Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell) is a young man working for a transport service, driving a vehicle cross country to its owner. When Jim makes the fateful decision to pick up a hitchhiker, who calls himself John Ryder (the great Rutger Hauer), he quickly realizes he made the wrong choice. John enjoys uncomfortable eye contact, laughing inappropriately, and being an all around creep. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. After John really gets going, he frames Jim for murder, nearly tricks him into eating a finger, and uses several swear words in Jim’s presence. The moral of the story is: Do not pick up hitchhikers, lest you shall be sworn at framed for murder, and almost tricked into eating a finger.
The Hitcher is a frightening and suspenseful slice of ’80s horror that made viewers want to pick up a hitchhiker about as badly as they wanted to go swimming after watching Jaws. The Hitcher crosses genre boundaries and succeeds as both a horror picture and a thriller. The flick is likely to appeal equally to fans of both genres. The Hitcher marked Robert Harmon’s (They) feature film directorial debut and for my money, he has never topped it. Harmon brought Eric Reid’s (Near Dark) brilliant script to life in a truly inspired fashion. It’s full of atmosphere and scares lurk around every corner. This movie still terrifies me more than thirty years after its initial release.
Rutger Hauer is exceptional as John Ryder. Though Ryder is a sociopath, there is a flicker of humanity hidden behind his evil exterior. There aren’t a lot of other actors that could pull that off (Sean Bean certainly didn’t in the poorly executed, 2007 remake).
C. Thomas Howell isn’t awful as Jim. He is serviceable but it does feel a little like he was miscast. He’s the only character in the film (including John Ryder) that I can’t seem to relate to in any way. Much of his dialogue comes across more like whining than actually speaking his lines.
Jennifer Jason Leigh is great in her turn as Nash, a diner waitress who tries to help Jim and winds up another of Ryder’s targets. She’s tough but compassionate. She has real personality and is easy to warm up to.
The special makeup effects are excellent for the time The Hitcher was released. Hell, they’re even great after 30+ years have passed. There aren’t buckets of blood in the film but the bloodshed we do see is well done. The semi truck sequence is a standout moment, for sure. I won’t go into any detail and run the risk of spoiling the scene for anyone who hasn’t seen the film. But, suffice to say, the truck segment is inventive, unexpected, and showed that the filmmakers behind The Hitcher understood that less is usually more. Like Tarantino did with Reservoir Dogs, The Hitcher tricks its viewer into thinking they are seeing more than they actually are. I’ve heard so many people swear that they saw the ear actually being sliced off in Reservoir Dogs, when, in realty, it’s simply implied. But it’s a powerful implication. In similar fashion, director Robert Harmon gets inside viewers heads and starts to blur the line between what we’ve actually seen and what we think we’ve seen.
If you have somehow missed out on checking out The Hitcher, it is a must see film featuring one of the most memorable performances of Rutger Hauer’s storied career.
Director(s): Robert Harmon
Writer(s): Eric Red
Stars: Rutger Hauer, C. Thomas Howell, Jennifer Jason Leigh
Studio/ Production Co: HBO Pictures
Budget: $5.8 Million
Length: 97 Minutes
Sub-Genre: Psychological Thriller