80s Horror Classics- The Hitcher (1986 Robert Harmon version)
Fair Value of The Hitcher (1986)- $30.00. It’s sinuously twisty, eerie tableaux of the Gothic west, comparable to and equal to Near Dark and Blood Simple.
TL, DR: Hitchhiker relentlessly torments young man driving through West Texas.
Release Date and Context of Release: This film came out in the years after the apprehension of Henry Lee Lucas, Richard Ramirez, and Ted Bundy. Bundy in particular used a modus operandi of killing hitchhikers. February 1986 was also the height of the Satanic Ritual Abuse hysteria, a time when the emphasis in education was to fear and avoid strangers. It was in this era of Baby Boomer panic that The Hitcher was made.
Tagline: Never pick up a stranger.
Onscreen Death Count: The violence of this film is beautifully alluded to- drops of blood falling on a sneaker, and more is extracted from the reactions of the talented cast than from the on-screen gore. Twenty-one on-screen deaths.
T&A: None, but there is certainly a good amount of homo-eroticism in this film. At one point, the killer escapes with his hostage through a road-block by holding a knife to Jim’s (C. Thomas Howell) crotch- the construction foreman thinks it’s a grope, and let’s them on their way with a look of contempt. Ryder’s main aim is to manipulate Jim into a situation where he must murder- the banter between killer and victim almost has the ambience of awkward desire.
The Antagonist: Rutger Hauer is a revelation as John Ryder. It’s a character of inexplicable misanthropy, satanically regal. The pure malice of this thrill-seeking psychopath reminded me mostly of Christopher Walken’s performance as Gabriel in The Prophecy, and also of Javier Bordem’s Anton Chigurh. Ryder is more of an old testament demon than a man.
How Terrible is it all, really? Have you ever driven on the highway for a really long time? I-5 from Vancouver to San Diego, Chicago to Phoenix, that sort of odyssey. Then you know that strange reverie of the road, the trance where you’ve been driving for hours and the world takes on the character of a waking dream. This film is a continuous string of all the potential nightmares of a road trip- exploding gas stations, psychotics driving semi trucks like battering rams, dehydration in the desert. The film is amazingly tense and full of surprising scenes. .
Moralizing/Schadenfreude/Strafelust: If anything, The Hitcher reminds me of the Book of Job. An innocent man performs a small act of kindness and is destroyed for it. His every attempt to do the lawful thing, to make the moral choice, just leads to further death and destruction. It’s a merciless film, nihilistic in the chaos of the killing.
Best One Liner: When asked why he’s doing all of this, Ryder simply replies to Jim “You’re a smart kid- you’ll figure it out.”. That’s all the explanation that we ever really get as to Ryder’s motivation or background.
Shrill Political Message: The Hitcher can be read as part of the conservative attitudes of the Reagan 80s- it posits a world inhabited by motiveless murderers. At the same time, the police prove as much of a threat as John Ryder. It’s telling that one of the killer’s main weapons is to frame others for his crimes, and tip off the police, who are far too trigger happy in this film.
Best Novelty Death: Drawn and quartered between a trailer rig and a semi. It’s not shown, but you hear the sounds, and it’s effective enough.
Lessons on How Not to Die:
- Don’t pick up hitchhikers
- Do not expect Texas police to be anything less than homicidal
- Always buckle your seat belt, in case a maniac in a truck is coming after you.