REVIEW: The Hitcher (1986) – ManlyMovie

REVIEW: The Hitcher (1986)

hi2With the recent announcement of True Lies and The Abyss finally scheduled for a remastered Blu-Ray home video release, I cannot help but think of other movies that deserve similar treatment, such as Breakdown, On Deadly Ground, The Beast of War, and Nevada Smith. Near the top of the list, is the road thriller The Hitcher, which turned 30 years old this February. Directed by Robert Harmon from a script by Eric Red, the film centers around young Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell) who is transporting a car from Chicago to San Diego and decides to pick up a hitchhiking stranger named John Ryder (Rutger Hauer) in the middle of the West Texas desert, a decision the naïve young man soon regrets after the stranger reveals himself as a deranged serial killer and flat-out terrorizes him. After Halsey kicks him out of the moving car, Ryder decides to make the young man’s life a living hell by taunting his latest prey psychologically in a game of cat-and-mouse, taking innocent bystanders such as the pretty Nash (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and attracting the concern of police Captain Esteridge (Jeffrey DeMunn).

The entire film hinges on Ryder’s sadism towards Halsey, with him relishing in delight whenever Halsey stumbles upon one of his traps. It is here that Rutger Hauer succeeds brilliantly where most actors imagined in that role fail. He portrays Ryder as a sinister, brooding bat out of hell, a monstrous demon that takes pleasure in killing people and has a shit-eating grin whenever he sees fear in Halsey’s eyes. He taunts the young man into stopping his acts of terror as a personal challenge towards good to stop evil, even if he has to take down the entire New Mexico police force with him to do so. Hauer is such a cool bastard in this one, probably a career-best for him in my opinion, and that’s already considering his performances in Blade Runner and Wanted: Dead or Alive. C. Thomas Howell himself has admitted that, during filming, he was actually afraid of Hauer on and off the set due to the actor’s general intensity.

Howell, fresh off supporting turns in E.T. and Red Dawn, does a good job of portraying a wet-behind-the-ears kid who is given a hell of a man-up lesson throughout the film to stop this maniac. A scene near the end involving the two main characters in the front of a truck perfectly shows how polar opposite characters and acting styles can complement each other and contribute to a great, albeit horrifying scene, immortalized with the phrase “You useless waste.”

As far as the violence and action sequences go, they are loud, quite bloody and very nicely filmed, with chase sequences and real stunts that resemble a surreal and overblown suburban road nightmare without going full Mad Max. Director Harmon, making his debut feature here, does a very good job at keeping the suspense in Red’s script intact while never losing the intensity of the action sequences throughout. Special credit goes to composer Mark Isham (The Beast of War, Point Break, The Mechanic) for adding moodiness to the film, editor Frank J. Urioste (Die Hard, RoboCop) for keeping the pace tight, and director of photography John Seale (Mad Max: Fury Road) for making sure those desert scenes are nice, wide and not-too-dusty, almost western-like at times.

The film merely broke even during its theatrical run and was criticized for its nihilistic take on good vs. evil (Roger Ebert infamously gave this film a zero out of four stars), but it has spawned a notable cult following throughout the years, becoming a favourite of director Christopher Nolan, whom I now suspect of ripping off Ryder’s “dog-without-a-leash” motivation and putting it into his Joker interpretation in The Dark Knight. A 2003 direct-to-video sequel and a remake in 2007 all but failed to capture the grounded essence of this original. Harmon’s own career never really took off following this film, with the Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Nowhere to Run being his only other notable film outside of HBO made-for-TV films, though he did return to the road thriller genre in 2004 with the solid though not-so-spectacular, and often overlooked Highwaymen starring Jim Caviezel and Rhona Mitra. It’s a shame, he would’ve excelled in the genre.

Watching it again, I was surprised at how really well this film has held up over the past decades or so, as it still packs a lean-and-mean gut-punch that left me speechless, especially its finale which blew me away for its frank and unbridled depiction of righteous, stone-cold masculinity, raising the film’s status to that of classic. If there ever was a film which needed the remastered Blu-Ray treatment as soon as possible, it’s this one.

