The Hitcher is the bastard son of Sergio Leone and John Carpenter, abandoned in a ditch to be discovered and raised by the B-movie circus. It’s a rare combination of the trashy and the sophisticated, walking a fine line between beautiful and disgusting. It’s too sick, too twisted to be classy, yet too gorgeously shot and well acted to be tossed in the bargain bin. That may sound like I’m describing a film with an identity crisis, but the real joy of The Hitcher is how well all of its various intentions gel together.
The set-up is pure horror pulp: a young man traveling across the country picks up a hitchhiker in the middle of rural Texas, realizes too late that he’s a murderous psychopath and spends the duration of the movie playing cat and mouse with the man as he transforms his life into something resembling Hell.
The film’s titular villain, John Ryder (Rutger Hauer), is a unique entry in the canon of horror slashers. His seeming lack of clear motivation for the destruction he leaves in his wake and his unstoppable omnipresence suggest that he’s a Jason Voorhees/Michael Myers type, but unlike those masked killers, Ryder wears no mask, holds lengthy conversations and kills quickly and efficiently, unaware that he has an audience. There’s definitely something supernatural about Ryder — he shows up when he needs to, vanishes into thin air and can single-handedly take on a dozen armed men and emerge unscathed — but there’s a peculiar humanity to him that makes his character all the more unnerving. He’s certainly enjoying his killing spree, but there’s a weariness to him, the kind of malaise you see in military lifers who just want to leave the battlefield behind. He’s been doing this for a long, long time. Is it going too far to suggest that Ryder is an evil soul condemned by Heaven or empowered by Hell that has been forced to wander the American southwest taking lives until someone finally stops him?
It goes without saying that Hauer kills in this role. The man has a habit of feeling like a psychopath when he’s playing a hero, so if you give him a villain you get the chance to watch him own the screen. There’s something twisted — nah, there’s something broken about Hauer. He’s missing a vital component of what makes a human being. This has served him well as a robot in Blade Runner and a violent, on-the-edge homeless man in Hobo With a Shotgun, but it has never worked more in his favor than in The Hitcher, where he’s not so much a human being as he is a personality wrapped in indestructible flesh and a trenchcoat, powered by the suffering of others. It’s a terrifying, ice cold performance that feels like it needed to happen in order to get some of our more recent iconic movie villains. And not just the horror genre: Heath Ledger’s Joker comes to mind.
The film offers us no backstory for Ryder, so all of this is purely conjecture. However, his relationship with our hero, Jim (C. Thomas Howell), is a fascinating one. Most of the people Ryder encounters, whether they be man, woman or child, end up dead very soon. But Jim escapes. Jim outsmarts Ryder. And you know what? Ryder seems to like that. The evil hitchhiker vanishes for large chunks of the film (this iconic character maybe has 30 minutes of screen time, tops), but his presence is felt in every scene, as he murders and manipulates to frame Jim and place him in situations that test his will to live and his strength to fight back. Some may find Howell’s work here slightly over the top, but it’s a raw performance, filled with rage and pain. What Ryder puts him through pushes him to an emotional anguish that has him first consider suicide before transforming into a lethal warrior capable of standing toe-to-toe with Ryder.
And that’s probably the point. What’s Ryder getting out of tormenting this poor kid? He’s corrupting his innocence, transforming a generally good guy into, well, him. Ryder never changes — he’s the same malevolent force at the start of the film that he is at the end — but he offers Jim the most painful and degrading path to manhood imaginable.
Director Robert Harmon takes advantage of the desolate Texas scenery (actually California, but whatever) and shoots the film like a spaghetti western. The film is filled with stunning wide shots, isolating characters in a large frame making them look small and helpless. He avoids any kind of civilization, so when characters find a diner or a gas station, it’s alone in the middle of the desert. This is no-man’s land. Only the tough survive out here. Much like a Leone western, reality only exists in the frame, letting characters sneak up on one another in ways that don’t make logical sense. Chaos reigns out there. This chaos gave birth to John Ryder, after all.
I’m afraid that all of that made The Hitcher sound like pretentious work. It’s not. The Hitcher is a snappy, violent-as-fuck action horror film filled with great kills, tons of the red stuff and a stunning car chase that climaxes with a practical effect so stunning that it makes all of the CGI in the Transformers films fall away in the breeze like flecks of dried paint. This is one helluva fun movie. It’s also damn smart and a great treat for real film fans. The two aren’t mutually exclusive after all.
Remember when I wrote that some people thought Howell’s work was a bit broad? By “some people”, I mean a handful of audience members who didn’t appreciate how rare a 35mm screening of The Hitcher is and giggled throughout. Overall, it was a solid, receptive audience, even though a few choice patrons deserved to be suspended between a truck and trailer.