Sunday, 27 October 2019

Movie Review: The Hitcher (1986)


A horror road movie, The Hitcher is a chilling thriller combining suspense with gore, shock, and high revving engines.

On the wide open highways through rural west Texas, Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell) is a young man delivering a car from Chicago to San Diego. During a stormy night of non-stop driving Jim battles fatigue and almost dozes off behind the wheel. He picks up a hitchhiker (Rutger Hauer) to help stay awake, and immediately regrets it. His new passenger calls himself John Ryder, and his creepiness soon escalates to threats as he darkly talks of death and brandishes a knife.

Jim kicks John out of the car and speeds away, but Ryder displays an uncanny ability to catch up by hitching rides with innocents who quickly become his murder victims. At various isolated eateries and gas stations Jim tries to call for help, but only diner worker Nash (Jennifer Jason Leigh) believes his story. With Ryder adept at killing then disappearing, the police suspect Jim is behind the mounting body count, and he has to flee and find a way to clear his name and escape the mysterious killer mercilessly stalking him.

Starting with Steven Spielberg's Duel and adding large doses of more explicit horror enabled by the genre's 1980s evolution, writer Eric Red conjures up an unsettling tale of evil most persistent. The inherent danger of picking up a stranger along the side of the road creates a sturdy foundation, and The Hitcher articulates every driver's dilemma: the generosity of offering help set against the minute risk of dismemberment.

Here the hitchhiker is barely defined. His name is generic, his background nonexistent. He could be anyone or no one, a man with a death wish who thrives on killing while desperately seeking to die. Ryder also works as a metaphorical outcome for perilous human behaviour. By pushing through the fatigue limit and risking falling asleep behind the wheel instead of taking a break, Jim is foolishly dancing with death. So here comes the grim reaper invited into the car, challenging Jim to vanquish death or have his life destroyed.

The Hitcher does take a couple of prolonged detours towards 1970s redneck police chase flicks, Jim and Nash escaping numerous inept cop cars, with the predictable outcome of spectacular wrecks and highway carnage. Director Robert Harmon handles the action scenes well, but for all the kinetic energy the film works much better as a slow burning tale of Ryder leaving a bloody trail to incriminate Jim and force him to understand what must be done.

Most of the gore is hinted at rather than shown, Jim's stomach churning reactions often sufficient to convey the horror unseen by the cameras. Two scenes do stand out for shock value. The first involves a misplaced digit and the second a couple of large trucks, and both earn their place as punctuation marks in the genre's history.

The film is a visual treat, Harmon creating a desolate aesthetic of empty highways, sun-baked desert and dry shrubbery under the immense Texas sky, the only hints of civilization arriving in the form of lonely diners dotting the landscape. And of course when help does arrive in the form of local police authorities, they misunderstand the threat and are no match for the unfolding butchery.

Building on his classic tragic role in Blade Runner, Rutger Hauer again nails the misunderstood monstrous presence, here adding a layer of merciless joy in doling out agony onto others. C. Thomas Howell is adequate, and Jennifer Jason Leigh marginally underutilized.

For Jim Halsey, survival is a matter of finding a path through rapidly dwindling choices while he still has some elemental control over his fate. Since death maintains ultimate dominion, The Hitcher is both cautionary and inevitable.






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