The Hitcher (Robert Harmon, 1986)

THE TERROR STARTS THE MOMENT HE STOPS

AV_Inferno_DVD_.inddWhile driving in heavy rain on a deserted road, Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell) pulls over to pick up a hitchhiker (Rutger Hauer).  Halsey quickly regrets his decision to stop as the hitcher puts a knife to Jim’s throat and tells him to pass a car on the side of the road.  Its occupants have already been brutally slaughtered by the ominous stranger.  Now a bloody game cat-and-mouse is about to be played out on these desolate stretches of Texas highway, and every car that passes, and every soul that drives those roads, will have death, destruction, and mayhem along for the ride.

TERROR ALERT!  The Hitcher is a stretch for actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, especially when she’s tied between two vehicles headed in opposite directions!

Special Features:

  • New high definition digital transfer
  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard DVD Presentation
  • Original Stereo 2.0 and 5.1 Dolby Surround options
  • Optional English SDH subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
  • Introduction by director Christopher Nolan
  • Audio commentary by director Robert Harmon and writer Eric Red
  • Scene-specific audio commentary with Harmon, Red, stars C. Thomas Howell and Rutger Hauer, producer Edward S. Feldman, composer Mark Isham, and cinematographer John Seale
  • The Hitcher – How do these Movies get made?, a 39-minute making-of documentary
  • Gunmen’s Blues, Red’s 1981 short film with optional commentary
  • Telephone, Red’s 1983 short film starring Bud Cort with optional commentary
  • China Lake, Harmon’s 1983 short film starring Charles Napier with director’s introduction
  • The Room, Hauer’s 2001 short film with optional commentary by Hauer
  • Teaser and theatrical trailer
  • Collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Michael Gingold of Fangoria magazine

In or around 1983 and 1984, a script by Eric Red about a young man terrorized along the desert highways of Texas by a mysterious hitchhiker became a well-known and often-discussed property making the rounds in Hollywood.  Red was mailing the script all over, and while some saw the potential for a Hitchcockian thriller, others simply saw exploitation violence.  There were few interested parties, either because the script’s violent content (a family murdered in a station wagon, an eyeball served in a hamburger, a young woman torn apart by a semi-truck) was expected to drown out any artistic or dramatic value or because studios already had successful horror franchises and they had no interest in developing competitors.  Studio after studio passed on the script.  Red’s screenplay for The Hitcher eventually found its few supporters, reaching script development executive David Bombyk and personal manager Kip Ohman, then producers Ed Feldman and Charles Meeker, director Robert Harmon, independent producer Donna Dubrow, HBO senior VP Maurice Singer, HBO chairman and COO Maurice Singer, and stars C. Thomas Howell, Rutger Hauer, and Jennifer Jason Leigh.  The Hitcher got made despite concerns about its first-time director and agonized debates over the film’s most violent and gory scenes.  The film was strongly supported by its distributor (Tri-Star president David Matalon declared after its screening, “It’s the best film we have for 1986.”), but critics were lukewarm at best and many panned the film as another warmed-over and mindless slasher film.  Case in point – Siskel and Ebert’s vitriolic review.

The Hitcher opens with an impossibly young-looking Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell) driving a car through a rain storm in the Texas desert, trying to stay awake with coffee, cigarettes, and the cattle report.  After a near-accident caused by his drowsiness, Halsey disregards his mom’s advice and picks up an ominous hitchhiker (Rutger Hauer) who gives his name as “John Ryder.”  Halsey’s new passenger avoids answering his further questions, then frightens the young man with claims of having just murdered another driver, threatens him with a switch-knife, and demands that Halsey say that he wishes to die.  Halsey is able to push Ryder from the vehicle and speed away, but Halsey is in no way free of the hitcher.

