1986 in Film — The Hitcher

Release Date: February 21st
Box Office: $5,844,868

Rutger Hauer was looking for non villainous roles, then he saw the script for The Hitcher (1986) where he would play a psychotic serial killer. He jumped at it.

Good work, Rutger.

He had, of course, made his name as a villainous character but his career went back to TV roles in Holland. His role as Roy Batty in Bladerunner (1982)made him iconic (eventually) which of course to a modicum of typecasting. Not one for choosing the easy path, Hauer would pick and choose his scripts before ending up in this film.

Opposite him as the hero of the film is C Thomas Howell, one of those actors who wasn’t in the Brat Pack but wasn’t a million miles away from it either. His lead role in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders (1982) put him along side people like Matt Dillon, Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, even Tom Cruise. A certified teen idol, who was nearly picked for the lead role in Back to The Future (1985), this film would mark something of a departure for him.

The story has Howell as Jim Halsey who is delivering a car to San Diego and is crossing the deserts of West Texas. In a rainstorm he sees a man, Hauer, who is the eponymous Hitcher who calls himself John Ryder. Very quickly Ryder shows himself to be a Very Naughty Man which forces Halsey to push him from his car. Thinking he has escaped danger he drives on, however things very quickly go downhill.

The Hitcher had a reputation even at script stage being that it had an eye ball in a hamburger and a woman being pulled in half between two trucks and bodies piling up all over the place. The film itself doesn’t necessarily drown itself in gore, indeed that woman being torn in two is done entirely off camera. The whole tone of the film is brutal and nasty, nearly everyone Jim comes across after picking up Ryder meets a sticky end. The premise is very Hitchcockian, that of the innocent man being swept up in circumstances beyond his control, but this never really pays off as the film becomes more about Halsey and Ryder.

Most of the reviews at the time, if they weren’t giving it a kicking for its violence, picked up on this. Ryder becomes obsessed with Halsey as he relentlessly follows him. One of the first things he says to him is “stop me”, as if he knows he should be killed. The homosexual subtext between the two is clear, even if the film doesn’t quite follow through with that idea preferring to have them as rivals. The murder of Halsey’s potential romantic interest, Nash played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, between the two trucks could almost been seen as Ryder getting rid of a love rival. Hauer himself refers to Ryder as a force of evil, which isn’t hard to argue with. He is seemingly omniscient, able to track Halsey across the desert and act at just the right or indeed worst time.

After a kicking from the critics and a tepid box office response, it was left to the VHS rental market to save The Hitcher which ended up becoming a cult classic. This can probably be put down to Haur’s performance; the man is never less than great and fills Ryder with a presence that saves the film. Howell can’t compete with this and sticks to wide eye naivety for the majority of the film.

Nobody from the film would really go on to greater things. The director, Robert Harmon, wouldn’t exactly go on to greater success. Probably the best thing after this would be Nowhere to Run (1993), a C-level JCVD film. The writer, Eric Red, who had worked on The Hitcher for years would reach a much higher level with Near Dark (1987) before fading away shortly after. Hauer would move onto more character work and Guiness commercials. Howell combo-ed this film with an attempt to bring back black face with Soul Man (1986), which had the expected affect on his career.

Whilst The Hitcher isn’t quite the masterpiece that some would have you believe, Hauer makes it worth watching which is way more than you could say for the remake. Somehow I don’t think that one will show up in 2007 In Film.