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  • Andymovieman

    The hitcher was a good movie but scary. Rutger Hauer was the best part of the movie as well as blade runner, ladyhawke, blind fury, flesh and blood, nighthawks, batman begins and sin city. 30 years ago, Rutger Hauer was the man and legend back in the day. When it came to heroes and villains, he was the one they called. He would have been great to play Robocop even though he was considered along with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Michael Ironside. It’s ironic that he and Kurt Russell’s careers nearly crossed paths when they were considered to star opposite each other in ladyhawke and highlander. But Kurt Russell backed out of both films due to his relationship with Goldie Hawn and Hauer got Russell’s role in ladyhawke and turned down the kurgan role in highlander. And also they were considered to play Martin Riggs in lethal weapon which went to Mel Gibson.

  • Nice, man. I think I’ll blind buy this

  • jim

    The magnificent Rutger Hauer…..accept no substitute

  • Barney Ross

    10/10 masterpiece!!

  • Barney Ross
  • Barney Ross
  • Barney Ross
  • Barney Ross

    At least the remake was not PG13 shit, compared to the original its nothing special but its still not bad actually!

  • Mucho Macho

    This movie is a masterpiece of the genre. My sadistic mama as a kid showed it to me & told me ” Here boy..this is why you never pick up, talk to or get in the car with strangers”

    Rutger Hauer here plays one of the greatest villains in genre history IMO.
    I am surprised producers decided to kill him off in the film and didn’t let him live like so many movies in the eighties when horror franchises were all the rage. If you think about it the character of Ryder had potential to return in a series of films but the fact I think that we only got it once made it more special.

    C.Thomas Howell genuinely like he has a fear of God in his eyes when he interacts with Rutger Hauer. Terrific movie, a classic, not only a great 80s manly movie but a great all-time manly movie.

  • Mucho Macho

    Eric Red is a gifted writer & director in the genre.
    He has written & directed some cool stuff over the years.
    1 movie he wrote & directed that I liked from back in the day was a movie titled ” Body Parts”
    little info on the movie. The movie was pulled back in some markets in some theaters because of the Jeffrey Dahmer case who was the serial killer who ate parts of his victim’s bodies. The case was hitting the news around the time this movie was released.. Thank God I was nowhere near that shit cause I went to the cinema to watch this great Jeff Fahey movie.–dQ

    • I remember the trailer for this on TV!

      • Mucho Macho

        It was cool horror movie I remember.
        The Jeffrey Dahmer case was making headlines because of its savagery and how bad it was. So as it happens some cinema chains didnt want a movie titled “Body Parts” when a cannibal serial killer was in the news.
        So the movie was either pulled or dumped on some markets with little further advertisement.
        Btw.. this was during a time when movies like this still got theatrical releases all the time.
        I liked the movie. It was a fun B horror flick., wtf is up with your

        • Offensive line is still crap. Offense as a whole is outta sink. Justin Houston being out for most of this year, if not all, is another huge deal. No pass rush really because of it. Hopefully they’ll find their groove soon. They usually do

          • Mucho Macho

            I thought they’ll be better starting out thats all.
            I thought Royals could make it to the playoffs as well.
            Fuckin Mets are out. So I hope the frikkin Cubs get 1.
            can you imagine the Cavs and the Cubs winning titles in the same year

          • Injuries just took the Royals out. They’ll be back next year. It would definitely be a special year if the Cubs were to win it all

          • Mucho Macho

            They got the best team for sure.
            Hope they dont choke nor the curse gets them again😧

    • jim

      He also did Cohen & Tate which I liked

      • Mucho Macho

        Yes..A good movie as well..good choice👌

        • jim

          By way of digression…My Windows gets stuck checking for updates…so no new updates for months now…a lot of people out there with this problem but none of the proposed myriad of fixes work for me…microsoft are cunts..they should be assfucked to death..just wanted to share this thought..

          • Mucho Macho

            Let’ Em have it

    • AlTeo

      That was one amazingly freaky film… also one that needs a Blu-Ray release, maybe from Shout! Factory who seems to be doing a good job re-releasing cult horror and action films on Blu-Ray.

      • Mucho Macho

        I know it’s on DVD . At least there is that.
        I miss going to theaters, paying $4 bucks & going to watch shit like that on the big screen. Cool movie
        Jeff Fahey did some cool shit back in the day

  • Jacob Phillips

    I’ve heard of this but I didn’t realise it was that old- I need to watch it.

  • AlTeo

    Mentioned this in the review but I think this similar film from the same director Robert Harmon is enjoyable.

    Muscle cars, a nutjob terrorizing Rhona Mitra, and Jim Caviezel behind the wheel, pretty overlooked film.