The Hitcher (1986) ***Ĺ
At first glance, youíd think The Hitcher was just another mid-80ís slasher movie. The promotional artwork certainly makes it look that way, and if you read the blurb on the back of the video box, the main idea you come away with is that of a young couple being pursued by a psychopath. Factor in a 1986 release date, and the slasher signs look unmistakable. But The Hitcher is something far trickier and more complex than that, and it is also one of the most unpredictable horror films Iíve yet run across. Granted, that latter quality comes at a very high price in credibility, but if you can arrange to quiet that little internal voice saying, ďYeah, but how did he... where did... huh?!Ē then The Hitcher is tremendous fun.
Jim Halsey (Red Dawnís C. Thomas Howell) is a young man on a cross-country trip. He apparently didnít have the money to make it from Chicago to San Diego on his own, however, so he has hired himself out driving a late-70ís Cadillac Seville to the man in Southern California who has purchased it from its original owner in the Windy City. Now thatís a hell of a drive any way you slice it, especially when you factor in the monotony of the landscape in the Great Plains and Southwest desert regions of the country, and come nightfall, Jim is struggling to stay awake. Heís near enough to El Paso to pick up its radio stations, but the scenery says itís going to be a long time before Jim reaches anything more welcoming than a weather-beaten gas station. So at first it seems like a boon when Jim spots a hitchhiking man on the shoulder of the road; he figures giving the hitcher a ride will give him someone to talk to, fending off sleep and keeping him focused for the long drive ahead. Thatís not quite how it turns out, though. The hitchhiker (Rutger Hauer, from Blade Runner and Ladyhawke) actively thwarts Jimís efforts to engage him in conversation, only grudgingly revealing his name (John Ryder) and consistently ducking Jimís questions regarding where heís headed. The bad feeling Halsey has about Ryder only gets worse when they pass a Volkswagen Beetle stopped by the side of the road, and the hitchhiker prevents Jim from pulling over by stomping his foot down against the gas pedal. Ryderís subsequent explanation that the Beetle was his car, and that it ran out of gas doesnít sound very convincing. It isnít until Ryder throws Halsey for a loop by saying the only reason he wants to go to a gas station is to buy cigarettes that the real story finally comes out, however. Ryder starts laughing uproariously when the flustered boy answers his bizarre pronouncement about cigarettes by blurting out, ďWhat do you want?!?!Ē Ryder says thatís just what the last guy who gave him a ride saidó the guy in the Beetle a few miles back. Ryder then agrees with Jim that ďthe other guyĒ is probably still in his car, as it seemed unlikely that he would be going anywhere. Why? ďBecause I cut off his legs,Ē Ryder says, ďAnd his arms. And his head. And Iím going to do the same to you.Ē The only reason Halsey is able to avoid this fate is that the hitchhiker failed to close his door securely when he got into the car. Seeing the ďdoor ajarĒ light glowing on the dashboard, Jim seizes the earliest opportunity to knock Ryder out the passenger-side door and drive off alone.
Early the next morning, though, Jim and the hitchhiker cross paths again. A family in a station wagon pass Halsey on the highway, and Jim spots Ryder in the back seat with the two children. Jimís efforts to alert the family to their danger come to nothing, however, and an hour or so later, Halsey comes upon the station wagon againó on the highway shoulder this time, and loaded with the mutilated corpses of all its passengers. Jim pulls over at the next gas station he comes to, and tries to call the cops. The station is derelict, however, and the pay phone in the garage isnít working. Whatís more, Ryder is there waiting for him. Strangely, the killer leaves him unmolested, but makes a big show of hitching another ride in a passing pickup truck. When Jim sees this truck again, at another gas station, Ryder is driving, and the killer manages to blow the place up while chasing Halsey around and between the pumps. Itís a narrow escape for Jim, and had it not been for the fact that the gas station hadnít yet opened for the day, it would surely have been no escape at all for its staff and other customers.
