mechanic and then tries to kill Linda because she vaguely resembles his mother. She scrambles to get a different car started and manages to strike Arthur with just enough ramming speed to temporarily stun him and get away.
The local news hails her as a hero – she escaped a dangerous man and thanks to her actions, he was recaptured. Buoyed by the real-life hero celebrity status gained through her harrowing encounter, Linda lands the lead role in “Astronette,” a cheap, science-fiction horror film. Later on, from his holding cell, Arthur watches a local broadcast news report where Linda actually tells a reporter on-air when and where the film production will begin. Will Arthur have a chance to see how the Hollywood sausage gets made, or will he have to wait for “Astronette” to hit video shelves like the rest of us?
There’s a lot to unpack here. I don’t have quite enough time to enumerate through all of it and even if you’ve managed to make it this far, you won’t have time to read it. Overall, THE FREEWAY MANIAC tries to mash up elements of a road movie with a slasher film and film-within-a-film tropes. In that process, it achieves its own special blend of unhinged weirdness. This was the first feature film of director Paul Winters, and nobody let him near a feature film set as a director again for another 12 years. The screenplay was written by Winters and cartoonist Gahan Wilson, who also wrote episodes of MONSTERS and CBS STORYBREAK. Some of the music was done by Robby Krieger of The Doors. Clint Eastwood’s daughter, Kimber, plays a camper. This was the only film for which the stunt coordinator was actually credited — he may have just been a guy who enjoyed unnecessary risk. For reasons unknown, the filmmakers also thank Stan Lee (of Marvel Comics?!) in the end credits.
Given the abundance of similarly titled and themed films – FREEWAY (1988), ROAD GAMES (1981), THE HITCHER (1986), FREEWAY (1996), JOY RIDE (2001), HIGHWAY KILLER (2010), etc. – I’m not sure how anyone would intentionally arrive at this film unless they heard about it through word-of-mouth (it never graduated beyond VHS). In a past life, a prior version of me wrote about direct-to-video North American movies with lots of fake fighting. In the deep trawl to find new films to watch and review, I would occasionally tumble down the rabbit hole into something outside the scope of my usual coverage, and one of those films was a Taiwan-U.S. co-production called SAKURA KILLERS, which co-starred George Nicholas as one of the leads. In cases where a lesser-known actor has a lead role, I sift through their filmography to see what other work they’ve done, and that’s what led me to my chance encounter with THE FREEWAY MANIAC. As the male lover who gets slaughtered by a young Arthur in the film’s inciting incident, Nicholas likely preferred the comparatively exorbitant screen-time of his heroic role in SAKURA KILLERS, but that movie didn’t have a ceramic “Cookie Time” jar or music by Robby Krieger of The Doors. Every film project has its perks and drawbacks.
Does the central character in THE FREEWAY MANIAC do enough over the course of the film to earn that billing? Unequivocally, yes. As Arthur, James Jude Courtney brings the sort of twitchy, coked-out energy you would expect out of a 1980s professional wrestler in the throes of a ‘roid rage to this movie. He jumps off a watchtower to crush a fallen adversary with a big splash, gently nuzzles a dog before resting him on top of the dog owner’s corpse, and has a thrashing freak-out when questioned by psychologists about his newspaper clipping collection. He catches, kills, and eats a rattlesnake. He howls at the moon like a coyote, he disguises himself as a zombie on a film set, and he runs around killing people with tent stakes, dirt-bikes, and a chainsaw. I’m pretty sure I saw him eat brains. Finally, he (somehow) knows how to operate a semi-truck in order to pursue a vehicle full of rude teenagers during a chase scene. He earns every bit of the titular name, imparting the Arthur role with a live-wire physicality that’s so unpredictable and enjoyable to watch, the film tends to grind to a halt any time he’s not onscreen. That’s the ultimate mark of a commanding performance.