The Hitcher (1986)
written by Eric Red
directed by Robert Harmon
Rating: 3 / 4
I first watched The Hitcher sometime in the late 80’s and remember being fascinated by how relentless it was. Granted, the movie couldn’t be simpler: A young man driving a car from Chicago to San Diego picks up a serial killer with a penchant for psychological games. A cat-and-mouse game ensues where the killer seems to always be ahead (almost uncannily and impossibly so, like a modern Michael Myers), driving the young man to the breaking point. You see, what the killer really wants is someone to kill him.
I always felt that the film was above average in its genre, and have rewatched it several times since. And although it has its share of preposterous sequences, it still holds up nicely.
Seeing it again with fresh eyes, I’m convinced most of the credit goes to Rutger Hauer as the killer and C. Thomas Howell as Jim, the tortured driver. The two of them have a chemistry that bring out the nuances of Eric Red’s script. There’s an eerie feeling that they’re supposed to cross paths and face each other, as if it’s been predestined, and that in facing this formidable adversary the young lad can finally become a man (there are underpinnings of homosexuality throughout which reinforce the odd connection between the two characters).
There are also two less-visible heroes in The Hitcher: John Seale’s cinematography and Mark Isham’s score, perfectly balanced by director Robert Harmon. Long breathtaking vistas of the American Midwest alternate with a minimalist electronic score that lend the film a surprising existential subtext – the desert road becomes a metaphor for growing up, law enforcement is brutal and inefficient, and the only way to stop a monster is to become a monster. I exaggerate somewhat – this is not Bergman. It is more the realm of John Carpenter’s best films, including The Thing (1982). But for a B horror movie, it’s still heady territory.
The highlight of the film is a horrific sequence where the hitcher kidnaps a waitress named Nash (played gamely by Jennifer Jason Leigh), ties her between two trucks, then gets behind the wheel of one of the semis and threatens to let go of the brake. If the police shoot him, the truck will roll and split her in half. It’s up to Jim to try and convince the hitcher not to do it. You can imagine how it ends.
The Hitcher sticks in your mind long after it’s finished.
Carlos I. Cuevas