Ranking, purely on a level of sustained moodiness and visual authority, with the best of ‘80s American genre films, The Hitcher is nonetheless a frustrating piece of work. The Hitcher operates best as a waking nightmare, as the situation depicted in the opening scenes, and the blue-eyed malevolence personified by John Ryder (Rutger Hauer), seem to practically step out of a Jungian collective unconscious, grown cancer-like in the modern psyche where fear is the flipside to the nominal freedom of the highway, and the film itself a bleak inversion of late ‘60s and ‘70s road movies, which already displayed aspects of paranoia about just how open and bounteous being on the road would prove. Young Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell), beset by micro-sleep blackouts as he travels a desolate stretch of road in Nevada, picks up hitch-hiker Ryder, because, as he will explain later, he thinks a companion will help keep him awake. Ryder, emerging from the pouring rain and offering a peculiarly distracted line of patter, certainly wakes Jim up, not merely from driver fatigue, but from his hitherto cushioned urban upbringing and coddled sense of the world: he’s recently left Chicago for an adventure, having signed up with a pick-up driving service purely to get a vehicle to take to California, and Jim is from the first instant a naïve young man waiting for a shock. The first half-hour of The Hitcher is as good as any thriller ever made, generating a mood of lonely fatigue and lurking horror with fervent excellence, the images of red taillights soaking the rainy night with bloody tones sufficient to evoke the truth behind Ryder’s claim that he cut off a Volkswagen driver’s extremities, even before he pulls out his flick knife. Hauer’s sublime performance sustains a tone of bleary existential despair and psychic exhaustion even in feeding off fear and mayhem.
The visual pungency of the rainy night and the subsequent minimalist vistas of desert and dusty diners and lonely truck stops, conveyed with crisp yet muted colours, and methodical lighting and sound layers, make The Hitcher’s landscape authentic yet estranged, a richly atmospheric battleground that works well as both realistic milieu and Dali-esque dreamscape. It’s as bleakly interiorised and relentless in its study of the vulcanisation of a young man’s soul through torment in the face of the world’s evil as the same year’s similar Blue Velvet, and like that film hinges on telling images of severed body parts. Of more immediate kinship, it anticipates the same ethereal sense of the Midwestern night as a nightmarish cage in its vastness, populated by strange beasts, in Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark (1987), likewise written by Eric Red, who must count as co-auteur on both films, which also share some essential faults. Director Robert Harmon’s work wears influences on its sleeve whilst maintaining a patina of consistent stylisation, with loud hints of Hitchcock and Paul Verhoeven, unsurprising with Verhoeven’s former golden boy Hauer on board. The Fourth Man’s image of a punctured eyeball is invoked through dialogue, and whether or not the villain is a demon or a mere murderer is left similarly opaque. The Hitcher also belongs in a class of new-age horror film with Michael Mann’s more oblique but similarly oppressive attempt to reinvent the gothic horror film with The Keep (1984), particularly in how Harmon uses Mark Isham’s spacey score like Mann used Tangerine Dream’s, to sustain the miasma of paranoid isolation and hazy veracity.
Intimations of anticipated violation take on other dimensions as Ryder keeps the knife pressed in Jim’s crotch as they’re pulled over by a road worker, who takes the gesture for a queer rendezvous. Like another mid-‘80s horror movie, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2, the seemingly inhuman killer provokes voluble metaphors for gay panic, as the threat of homoerotic violence lends a note of queasy knowing to Jim’s near-psychic link to Ryder and his actions during their absurdist chase. Ryder seems to embody an entrapping fact of identity that cannot be escaped, and certainly coming along when Jim is vulnerable and in the act of escaping his familiar life. Jim’s refusal to submit, that is, to complete Ryder’s dictated statement, “I want to die”, makes him the top, and Ryder, who seems to be devoutly wishing a consummation, nominates Jim not as victim but as nemesis, the one who must finally grow big enough balls to take him out, whatever the potential cost, as he provokes Jim at several points to kill him. Ryder begins exterminating everyone Jim gets close to, from policemen to holidaying families. The Hitcher suggests a Halloween campfire tale effectively illustrated, borrowing tropes familiar from urban legends: food spiked with nasty surprises; situations of solitude inviting the unknown danger. Whilst the opening and basic set-up seem to promise a focused set-piece built around an interpersonal cat-and-mouse struggle, a la Ida Lupino’s spin on the same idea, The Hitch-Hiker (1953), hewing to classic noir rules, or a The Twilight Zone-esque tale of the uncanny and the dissolving limits of the liminal, Harmon and Red soon move on to a Hitchcockian manhunt, albeit played by the far more expansive rules of ‘80s genre stylings, where infrastructure has to be totalled, guns fired aplenty, and explosions set off now and then.