Ryder hounds Halsey through the desert.  In his wake, gas stations explode; carloads of men, women, and children are murdered; and Halsey is made to look like the madman to local law enforcement.  Ryder even manages to slip a finger into Halsey’s fries at a truck stop diner (a compromise to the hamburger/eyeball gag in the original script).  But framing Halsey is hardly Ryder’s goal; it’s tormenting the young man, and when Halsey is apprehended and jailed, the young man wakes up in his cell to find the door unlocked, the police all murdered, and himself back on the run.  Halsey is only fully cleared in the eyes of law enforcement when Ryder reveals himself by capturing a young waitress named Nash (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who is helping Halsey.  Ryder ties her between two trucks and threatens to drive off, tearing Nash apart.  The police, unable to take action without causing Ryder’s foot to come of the clutch and roll his vehicle forward, send in Halsey to try and talk to Ryder.  Ryder demands Halsey stop him, telling him that Nash will die anyways and so he may as well try, by Halsey cannot act and Ryder, disappointed, carries out his threat.

Gene Siskel’s disgust with The Hitcher is rather deceptive.  Based on his review, you would believe that Harmon’s film is a continuous onslaught of bodily trauma.  In fact, Siskel basically misrepresents the scene involving Nash’s death, as her being torn apart is never depicted.  It is a testament to how well constructed is The Hitcher so as to give the impression of so much violence and gore.  The killing of the vacationing family, of the police station staff, and of Nash all occur off-screen, with actual mutilation being shown infrequently and usually limited to blood.  Property damage and dangerous situations abound in the movie, with car chases, explosions, and gunfire occurring often, but the idea of The Hitcher being yet another slasher movie is one that exists in the mind of the viewer, not onscreen.  In this regard, perhaps The Hitcher is more akin to the Hitchcockian thriller, one where the violence is felt rather than observed.  Credit Howell’s desperation, Leigh’s sincerity and naturalism, Hauer’s devilish charm and mystery, John Seale’s oh-so-’80s cinematography and lighting, Frank Urioste’s deceiving and highly-suggestive editing, Mark Isham’s restrained and selectively employed score, and Harmon and Red’s particular amendments to The Hitcher’s story aimed at satisfying concerns regarding the film’s gore without diluting its ultimate concept.  Notwithstanding its poor reviews, The Hitcher has developed its own cult following, confirming that this expertly crafted film is no run-of-the-mill exploitation picture.

The Hitcher Hell PosterWith Ryder then apprehended by law enforcement, The Hitcher concludes with the hitchhiker and Halsey set upon a slow, inevitable collision course.  Halsey commandeers a police truck to track down Ryder and stop him once and for all, while Ryder overcomes his captors and escapes the police van that transports him.  On a lonely stretch of highway, Halsey and Ryder confront each other for one last time, with Ryder seemingly baiting Halsey to gun him down and, once done, Halsey assuming the same stoic, hard-bitten attitude of his now-dead tormentor.  Roger Ebert (perhaps unflatteringly) suggests that The Hitcher‘s often improbable story and its cyclical conclusion suggests that the movie resides in the realm of the metaphorical.  We agree, giving the film more credit that Ebert does in recognizing the same.  Ryder is certainly no mere individual.  The film builds him into a cipher by his lack of backstory, his lack of police records, his name that describes a title (“rider”) rather than an identity, and his suggestive comments to Halsey that imply not merely a method behind his madness, but an intimacy and knowledge into the young man that ought not to be available to him.  Ryder’s preternatural connection to Halsey is made explicit during his interrogation scene where he senses the young man’s presence in another room.  As David Bombyk observes, the film is a distinctly American fable and Ryder is a “primal element with no context.”  He may be a man burdened by some supernatural curse or he may be something more elusive or more expansive that awoke once white men began crossing the Texas desert (certainly once they started paving it).  Jay Scott rejected the film as a “slasher movie about gay panic, a nasty piece of homophobic angst for the age of AIDS,” but the same words could read positively if considered as describing a horror film return-of-the-repressed set within the American road movie’s uneasy tension between the homosocial and the homosexual.  Note Halsey’s fear of Ryder and the film’s restraint in establishing a heteronormative union between Halsey and Nash.  Is Halsey’s punished for some internal denial or is he merely the random victim of a culture of violence that waits even in the lonely stillness of the Far West?

