Driving through America’s mid-west can be a tough thing, especially if you’re just a young kid transporting a car to another state to earn a little extra cash. Night falls, an eerie mist envelops the road, rain crashes down and thunder roars. Your eyes feel weary, tired and you just want to go to sleep, but you know you’ve got to stay awake and keep your eyes on the road. Then you see a human shaped black figure signaling you to stop. Do you pick him up in the hope some conversation will keep you awake, or do you drive on hoping you don’t fall asleep doing sixty?
The Hitcher may open in a cheesy, not trying to do anything that hasn’t been done before fashion, but you quickly realise it’s all the better for it. The film does take itself seriously, painting a bleak picture of the barren, no-man’s land of endless deserts, long seemingly never ending highways, and rickety, lifeless old gas stations. It becomes obvious that the gloriously golden backdrops and magical ambiguity of the Marlboro cigarette adverts are a far cry from the desolate, lonely nothingness our good-deed driver finds himself surrounded by. It is a testament to the filmmakers that they can keep up a sense of life detached from the rest of civilisation for most of the film, only returning things to pseudo-normality when it comes time for the pay-off.
The film begins with Jim (C. Thomas Howell, who played one of the kids flying past the moon in Steven Spielberg’s E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial) lighting up a cigarette as he drives along a highway. Showing he’s a good kid, as well as attempting to stay awake, he picks up a hitchhiker. Opening the door he says, ‘My mother told me never to do this’, and you just know he should have damn well listened. They drive for a few miles, and Jim notices a car badly parked by the side of the road. Without stopping he questions the Hitcher about the car, and he reveals that that was the person who picked him up before Jim. ‘Was that the driver in the car’ Jim asks, and the Hitcher replies ‘I’m sure it was, he couldn’t have walked very far…because I cut off his legs…and his arms…and his head…and I’m going to do the same to you.’ Thus, the terror begins…
Eventually the Hitcher’s name is revealed, or at least what he likes to call himself – John Ryder. For the most part though, we don’t know his identity and know next to nothing about him, which is one of the film’s most pleasing attributes. His psychosis and total willingness to stop at nothing to get his man, gives him a Terminator-like ferocity. Rutger Hauer is exceptionally good in the role, mainly because, like Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator nothing very taxing is asked of him. The less words spoken, the more every facial expression, movement and action becomes magnified and something as little as a smirk, can be devilishly frightening.
The film’s low-budget origins give it a gritty, realistic feel and director Robert Harmon uses what limited resources he has to fabulous effect. If he isn’t showing long shots of the wide expanse and the ceaseless terrain as if to say there’s no where to hide, and actually there’s no where to go, he’s choking us with claustrophobic interiors and clogging up the frame with obstacles and hindrances. He has no trouble in creating brilliant suspense and retaining it for long enough periods that you’re mouth dries up.
The Hitcher’s only real problem is the inclusion of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character as a sort of plot diversion, who takes pity on Jim and eventually believes his story of this hitchhiker who will not stop pursuing him. There’s a sense of love between them which doesn’t seem forced, but her character seems to be out of place in Jim’s and the Hitcher’s story. It’s almost as if she is crashing their party, and her importance only really amounts to anything when the Hitcher begins to target her. Leigh doesn’t excel in the role either, looking glum throughout and not giving the character much emotional value. The highlight for her is a fantastic scene in which the Hitcher toys with the police and Jim. Tying her between an eighteen-wheeler’s load and the main truck, he holds the vehicle on the clutch, daring someone to make him floor the gas peddle. The scene is surprising, and wonderfully far-fetched, and it plays on so many levels that for a split second, you actually feel pity for the Hitcher.
C. Thomas Howell is superb in the film, grounding the extra-ordinary events that plague him with genuine acting maturity. He looks totally bemused when the cops fail to believe his story, or even the existence of a stalker. Devoid of the pretty-boy teen attributes that became the staple diet of slasher films in the nineties, Howell gets down and dirty in the wasteland hell he’s stuck in.
The film could be summed up as a teen-slasher, road movie but where it has its similarities with the Psycho inspired genre it goes further. Obviously heavily inspired by Steven Spielberg’s Duel, John Ryder takes on an almost robot intensity and driving force, and frequently his persona is represented in the vehicle’s he tries to run Jim down in. People do die, and many of these people have nothing to do with anything, like the aforementioned genre presented in abundance with an increased gore and stupidity level through the years. However, deaths are not over-hyped or dwelled on, and the blood level is minimal. It is the suspense before and after that the director wants the audience to witness, and that is what sets the film apart from other imitators. Eric Red’s script, much like that of Duel, keeps the pace moving and isolates the lead character as if he is totally on his own, and fighting a losing battle. Throwaway lines such as ‘you better start calling someone kid because you’re in deep shit!’, force a chuckle before you realise they actually deepen the situation and elevate the feeling of metaphorical walls closing in. John Ryder’s dialogue has so much more power because it is at such a minimum, and ‘you got any idea how much blood jets out of a guy’s neck when his throat gets slit?’ becomes simply terrifying.
The Hitcher is an excellent ninety-minutes of taut thrills, and frightening suspense. Inspired by the superb Duel, and certainly inspiring Joy Ride (aka Roadkill), the film has lost little of its impact and its message is as clear today as it was back in 1986: Don’t pick up Hitchhikers!
See also: Top 10 1980s Horror Films