The Hitcher (1986)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #121

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Number of Views: Three
Release Date: February 21, 1986
Sub-Genre: Psychological Thriller
Country of Origin: United States
Budget: $5,800,000
Box Office: $7,900,000
Running Time: 97 minutes
Director: Roger Harmon
Producers: David Bombyk, Kip Ohman
Screenplay: Eric Red
Special Effects: Arthur Brewer
Cinematography: John Searle
Score: Mark Isham
Editing: Frank J. Urioste
Studios: HBO Pictures, Silver Screen Partners
Distributors: TriStar Pictures, Thorn EMI, Momentum Pictures Home Entertainment, Home Box Office Home Video
Stars: Rutger Hauer, C. Thomas Howell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jeffrey DeMunn, John M. Jackson, Billy Green Bush, Jack Thibeau, Armin Shimerman, Gene Davis, Jon Van Ness, Henry Darrow, Tony Epper

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Suggested Audio Roadkill:

Ray Charles Hit The Road Jack

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Hands in the air if you stop to pick up hitchhikers. There was a time when my hand would have been raised as paying it forward can be such a soul-enriching pursuit and, the way I figured it, karma would reward me in the long run for offering assistance. Granted, much would depend on who exactly was thumbing a ride as, I may be kind, but I’m not altogether stupid. Should Jamie Lee Curtis have been flashing a little leg, then the passenger door would be open before you could say “there’s a fog bank out there”. However, replace her with a disheveled nomad with a look of madness in his eyes and I’d be far less likely to play Samaritan. Nowadays, I wouldn’t entertain it regardless of personnel and there are two reasons for that. Firstly I no longer own an automobile which makes me essentially a hitcher myself and, secondly, a certain cautionary tale taught me all about the perils of pulling over for roadside drifters.

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Certain motion pictures just strike a chord for some reason and Roger Harmon’s first-full length feature The Hitcher did precisely that in 1986. It only received a limited theatrical release and struggled to turn a profit, while the critical response was somewhat mixed. While in some quarters it was regarded as one of the best films of the year, others regarded it as sadomasochistic and deeply unpleasant. Ultimately it found its audience on VHS and it was here that it earned itself the cult status it so richly deserved. That was thirty years ago now and time has been incredibly kind during the interim.Indeed it has matured like a fine wine and still packs the punch of an unruly gibbon all these years later. Its mean spirit has never been in question but it is this that allows it to twist our guts so conclusively and time hasn’t lessened that impact one iota.

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In 2007, Dave Meyers decided to update Harmon’s tale, casting the usually bankable Sean Bean in the titular role and, needless to say, it was largely dismissed out of hand. Having watched the remake, I can concur that, while an entertaining enough way to pass the time, it pales into insignificance alongside the original. There are numerous reasons why it fails to match up but none more decisive than the casting of John Ryder. It’s not that Bean doesn’t do his level best, more that Rutger Hauer is simply irreplaceable.

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Ridley Scott’s seminal sci-fi Blade Runner provided the flying Dutchman the exposure he required in 1982, making him a household name overnight and hoisting him one step closer to the major leagues. However, things never really took off as planned afterwards and, aside from Richard Donner’s Ladyhawke (which struggled to recoup its outlay), further success eluded him.

Mark Isham Soundtrack Suite

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That was until The Hitcher. It is hard to argue that his performance as eccentric and sympathetic anti-hero Roy Batty wasn’t his pièce de résistance but his chilling portrayal of Ryder certainly runs it close. Things picked up as a result and the likes of Gary Sherman’s Wanted Dead or Alive, Phillip Noyce’s Blind Fury and Lewis Teague’s Wedlock all benefitted from his charismatic turns and went on to enjoy significant success, albeit on video rental. However, it is the manner in which he inhabits the very marrow of this grizzled drifter that makes it so memorable. Fuck Max Cady (I hope he’s not listening) as he’s well and truly trumped by this nightmarish nomad. Hauer is akin to a famished vulture with roadkill in his crosshairs as he spots his prey, bides his time, and then lunges with outstretched talons. Indeed, should the eyes be windows to the soul, then Ryder’s blackened orbs speak volumes on his behalf.

