HIGHWAY 61 (1991) – The Dungeon Review!

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I couldn’t possibly highlight Canadian film without including at least one review for a Bruce McDonald title. McDonald has made some seriously entertaining films; Roadkill, Highway 61, Hard Core Logo and Pontypool are all delightful. McDonald is a unique voice in Canadian cinema who infuses his love of music into all of his entries. I could have chosen any of these but I went with Highway 61 largely because of my rediscovery of Last Call: Vancouver Independent Music 1977 – 1988. I featured the first ten tracks from the compilation last Friday and posted another ten tracks yesterday. One of yesterday’s tracks was the song Hawaii by The Young Canadians.The Young Canadians singer Art Bergmann went on to play with the bands Los Popularos and Poisoned before embarking on a solo career with the 1988 album Crawl with Me. Art Bergmann is also featured in Highway 61 as eccentric musician Otto. Bergmann is a local boy and well-known around these parts. I have actually met Mr. Bergmann on a few occasions during my record store days. And speaking of music Jello Biafra former frontman of The Dead Kennedys has a cameo appearance as a US Customs agent. Highway 61 is a quirky and thoroughly Canadian road movie. Despite its drug-smuggling corpse, petty thievery, strung-out rock stars and Satan himself I can’t help but find Highway 61 quaint. Highway 61 charms my knickers off.

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Small town barber Pokey Jones dreams of travelling. The car his parents left him sits in the garage long undriven. In the car he keeps a suitcase so he could leave on a moments notice. He often gets into the car with the intention of leaving but just sits behind the wheel pondering. One day Pokey finds a corpse in his backyard and becomes a local celebrity who catches the attention of Jackie, a roadie driving through town. Jackie needs a way to smuggle some stolen drugs across the border and stops by Pokey’s barber shop. Pokey gives Jackie a cut and dye job and takes her to the funeral home where her “brother” currently rests. Jackie conceals the drugs inside the corpse and the next morning is on the side of the road hitchhiking with a pine coffin. Pokey, a jazz enthusiast and amateur trumpet player inevitably agrees to take Jackie to New Orleans. Pokey and Jackie embark along Highway 61 interacting with some peculiar characters while unknowingly being pursued by Satan who owns the soul of the drug-smuggling corpse.

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Road movies are very appealing to me. I like the idea of jumping in a car and just driving somewhere with no pressure or schedule and seeing the scenes. With gas around these parts at $1.40/L road trips just ain’t very practical these days. Highway 61 begins somewhere near Thunder Bay, Ontario in Canada and ends in New Orleans, Louisiana in the U.S.A. They stop at the childhood home of Bob Dylan and drop in on some old musician friends of Jackie’s; Otto and Margo. The two are the epitome of burned out; Margo is particularly spacy. When Jackie and Pokey arrive they are watching Margo’s newest music video. They watch Margo’s video multiple times until dinner. Dinner is quite the chaotic and dangerous affair. Their oddest encounter is with Mr. Watson and his three young daughters all named after states. The Watson family tour the USA in their cheerful van with a singing and dancing act that only a mother could love. Except even mother did not love it because she apparently abandoned the troupe.

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Running parallel to Pokey and Jackie’s adventures are the antics of Mr. Skin. Mr. Skin believes he is Satan. He purchases folk’s souls in exchange for goods or promises. He gives one man a partial bottle of liquor in exchange for his soul. He gets a signature and takes a Polaroid of each person he makes a deal with. He may just be Satan if his luck at bingo is any indication. During his pursuit of Jackie and Pokey he stops for a few games of bingo and cleans house. Mr. Skin is a fantastic character. He is rude, facetious, cocky and equal parts humourous and creepy. Earl Pastko is perfectly cast as Mr. Skin and has a great look for the role too; kinda sleek and slippery.

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Pokey is a lovable character who I wanted to protect. It is clear immediately that Pokey is smitten with the worldly Jackie. Jackie is a roadie and a bad-ass petty thief. It turns out however that Jackie has a sweet candy center, at least when it comes to Pokey. The chemistry between the two characters is natural, genuine and positively magnetic. Don McKellar and Valerie Buhagiar were well-paired. Peter Breck as the dedicated and mildly demented Mr. Watson, Art Bergmann as Otto and Tracy Wright as the barely functioning Margo all give memorable turns. Earl Pastko as Mr. Skin really is the film’s scene stealer though.

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Highway 61 is a funny, dark and sweet trip of a road movie that is as devilish as it is delightful. I love the image of Jackie hitchhiking with the pine coffin and I love Pokey’s flustered and bumbling response.

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Pokey of course ends up driving Jackie to Louisiana along Highway 61.

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Jackie is a handful. She causes all manner of havoc on their journey. Jackie steals a dress from a clothesline and the pair are surprised by Mr. Watson who approaches them with a cocked rifle.

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The Watson Family; Mr. Watson tours the country with his three little girls and their song and dance act in an impoverished Partridge Family bus.

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Mr. Skin introduces himself to Louise Watson.

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Mr. Skin makes Louise cry telling her what an ugly little girl she is and that she will grow up to be an ugly fat lady and become a cashier.

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Louise sells her soul to Mr. Skin in exchange for fame, fortune and beauty.

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Mr. Skin plays some bingo.

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“Now I know why they call you Pokey.” Jackie and Pokey; rainy post-sex in a graveyard.

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They stop by Jackie’s friends; popular musicians Otto and Margo. Above is Otto played by Art Bergmann.

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This is Margo played by Tracy Wright.

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This is dinner. They let chickens loose in the house and run around after them with guns.

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Pokey and Jackie part ways and Pokey is forced to find a way to make money to get home. He pulls out the barber kit and sets up on the street corner offering haircuts and shaves. As luck would have it an entire bike gang appear out of no where looking for a shave.

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Tav Falco plays the leader of the bike gang.

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Mr. Skin at long last is able to collect an actual soul. He puts on the ultimate show while his curious and amused neighbors look on.

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Pokey discovers Mr. Skin’s room of “souls”. Hundreds of Polaroid pictures cover Mr. Skin’s walls.

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Mr. Skin, known to his neighbors as Satan puts on shows regularly but this one gets a little grimmer than the neighbors are accustomed to.

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Jackie…cleansed.

Dungeon Rating: 4/5

Directed By: Bruce McDonald

Starring: Don McKellar, Valerie Buhagiar, Earl Pastko, Peter Breck, Art Bergmann, Jello Biafra, Hadley Obodiac, Tav Falco, Tracy Wright, Johnny Askwith

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4 Responses to “HIGHWAY 61 (1991) – The Dungeon Review!”

  1. This. Is. A. Great. Movie. Mr. Skin is the man, all right.

  2. This sounds awesome! Can’t believe I never heard of it, and I hope I can find it to watch. I miss gas prices of the 90s and all my road trips back then…last Friday my husband and I drove an hour and a half away to eat at a chain burger joint that we don’t have in our town and the cost of gas for that impulsive trip kinda set us back for the week, so next time I get such an urge I’ll just watch a road movie.

    • Greetings Wednesday’s Child! How are you? I actually rented this from one of the last standing video stores in Vancouver. If all else fails you can buy it on Amazon. I only enjoy road trips via movies these days myself; I don’t have a car anymore. I haven’t had a car for the six years I’ve been back in Vancouver (I moved here from Ontario)…it is super easy getting around via transit here. I don’t miss the expense but I do miss random drives.

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