There’s something about the seemingly endless roads of deserted American highways surrounded by open lands while civilisation is nowhere to be seen until… maybe, a couple of miles (kilometres) away.
Hollywood loves to explore such a setting as a launchpad for different kinds of genres and one of them happens to be a horror-thriller. The ones that involve road trips to hell as we often see unsuspecting protagonist(s) facing the likes of crazy psycho(s) and serial killer(s). There are a few of them worth mentioning here such as Duel (1971), Roadgames (1981) and Joy Ride (2001).
Then, there’s The Hitcher. No, not the 2007 remake of the same name which starred Sean Bean, even though it wasn’t a bad one. But rather the 1986 original itself played by the incomparable, late Rutger Hauer in one of the career-defining roles of his decades-long acting career. When the movie was first opened back on February 21, 1986, it barely made a mark in the North American box office, raking only US$2.1 million at the No. 8 spots during the first 3-day opening weekend. Although The Hitcher ended up as a box-office fiasco, it wasn’t until the movie subsequently gained cult followings after both home video and cable releases.
Back to Rutger Hauer, he has that cold yet creepy look in his eyes which made him such a formidable screen presence. The moment his mysterious character who goes by the name of John Ryder appears and hitches a ride in the middle of nowhere during the rainy night, The Hitcher doesn’t waste time getting down to business. Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell), a young man on his way to California who is kind enough for giving John Ryder a ride, certainly made the numero-uno big mistake of picking up a stranger. It doesn’t take long before Ryder starts to act strange and even threatens him with a switchblade, going as far as challenging him “I want you to stop me“.
From there, it was a 90-minute of highway terror with Ryder determines to make Halsey’s life a living hell. What makes John Ryder a scary villain is his sense of remorseless towards his victims. We barely know his true motivation, let alone his real identity whatsoever. And he doesn’t kill Halsey immediately but rather taking his sweet time manipulating a long game of physical and mental torture. He made Halsey becomes wrongfully accused of being the killer on the loose, with the local police giving him a hard time. Halsey tries to prove his innocence but it seems that Ryder is always one step ahead in making things worse.
Although Hauer is undoubtedly the heart of this film, the then-young C. Thomas Howell deserves equal mention as the helpless protagonist being pushed to the edge. Jennifer Jason Leigh delivers a solid supporting turn as the diner waitress Nash, where the eventual fate of her character happens to be one of the most unsettling moments in this film.
Having revisited The Hitcher a few days ago, the movie’s now-familiar setup may have been done to death by today’s standard. But even after 35 years since its initial release, the movie still retains most of its ominous dread and tension-filled moments, thanks to Robert Harmon’s engaging direction. There are a few worthwhile action sequences too, notably the car chase involving the police pursuit. Despite this is actually his first feature-length film, Harmon proves to be an ace visual stylist in executing such setpieces. Except, of course, I still can’t get over the fact how Ryder manages to shoot down a helicopter with merely a revolver.
Interestingly enough, The Hitcher‘s original script wasn’t the one we have seen in the final product. Then-rookie screenwriter Eric Red, who would go collaborating with Kathryn Bigelow in Near Dark (1987) and Blue Steel (1990), initially written a more violent piece of a film in the form of a slasher-movie genre. Had the movie retained his original script, we would be treated with more slashings and even a scene involving an eyeball. However, the eventual changes happen to be the right move, offering a Hitchcockian-style psychological thriller filled with enough suspense and violence.
After the release of The Hitcher, Robert Harmon would follow up with a few Hollywood movies including Nowhere to Run (1993) featuring Van Damme in a rare non-martial arts role and revisited the road-thriller genre again in the little-seen Highwaymen (2004).