One last comment on Roger Ebert, the craftmanship of The Hitcher, and the metaphysical nature of John Ryder.  Ebert suggests that the film quickly that abandons reality without unpacking how the film does so.  Part of the preposterous nature of The Hitcher‘s prolonged chase is Ryder’s ability to suddenly appear out of nowhere, usually while behind the wheel of a large pick-up truck with its engine roaring.  Notwithstanding the large size of his vehicle or the terrifying volume of the machine, the hitchhiker consistently manages to still avoid detection until the last terrifying moment.  In this sense, director Robert Harmon employs a logic Ebert identifies in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Sergio Leone, 1968) – “The rule is that the ability to see is limited by the sides of the frame.  At important moments in the film, what the camera cannot see, the characters cannot see, and that gives Leone the freedom to surprise us with entrances that cannot be explained by the practical geography of the shots.”  In that case, Ebert embraces the approach and identifies in it a transcendent power, stating that “Leone cares not at all about the practical or the plausible, and builds his great film on the rubbish of Western movie cliches, using style to elevate dreck into art.”  Perhaps Ebert’s insight on Leone’s spaghetti western is rooted in the distance of his writing on the film 35 years after it was released, something he could not afford to The Hitcher in the review above.  Christopher Nolan counts The Hitcher among his favourite guilty pleasure films, commenting “As a teenager I never questioned the logic of this Eighties chiller, but now it seems mind-bendingly arbitrary plot-wise.  However, it does feature the criminally underappreciated Rutger Hauer in his finest and most influential Euro-psycho performance this side of Blade Runner.”  But The Hitcher is purposefully mind-bending (even if unappreciated by Nolan as well), being an unreal tale of the supernatural organized around the familiar and naturalist tropes of the western and the road movie.  The film is most rewarding when Ryder is appreciated as a true monster rather than a mere mortal.

The Hitcher PosterThere is depth in the ambiguities of The Hitcher that makes the film rewarding beyond its powerfully visceral action and that lends to its cult nature.  By the time The Hitcher was released in 1986, the slasher film had already fallen into decline and one certainly gets the feeling watching the Siskel and Ebert review that The Hitcher was last the film they wanted to see, that it was punished for the failures of too many films previous to it, and that the reviewers had little interest in finding in it anything worthwhile in the first placeIn the years that have followed its release, The Hitcher has developed a small fan-base of its own, evidenced by the many followers of Arrow’s Facebook page who repeatedly suggest the film as a future release.  That may be a little ambitious given the that American rights to the film may be difficult to acquire from HBO and that a quality 2-disc DVD release already exists in the UK, but we remain hopeful, aware that Arrow, perhaps more than any other label, seems to really pursue fan-feedback with an aim at satisfying its growing base of customers.  We love Arrow for that and so remain hopeful that The Hitcher will get … picked up.

Credits: The commentaries, the “making-of” documentary, and the shorts by Harmon and Hauer are all found on the 2-disc UK DVD edition of The HitcherChina Lake is particularly noteworthy, as Harmon seems to have made the perfect audition film for a feature-length debut with The Hitcher.  We’ve added Eric Red’s two short films, Gunmen’s Blues and Telephone, for added reference.  We might be a little over-zealous in proposing an introduction by Hollywood blockbuster movie director Christopher Nolan, but Nolan is on the record as being a fan of the film and his comments on the movie would really elevate the regard of this title and the label.  We selected Michael Gingold as an essay writer given his service as host to a screening of The Hitcher earlier this year at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in New York and given Arrow Video’s past inclusion of Fangoria articles in their booklets.

Those looking for an intensive review of the film’s development and release should consult Deborah Caufield’s article for the Los Angeles Times, “‘The Hitcher’ Gets A Ride to Hollywood.”  Those looking for a close-reading of the film and a more philosophical approach to the movie should take a look at Tom Whalen’s essay “You’re a Smart Kid. Figure It Out.”  Both of these writings were extremely helpful in the preparation of this post.

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3 thoughts on “The Hitcher (Robert Harmon, 1986)

  1. jnvahtola August 26, 2015 / 4:46 pm

    I own the Universal DVD from 2005 and it does suffer from inferior image quality. This movie deserves a quality transfer in HD!

    • spinenumbered August 26, 2015 / 5:58 pm

      I think I just picked up that DVD, although I haven’t watched it yet to see the transfer. Sometime you just have to make due with what’s available if you want to see some titles!

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