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Our villanous vagabond wastes no time in setting his sights and this is wretched news for poor Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell) as he’s the first sucker imprudent enough to slide off the gas. He’s delivering a car to San Diego and evidently the endless stretch of West Texas desert is taking its toll as he considers there no harm or foul in picking up a travel companion. In the history of dick moves, this one is right up there with Justin Bieber attempting to recruit Anne Frank, as his brooding passenger is nothing if not frank and, when they pass an abandoned vehicle, has no issue with bragging that he murdered the driver. Moreover, a repeat performance is on the cards and, if Jim is under any illusion that mortal peril is approaching, then having his cheek stroked with a hunting knife pretty much clears that one up.

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This is where you have to give Jim due credit as, while pulling over in the first place was not the smartest move, he spots that his passenger hasn’t fastened his seat belt and ejects him from the moving vehicle. Crisis averted right? If only it were that easy. You see, as well as not being one to mince his words, Ryder is also somewhat persistent and a resourceful bugger to boot. After signalling his intent a second time and in no uncertain terms, Jim is left very much aware that his opponent is not about to let this one slide. Clearly rattled, he stops at a roadside diner to inform the authorities and here he meets attractive waitress Nash (Jennifer Jason Leigh).

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A problem shared is a problem halved, isn’t that what they say? Well try telling that to poor Nash as half of Jim Halsey’s current problems equates to unwittingly inheriting 50% of Ryder’s unwanted attention. Had I mentioned that he’s only just getting started?

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Similar to the dogged pursuit of Dennis Weaver in Steven Spielberg’s Duel, our antagonist here is relentless in his personal vendetta, to the point where it becomes clear that it is, in fact, nothing personal at all. Ryder is simply evil incarnate, and Halsey, regrettably in the wrong place at the wrong time. Harmon opts not to bog things down by providing him with further motive and The Hitcher is all the more ominous as a result. The film is steeped in haze throughout like the heat shimmer on a particularly cruel summer day while John Searle’s glorious cinematography works beautifully in tandem, supplying that smoky edge to each and every frame.

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However, what is most pivotal is the dynamic between hunter and hunted and their bond is never more evident than the film’s opening and closing shots which involve the striking of a match, first by aggressor and ultimately by his quarry.

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The synergy between Hauer and Howell reaps momentous rewards and, while the former steals every last scene he is in, his young co-star also gives a fine account of himself, implicating the audience effortlessly. By the time we approach the inevitable showdown, any remaining moisture has been sucked from the air and we are left gasping. This is where Harmon goes for the jugular and few movies can boast a sucker punch quite as debilitating as the closing act kidney blow here.

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At its blackened heart, The Hitcher is a contemporary fairy tale of sorts and undoubtedly one of the finest psychological thrillers of its entire era. Dialogue is as sparse as its vast desert setting and it chooses to speak loudest through simple expression and gesture. Indeed, while Ryder is a man of precious few words, Hauer’s staggering performance is gloriously vocal and undoubtedly one of the most iconic in eighties cinema. Thanks to Harmon’s film, picking up hitchhikers has never particularly appealed although, thanks to John Ryder, I have never gone out of my way to drench them either.

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Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 9/10
Grue Factor: 2/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers: While little is explicitly shown, it is the implication of violence that truly provokes the terror here. My mind’s eye has witnessed more than enough splatter over the years to concoct a ghastly mental picture and the moment when Ryder drives a rather hefty wedge between our ill-fated lovers is an image I will remember to my dying day. Nash is pulled taut like a diaphragm between two eighteen wheelers then burst like a piñata and, while Harmon leaves our imagination to fill in the blanks, you really feel her bones loosen in their sockets as pedal prepares to touch metal.

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