The Hitcher (1986) / Thriller-Horror

  • MPAA Rated: R for strong violence, grisly images, sexual references, and language
    Running Time: 97 min.

    Cast: C. Thomas Howell, Rutger Hauer, Jennifer Jason Leigh
    Director: Robert Harmon
    Screenplay: Eric Red
    Review published April 24, 2007

C. Thomas Howell (Secret Admirer, Side Out) stars as Jim Halsey, a young Chicago native driving a car cross-country to California. The Texas road is lonely and Jim is tired, but he spies a way he might stay awake in the form of hitchhiker John Ryder (Hauer, Blade Runner). It doesn't take long before Jim becomes unnerved by his new passenger, as Ryder claims he's decapitated viciously the last person to give him a ride and that he will do the same to Jim. Jim finds a way to kick Ryder out of the vehicle, but he keeps showing up again, killing more victims along the way. Things go from horrific to maddening once the grisly body count rises and Jim becomes implicated in the murders, as all signs seem to point to him.

Originally a disappointment in its theatrical release back in 1986, The Hitcher has gone on to become something of a cult film for thriller junkies on video and cable. The reason why is clear: it grabs you with its sordid developments and never relents until the explosive, bloody finale. It doesn't make a great deal of sense, as it's never clear just who John Ryder is or why he has chosen to make Halsey's life a literal living Hell, but trying to come up with your own theories is part of the fun. In many ways, it is a derivative film of another great deadly road game of cat and mouse, Steven Spielberg's Duel, but it also influenced other films in its own right, most notably in the 2003 hit, High Tension.

The Hitcher is not much more than a titillating suspense vehicle from beginning to end, so I would classify it as typical "drive-in cinema" fodder for those looking for something engaging without much character development or a complicated plot to follow. Eric Red's (Near Dark, Blue Steel) script is appropriately minimal, including a few shock moments that jolt you into attention, while Robert Harmon's (Highwaymen, They) direction is stylish, moody, and claustrophobic, especially when predator and prey are together. The desolate desert atmosphere, as seen through John Seale's (Stakeout, The Firm) stark cinematography, is particularly effective -- who can you turn to when there's no one around, and where does one hide when there's nothing to hide behinde? More, questions abound, such as the seeming omniscience of Ryder -- is he a real-life killer, Halsey's alter ego, or merely the embodiment of a his boredom-induced, furtive imagination?

The Hitcher is mostly a junk food sort of film, never as deep or profound as it might have been, and logic isn't something the makers of the film strive for except to give the semblance of a way out for Jim.  The more he tries to escape, the more others suffer -- it's quite the conundrum of survival. If you can tune in to its warped, existential frequency, it effectively gets under your skin to deliver a taut, suspenseful ride.

-- Followed by a direct-to-video sequel, The Hitcher II: I've Been Waiting (2003).  Remade in 2007

Qwipster's rating:

2007 Vince Leo