The Watcher - Wheels of misfortune

Hell’s Highway gives a gory history of safety films

Just when you think you’re immune to onscreen bloodshed, when you’ve sat through both versions of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and hardly flinched during Kill Bill, along comes Hell’s Highway: The True Story of Highway Safety Films. It’s the kind of experience that’ll make you never want to drive again.

The 91-minute documentary, released this month in a two-disc DVD from Kino, works as both a stomach-churning retrospective of shocking driver’s education films and as a measured exploration of their history.

Atlanta filmmaker Bret Wood (husband of CL critic Felicia Feaster) assembles an enviable pool of sources to explain the genesis of the now-mythical classroom scare movies, which had a heyday in the ’60s and ’70s and later inspired a cult following. He starts, smartly, with the post-WWII social guidance movement, which led to the oft-parodied mind-your-manners type shorts aimed at Eisenhower-era youth and, eventually, movies meant to stop teenagers from driving recklessly.

In the late ’50s, amateur photographer and law enforcement groupie Dick Wayman joined with other Mansfield, Ohio, ambulance chasers and started making films of highway fatalities. The footage, first shown at state fairs and private screenings, later morphed into a full-time gig for Wayman, whose Highway Safety Foundation produced movies like Signal 30 (1959) and Wheels of Tragedy (1963). Teeming with mangled Buicks, shattered windshields and plenty of gag-inducing shots of dismembered drivers, the films were forced upon captive audiences in high-school classrooms and also raised the ante for what kinds of carnage could be shown on screen.

But just when the bloodbath begins to feel relentless, Hell’s Highway takes a freaky turn. The sudden death of Wayman’s collaborator Phyllis Vaughn led to conspiracy theories that she was silenced before revealing the foundation’s alleged side business of making skin flicks. Though the documentary never confirms nor denies the porn rumors, it does include titillating footage of “sex deviates” that the production house gathered using a hidden camera in a Mansfield public men’s room.

Porn or not, the Highway Safety Foundation grew into a formidable operation, attracting the likes of Sammy Davis Jr. as a spokesman. In 1972 Wayman mounted a celebrity telethon to raise money, and the resulting clusterfuck led to his resignation.

Imitators had emerged by then, and the foundation saw a backlash to films like The Child Molester, whose graphic depiction of pedophilia pushed the envelope a bit too far. But after the films vanished as educational materials, they began to circulate as underground cult favorites for their morbid mixture of kitsch and gore.

Hell’s Highway refrains from passing any grand judgment on this harrowing body of work, though a couple of the commentators do note the exploitive nature of the films and suggest that showing them to students probably constituted some sort of abuse. The documentary includes copious excerpts from the films, with frankly some of the most disturbing scenes I’ve had the displeasure of experiencing in years. Disc two of the DVD set includes three complete driver’s ed films, as well as selections from 15 others.

The combination of objective criticism, history and jaw-dropping gore can be jarring at best, which may be a liability for the documentary, or may be Wood’s intention from the start. In either case, Hell’s Highway definitely is not a scenic route for the squeamish.

The Watcher is a weekly column on television, DVDs and other small-screen delights.