31 DAYS OF HORROR #5: Russell Bailey on THE HITCHER (1986)

Russell Bailey – host of the Not Just For Kids podcast – pulls over to pick up Robert Harmon’s 80s cult classic…

One rain-drenched night, Jim (C. Thomas Howell) is driving from Chicago to San Diego when he spots a hitchhiker (Rutger Hauer). Picking him up they have a conversation, one that shows our driver that he has made a serious error in giving this person a ride. He manages to shove the new passenger out of the car, but his time with this man has not come to an end: their paths will weave closer and closer together, causing pain and devastation as they travel to their final destination.

Welcome to The Hitcher.

And what a film it is! I am an unwavering fan of this, one of the great horrors of its – and perhaps any – era. A bracingly mean-spirited watch, with much (often beautifully staged) death and destruction, there’s an air of inevitability that hangs over the desert sky, the conclusion seemingly in place from the moment the narrative kicks in.

The Hitcher was not a hit at the time, barely raking back its modest $5.8 million budget. It was critically loathed by some (Roger Ebert hated it, and many of the major US publications gave it little time in their reviews). And yet it’s had a sequel and remake, its reputation only rising across the years.

In its most infamous moment The Hitcher goes too far for some: however, as with many of the greats, we see less then we expect. Often we come to violence after it has taken place, seeing the destructive outcome of the path the hitch-hiker is on. Even in this moment of infamy it is all in the build up, with the film cutting away at the cusp of the act itself (no spoilers from this fan). There’s something here to the choices being made about what the viewer does, and does not, see.

It’s also a remarkably beautiful film, handsomely staged by first-time director Robert Harmon. Many of the shots are genuinely gorgeous, right up until the one that plays over the credits. The use of light and dark here is beautiful, and it’s crying out for a premium Blu-Ray release (101 Films have indicated they have one in the works).

It’s also noteworthy that so many of those working behind the camera would go on to more acclaimed work. Cinematographer John Seale would later be nominated for five Academy Awards, winning for The English Patient (although the beauty he found in capturing the mechanical madness of Mad Max: Fury Road has to surely be up there as a career highlight). Composer Mark Isham has been prolific, working on the likes of Judas and the Black Messiah, The Mist and Quiz Show. And editor Frank J. Urioste stitched together Robocop, Die Hard, Road House, Total Recall and Basic Instinct, all in a five year period after this film. 

And the cast are all doing fascinating work too. This could be Rutger Hauer’s best turn (apologies to Blade Runner fans) with his coldly, charismatic performance. There’s an air of unpredictability to Hauer here and, even in the calm moments, he seems to seethe with an unreleased energy. C. Thomas Howell manages to thread the needle between naivety and 80s sleaze, keeping us just about on Jim’s side (perhaps because what happens to him feels so extraordinary). And Jennifer Jason Leigh does remarkable work for what is a very underwritten part (she is a future Oscar nominee, after all).

If director Harmon never quite matched this piece again, and writer Eric Red’s only other stellar horror is Near Dark – an equally sweaty, desert-set nightmare – they still have this upsetting, strange and oddly profound work. The Hitcher is a proper gem: a dark, unrelenting road trip with a performance from Hauer that lingers long after the finale.

Russell Bailey

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