30 years later and still stopping for The Hitcher (1986)
PLOT - A young man driving cross country makes the fatal mistake of picking up a crazed murdering hitchhiker. After successfully throwing him out of his car he tries to alert the local police only to discover that the hitchhiker is stalking him and framing him for his recent murders along the lone highways.
LOWDOWN - I sit here typing this with a blanket wrapped around my head, and a cup of hot tea steaming beside me. For the last week I've been trying to get rid of the virus from HELL and in a way of recovering I've been taking a lot of naps and watching movies. This morning, unable to sleep due to my fever I popped in one of my all time favorite movies. A film I honestly haven't watched or even thought about in the last five or so years. A film that in my eyes is one of the most elegantly, beautifully filmed movies of all time and is highly underrated for the time it was released.
This being The Hitcher.
I wasn't like most high school girls my age. In fact I truly believe I was born thirty years too late. In my freshmen year of high school I re-discovered tons of teen movies from the 1980's (Sixteen Candles, Pretty In Pink, The Breakfast club, ect.) I adored The Brat Pack movies, but the films I was more interested in were the not so typical teen drams of the 1980's. I loved odd ball movies like Summer School, The Sure Thing, Say Anything, Better Off Dead, Red Dawn, Grandview USA, My Science Project, and yes The Outsiders. One actor from several of the movies I just named was the ever so dreamy C. Thomas Howell. Best known for his role in The Outsiders as Ponyboy, Howell was lucky enough to be a heartthrob for four or five years in the 1980's. I grew up watching Red Dawn so I always knew who Howell was. It wasn't until that I discovered his other movies from the 1980's that I found him downright adorable. In fact I truly feel I was the only teenager in 2004 that had his film's plastered on my English binder at school. C. Thomas Howell appeared in several actually really great movies in the 1980's before making career suicide in the 1986 comedy Soul Man. Before hand, Howell was an actual really decent actor. He was in ET, The Outsiders, Grandview USA, Red Dawn, Secret Admirer, and in my eyes his best role to date The Hitcher. I found this to be a very interesting move on his part since at the time he was making good money at the box office for staring in fun little bubble gum teen movies. This was a drastic move on his part and I feel had he continued this route, he will would have continued a very successful film career for years to come.
The Hitcher was unlike any other horror movie that was released at the time. In the height of the 1980's slasher boom, this wasn't a bloody splatter fest. Instead it was a physiological thriller that was a slow burn but once it got going never let up. I don't exactly recall when I first bought this movie, but I do remember I saw the God awful direct to video sequel "I've been Waiting" first. I remember being very confused on what exactly I was watching since they kept referring to what happened all those years ago to the character of Jim. Finally I got off my ass and I guess bought it as a blind buy at my local video store and popped in the DVD. From that moment onward I was forever changed.
The Hitcher was unlike any horror movie I had seen before. There was little to no dialog, vast wide shots of the desert and highway location, a haunting beautiful soundtrack, and breathtaking performances between C. Thomas Howell and Rutger Hauer. In fact these two had such strange on screen chemistry as an audience member you legit can't keep your eyes on the screen. This cat and mouse plot, makes you feel as helpless as Jim is as he keeps being stalked by "Jim Rider". With a wonderful supporting role by Jennifer Jason Leigh (I sure do hope she gets the Oscar win this month!) everything about this film is settle. I like that they didn't try to force a romance down our throats with Nash and Jim. That the two are simply there to help each other and are actually two scared kids over their heads. I love the hotel scene between them, when Nash asks Jim why he even picked him up to begin with and Jim is completely honest saying he just wanted some company, and thought he would keep him awake. I love the tender moment of the two, gently touching each other's faces before falling asleep in each other's arms. This was a movie that didn't need a forced romance or sex scene to show the bond between these two characters. My heart always breaks whenever John breaks silently into the hotel room, almost like a spirit while Jim is showering and cuddles up to Nash, touching her and enjoying the human contact. It gives me chills every time.