By this point the morning has advanced far enough that people are beginning to show up for work, and when Jim pulls into a truck stop, a waitress named Nash (Jennifer Jason Leigh, from Flesh & Blood and Single White Female) is there to let him in so that he can call the police. She really shouldnít be doing that, as itís still 45 minutes before official business hours, but when a frazzled-looking man reeking of soot and gasoline asks if he can call the police from your phone, itís generally a good idea to let him do it. Halsey tells the cops where he is, and that he knows who blew up the gas station and killed the three sets of motorists on the highway into El Paso. Then he goes to the bathroom to wash all the gasoline off himself, and Nash fixes him a burger and a plate of French fries while heís at it. Thereís about ten minutesí lag time between the time Nash puts Jimís plate on the counter and the time the boy sits down to eat. And in those ten minutes, John Ryder sneaks in to leave Jim a calling card, planting the severed finger of one of his victims in amongst the boyís fries. Jim discovers this right when the cops show up at the truck stop, and Jimís sudden, panicked flight from the restaurant convinces them that he himself is the killer. And while Jim is being arrested, he discovers that the finger in the fries wasnít the only thing Ryder left him with. Upon frisking Halsey, the police find the killerís bloody switchblade in the pocket of Jimís coat.
Now this is shaping up to be a pretty shitty day for Jim Halsey, but itís only just begun. None of his statutory allotment of post-arrest phone calls goes through, Ryder lifted his wallet at the same time that he planted the knife (leaving Jim with no way to substantiate his claims to be who he is), and he clearly has a strike or two against him just for being a kid from a big city back east. Nevertheless, the detective in charge of the case doesnít really think Jim is the killer his men are looking for, even if he doesnít entirely buy the boyís story of an elaborate frame-up either. Jim gets locked up in the county jail for safe keeping, and the police set about trying to make sense of the whole situation. With nothing else to do, and with the adrenaline of the past six hours finally gone from his system, Jim goes to sleep. When he awakens, the station house is strangely quiet, and the door to his cell is unlocked. Curiosity getting the better of him, Jim leaves the cell and cautiously steps out into the office section of the police station. Somebody has been through and killed all the cops. And since that somebody also unlocked Jimís cell without doing him any harm, it seems safe to conclude that the somebody in question was John Ryder. Instantly realizing how bad this is going to look, Jim flees the police station through the back door, just as more cops from another barracks arrive in answer to the depopulated stationís call for backup.
Henceforth, Jim Halsey will be an increasingly wanted man. Ryder, meanwhile, will continue to show up in exactly the right place at exactly the right time to keep Halsey out the hands of the law while simultaneously making his situation ever more desperate, for reasons known only to himself. Nash from the truck stop ends up along for the ride when Jim tries to skip town on the bus she takes to and from work. The police pull the bus over and order Halsey out, but when Nash sees that one of the arresting officers means to kill Jim in cold blood, she rather rashly intervenes on the boy's behalf. You might not be able to swallow all of the twists and turns in the plot from here on out, but you may rest assured that you wonít see many of them coming.
Man, remember back when Rutger Hauer used to make good movies, before he became Albert Pyunís favorite anti-action anti-hero? The Hitcher makes the most of Hauerís creepy intensity, and he plays the role of John Ryder with disturbing combination of affable charm and inscrutable malevolence. C. Thomas Howell, meanwhile, makes a significant asset of the boyishness and lack of gravity that were so often his greatest weaknesses as an actor. Jim Halsey needs to come across as naive, impulsive, and not particularly bright for this credulity-straining story to work at all, and thatís exactly the way Howell portrays him. And Jennifer Jason Leigh, for her part, displays once again her tremendous talent for drawing out the personality in an underwritten character. The three of them together make for an extremely strong structure for director Robert Harmon to build his movie around. Harmon also seems to have understood how unbelievable most of the plot is, for he invests everything with a dreamlike unreality apparently designed to short-circuit his audienceís bullshit detectors. As transparent a ploy as it may be, it actually works most of the time, and I found it easy enough to order Reason out of the room so that I could sit back and enjoy the ride. If you can do that, The Hitcher is gripping, suspenseful, and exciting in ways that not nearly enough horror movies manage to be. If you canít, then chances are watching it is just going to make you mad.