The Hitcher

US | 1986 | Directed by Robert Harmon

Logline: A young man manages to escape the clutches of a psychopath, but finds himself being pursued relentlessly, and framed for several murders.

The Hitcher is a ferocious beast unto itself. It was Harmon’s feature debut, having worked as a still photographer on Fade to Black (1980) and Hell Night (1981), and it was also screenwriter Eric Red’s first feature (he’d write another top-notch screenplay, made the following year, Near Dark). Red claims inspiration for The Hitcher came from The Doors’ Riders on the Storm

Teenager Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell) is on a car relocation from Chicago to San Diego. He’s tired, it’s dark and raining heavily, yet silhouetted by the roadside is a hitchhiker. Halsey picks up the stranger, immediately announcing that his mother told him never to do this. The dangerous-looking character turns and smiles, “John … Ryder”.  

Ryder (Rutger Hauer) is soft-spoken, brooding, and guarded. His silence is calculated, and the cold, slippery night weighs heavily on Halsey. Soon enough Ryder presents his hand, and Halsey’s fear grips him like a vice. The stakes have been raised, and Halsey has swallowed the bait. This game (of cat and mouse) is on for young and old. 

For an American movie, The Hitcher is in an atmospheric league of its own. It exudes more of a European mood and sensibility; minimalist dialogue, a deadly, drifting menace that verges on the supernatural, an evocative and haunting score from Mark Isham, a central tour-de-force performance that still towers above most other on-screen psychopaths, and a mythological, surreal framework that encompasses the narrative. The Hitcher is like John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978); presenting the audience with a villain that defies logic and reason, has no background, essentially no real motive, and lives primarily to terrorise and murder all those around a central figure whom has provided the killer their obsession, their morbid infatuation.

One can argue there’s a homoerotic undercurrent in The Hitcher, that John Ryder is taunting Jim Halsey in an unconsciously sexual way. There’s the touching and the looks, the teasing and the play on male virility. But more interesting is the concept that maybe John Ryder doesn’t even exist, that he’s actually a split personality of Halsey’s, or, more tenuously, a figment of his twisted imagination, created to rationalise Halsey’s serial murder spree. Sure, the entire movie is far-fetched, but, like Halloween, you embrace this internal nightmare logic in order to allow the dream-fabric to breathe. 

Later, after Halsey is framed for several murders and Ryder is definitely guilty of one, and both he and Ryder have been arrested Ryder is then interrogated by State Troopers. They discover that he has no driver’s licence, no social security number, probably no birth certificate. It’s as if he never existed. So when they ask him where he’s from, Ryder smiles and says, “Disneyland.” This is one of the movie’s many moments of brilliance; the irony of the pure evil nestled within the sanctuary of manufactured entertainment. The law is confounded by Ryder, and decide the only thing to do is have the dangerous lunatic carted off to a holding cell at the local State prison. If only it were that simple. 

I’ve not seen anything else director Robert Harmon has made, but I feel safe in stating he started at the top; The Hitcher is a masterstroke of paranoia and dread, of tension and suspense, excellent action sequences and ultra-violence to boot. C. Thomas Howell is the one weak link, delivering a stilted, wooden performance, but Rutger Hauer (in his second career-defining piece of controlled wrath, after Blade Runner four years earlier), and in the only key support role, Jennifer Jason Leigh as Nash, the waitress whom Halsey befriends in desperation, provide enough high calibre. Also notable is Jeffrey DeMunn as Captain Estridge. 

The Hitcher is a lean, mean, killing machine, cut from the uncompromising cloth of cult material. There may be a moral denouement, but the journey has been decidedly amoral, transgressive even. Pay no heed to the straight-to-video 2003 sequel or 2007 remake, they’re not worth your time. Embrace the lunacy of the unique original, let the madness take hold, and do what your mother told you never to do: go for a ride with John Ryder. He’ll kick your ass into the middle of next week, and give you nightmares for a few more.