Even as it shifts gears and genres, The Hitcher still maintains integrity and a compelling aura of dread, as Jim’s own cranking hysteria and will to survive begin to incriminate him as surely as Ryder’s mischievous murders. Relief for the folie-a-deux that is the Jim/Ryder death dance is introduced in the form of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s winningly blowsy diner waitress Nash, taking Jim under her wing eventually, as the promise of violent force from the cops proves as unnervingly extreme as any highway psychopathy, and the couple are conjoined by their wish to escape their lives: just as Jim’s rebellion brings on Ryder, so too Nash’s rebellion brings on the police with white-hot fury, which won’t abate until she is killed. References to Duel (1971) are hard to avoid, especially in the hero’s ordinary haplessness and the villain’s relentlessness, the use of setting, and the general story structure. Hitchcock is the common reference for both Spielberg and Harmon, with a helicopter swooping in like North by Northwest’s crop duster, on top of the transference of guilt theme. The problem with Harmon’s film is that whilst it hints at hallucinogenic fantasy, it doesn’t ever quite make up its mind, pursuing the basic narrative conceit with an increasingly improbable narrative that nonetheless never entirely gives into dream logic. The fact is that Red’s script under the influence of a much more recent genre model, becoming a variation on The Terminator (1984: James Cameron would of course produce wife Bigelow’s film of Red’s next script) with unstated supernatural or psychological causes, rather than sci-fi, to justify the Ryder’s inhuman capacity to shoot down said helicopter with a handgun, or plunge out of a bus and through a windscreen with barely a scratch.
This attempt to blend the hyperkinetic high style that defined ‘80s American genre cinema with a tale based more in primal dread and near-subliminal anxieties therefore only works to a certain extent, as Harmon therefore sustains a note of cryptic but essentially earthy urgency. Then again, the film also bears similarities of vision with the following year’s White of the Eye by Donald Cammell, another tale based in versions of normality based in both everyday life and the templates of genre, increasingly untethered from both whilst invoking destructive forces in a desert setting. On a level of basic compulsive action, too, The Hitcher commits itself with admirably coldness to its singularly nasty proliferation of tricks, from the finger plucked and almost eaten from a plate of French Fries, to Jim awakening in a police station where he’s been imprisoned only to find the cops have all been murdered and the police dog lapping blood from its master’s neck. Most memorably and inescapably nasty, Nash, taken prisoner by Ryder, is suspended between two trucks, to be torn in half with the slightest release of the clutch, forestalling both Jim’s and the police’s hopes of delivering cost-free justice. Disgusted with Jim’s squeamishness and incapacity to kill his nemesis, Ryder exasperatedly lets the truck roll forward, killing Nash, a moment of chilling nihilism that vibrates within and around the work: it’s the rare horror film that has the courage of such taunting convictions to do such a thing to the nominal love interest. Interestingly, The Hitcher made a powerful impact at the time thanks to its intimate cruelty, yet it's actually very judicious in terms of what it shows: such unbearable spectacles as a slaughtered cute family and Nash's murder are actually left entirely to the imagination, and become perhaps all the more powerful for it. Many, far more gory films have been made before and since, and yet there's something about The Hitcher's precise malevolence in this regard that makes it especially galvanising by refusing to play nice.
Still, killing off Nash only points to a basic flaw in Red’s script, one he would at least not repeat in Near Dark (which similarly stumbles towards the end with action movie shtick but recovers with a better finish). In wanting to stay a step ahead of the audience and cut off all familiar avenues, Red and Harmon leave their film without any real source of suspense in the last act, which, on top of the film’s wilful abandonment of believability, finally proves a ruinous drag. The essential point of The Hitcher is an interesting one, however, in that it seems to boil down to a depiction of achieving final maturity, an evolution which requires, sometimes, taking responsibility for unpleasant, even terrible jobs; it's a variation on “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do,” but inflected with an existential quality where, whether you win or lose in the war against fear itself, it costs you something dear to you. After Jim struggles through a Calvary-like moment where he contemplates suicide with a stolen police pistol, he once again chooses life. But life now means, therefore, accepting the persecution of Ryder and by the police as his new state of existence. Jim's unwillingness to shoot Ryder when he gives him the chance, and when he might have a shot at saving Nash, has a definite consequence: it means that Ryder, who has no concept of mercy, kills her, thus forcing Jim to be morally complicit in the act through his incapacity to meet monstrosity on its own terms. By The Hitcher’s end, however, Jim is as dead-eyed and relentless as Ryder, if still ostensibly righteous, when he turfs out Jeffrey DeMunn’s empathetic sheriff from his own squad car to chase down Ryder who, as predicted, stages an escape from a prison bus. The very finale gives the impression of a narrative motor finally running down for lack of petrol, no more twists or new revelations possible, as the binary necessity finally fulfilled, the traditional Reagan-era movie act of punitive punishment blended with an aspect of mercy killing, as well as self-exterminating consummation that looks forward to the bullet-induced cure for schizophrenia in Fight Club (1999). Even if it slowly degenerates into a lesser film than it might have been through trying to be too many kinds of movie, The Hitcher’s perfect first act and memorably ruthless highlights sustain an impressive and oddly haunting semi-classic. Sadly, Harmon's subsequent cinematic career, including his return to semi-abstract urban legend horror with They (2002) and Highwaymen (2004), has been disappointing, but his interesting telemovie work has included 2000's The Crossing, perhaps the best attempt to film the American Revolution made thus far.