Speaking of Nash, her off screen death is one of the most violent and bone chilling deaths ever to happen in a film. As somebody who loves a great effect scene, what makes me respect the filmmaking of The Hitcher so much more than other films (including the horrible 2007 remake) is the fact they have this death happen off screen. The entire scene is perfectly set up, with Nash helplessly tied between the truck and trailer. How John keeps gunning the engine while the flashing lights of the police surrounding watch able to do anything. I loved this moment between Jim and John. How John asks him to stop him, even giving him the gun and how Jim is unable to, completely terrified saying he can't. The utter look of disgust on John's face is what makes this scene. I love how he shakes his head calling Jim a waste before flooring the truck. Jim hears Nash's screams and screams himself trying to get out of the truck as the scene goes black. You don't need to see anything, but you know exactly what happened. I feel letting the audience to image what happened in much more disturbing than any splatter effect could have done.
Which brings up the whole theory many fans including myself has had for this movie. What makes Rutger Hauer's performance of John Ryder is the fact he's so mysterious. He has no motive or what he's doing. He seems almost like the shark from Jaws. Some unstoppable killing machine. What I've gathered from several clues and scenes this movie gave is whatever John is, he wants to be stopped. Let it be he's a killer, driven spirit, or cause of a supernatural force...he can't just die. He's destined to haunt the back highways killing until somebody, someone worthy can defeat him and kill him. In the beginning scene, which is beautifully shot showing the dark desert highways as Jim pulls over and utters the film's most famous line "My mother told me never to do this!" We show how instantly something is off about John. The way he almost picks his name randomly to Jim, the fact he has a wedding band on, and how once he pulls the knife on Jim and Jim begs to know what he wants, he simply leans in close, smiles and says "I want you to stop me." One of the best shot scenes has to be after Jim screams "I don't want to die!" and tosses him out onto the road. The dolly shot, panning up to John standing as the sun just begins to rise always gets me. The fact this movie didn't win any awards for it's cinematography blows me away.
How John seems to enjoy toying with Jim, often leaving him a weapon or keys to a car. How he's able to appear and vanish without a trace. The famous scene of him placing the coins on Jim's eyes and telling him he wants him to stop him before leaving. How he massacres the police while they are chasing Nash and Jim all the while with a smile on his face. I love how after the huge shootout Nash demands to know why didn't he kill them and Jim doesn't have any answers. How he practically makes Jim point the gun at his forehead telling him to kill him and how disappointed he is when he can't. A scene I could go on for days is the aftermath of Nash's death at the police headquarters. How they explain to Jim his fingerprints don't match anything, has no ID, no name, nothing. I love the chilling moment when Jim is looking at him through the two may mirror and lips his name "John Ryder..." and John turns almost as if he's heard him. The sick and twisted moment when Jim stares at him afterwards, spits on him and John smiles and rubs the spit all over him (One of the many heavy sexual undertones that lingers within this film between the two of them.)
How Jim, now a changed man knows there's only one thing left to do and how he highjacks the police truck to go after John who's being transported via bus. Again how does John get out of his cuffs? How does he kill the police officers? We'll never know. But the epic moment he kicks open the door and roars at Jim like an animal before lunging through the windshield is a showdown for the books. I love the final fight between them and how in the very last few moments of the movie when John had fallen Jim approaches him looking down with a mixture of sadness and regret. He gently pets John's hair with the shotgun he carries and turns before John like any awesome unstoppable villain pops up tossing his chains in his direction and smiling. The look on Jim's face says it all as he swings around shooting John before silently walking over to the truck, leaning against it exhausted and lighting a cigarette. The film's haunting score plays as he stands there all alone.
In my eyes the God awful sequel never happened and here we're left to wonder. Did John get his wish? Was he finally stopped? Has Jim snapped and will take over for him? Or simply, has a young teenager now changed into a man, who has seen evil and destroyed it. Like any beautiful fairytale it leaves you in utter and complete wonder.
Happy 30th The Hitcher. My dream is to meet C. Thomas Howell and gush to him about how much this movie truly meant to me. Written by Eric Red (Near Dark) these two movies are seriously two of the most haunting and beautifully shot films of that decade.
Happy birthday The Hitcher, a classic for the ages.