Movie review (documentary): Hell’s Highway: The True Story of Highway Safety Films (2003)

July 22, 2011 at 10:45 pm (movies)

This is just what it sounds like–a history of highway “safety” films. In other words, the gruesome, bloody, gnarly Driver’s Ed movies that kids were (and still are) subjected to in high school. More specifically, the movie focuses on movies made by Ohio’s Highway Safety Foundation, under the direction of Richard Weyman.

Starting out with the history of the safety film, from the still photos and slideshows shown at county fairs to terrorize young drivers to the very worst of the splattery “educational” full-color gorefests, this docu is highly entertaining. Yep, it does show clips of the movies, so it’s not for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach. But what I found most interesting about it was the story of the Highway Safety Foundation. There’s no doubt whatsoever that they had kids’ best interests at heart when they filmed these things, but there’s also no doubt that they completely crossed the line here and there.

The bulk of the movie is about the highway safety films, but the docu also goes down some of the Highway Safety Foundation’s lesser-known side branches. One HSF project involved filming public bathrooms, but it was never released, because it evidently showed a number of prominent male Ohio citizens getting busy with other male Ohio citizens.

One of the HSF’s films that was released but probably shouldn’t have been was 1964’s “Child Molester,” which started with the dramatized kidnapping of two little girls, and ended showing actual police photos of the real victims’ bloody corpses. I don’t know if this was the HSF’s intention, but this thing was shown to entire classrooms of K-6th-graders. They actually showed snuff photos to 6 year olds! The filmmakers talk with a couple of brothers who saw this film when they were very small. “Traumatized” doesn’t begin to describe their experience.

As a high schooler in the 80’s, I saw plenty of driver’s ed movies. I honestly can’t say if they made me a better driver or not. I remember being horrified at the images on the screen, but I didn’t really connect them to myself or my friends. (Because, as a good friend just reminded me, teenagers are immortal. According to teenagers, anyway.)

The very worst of the driver’s ed movies were, imo, the ones with sound. It’s one thing to look at blood and guts on the screen while some judgmental narrator drones on about the driving mistakes perpetrated by the dead. It’s quite another to see a fatally injured person, still alive, and hear that person screaming. Some of those sounds and images are still seared into my brain.

Maybe that’s why I watched this documentary. I’m glad I did, because it really was fascinating. I always wondered who the hell shot those things, anyway. Well, now I know.

This is a two-disk set. The first disk has the movie, and the second has a collection of the original films, just in case you aren’t grossed out enough by the time you finish the docu. (I was plenty grossed out. I love splatter films, but only the ones with fake splatter. I actually have a low tolerance for real people suffering and dying on film.)

4 out of 5 stars

Not for kids. Aside from the gruesome highway accidents, the film also shows crime scene photos and surprise buttsecks. (You think I’m kidding about that last bit, but I’m not.)

Only for the seriously morbidly curious.

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