Hitching a ride with a cruelly maligned classic
Hitchhiking has bothered me for as long as I can remember. It conjures images of desolate roads, of deep ditches and dead bodies rotting anonymously on some dusty, open plain. I imagine acid-laced hippies having their wings clipped by dead-eyed loners, monsters preying on the vulnerable before slipping swiftly into the darkness. The world’s missing person statistics ― 100,000 as of 2018 ― always leaves me asking the same question. Why would anyone be stupid enough to hitch a ride, or indeed pick up a random stranger out hiking in the middle of nowhere? Wasn’t this how the ‘Manson Family’ recruited new members? Have those people not heard of the Santa Rosa hitchhiker murders, a series of unsolved homicides involving female travellers that took place in the North Bay area of California between 1972 and 1973? Are these people out of their minds, or have television and films left me irrational with fear?
It’s worth noting that hitchhiking was still very much commonplace in the US until the early 1970s, its popularity going all the way back to the Second World War. Back then cars and gasoline were sparse and soldiers struggled to get around, and the compassion and sense of solidarity that emerged during the war meant people were only too willing to help a fellow citizen. This would lead to a decades-long ‘golden age’ of hitchhiking, from wartime efforts and great depressions to Jack Kerouac and the hippy movement of the 1960s, but it was during the late 60s and early 70s that hitchhiking laws were first passed, local and federal enforcement agencies using scare tactics that urged citizens to steer clear of America’s bunking-up-with-strangers pastime.
One such press release, signed by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, titled ‘Death in Disguise?’, challenged citizens to differentiate between a ‘happy vacationer’ and an ‘escaping criminal’, between a ‘pleasant companion’ and a ‘sex maniac’, and soon enough the evil hitchhiker became an established horror trope. Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System and the fact that more people were becoming car owners were no doubt huge factors in the decline of hitchhiking, but a growing distrust in human decency more than played its part. If the slasher movie punished kids for free love and pot smoking, then the hitchhiker movie crushed all notions of open road freedom and self-discovery.
In reality, there were a multitude of reasons why hitchhiking fell out of favour towards the latter part of the 20th century, but I can reduce my own aversion to one fateful evening sitting in front of the TV. The Hitcher is one of the first movies I ever recall seeing that sent me to bed with food for thought, the kind topped with an unhealthy lashing of severed finger, and for those of you who have seen this film, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.
I couldn’t remember too much about The Hitcher until a recent re-watch. I had caught glimpses in passing, had felt an echo of that childhood fear, but when I finally sat down and confronted this long-buried cinematic demon the whole ordeal immediately came flooding back. The scene that really opened the floodgates may not be the most notorious, but it sums up the movie’s almost ceaseless sense of futility. When stunned protagonist Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell), recently arrested and locked up in a local cop shop in the West Texas desert, awakens to a peculiar stretch of silence and walks free of a suddenly open jail cell, he wanders through the static, corpse-ridden corridors as the stifling hue of death creeps upon him. Jim is startled, tentative, fearing the worst — an exact reflection of my young self.
John Ryder: You wanna know what happens to an eyeball when it gets punctured? Do you got any idea how much blood jets out of a guy’s neck when his throat’s been slit?
Come to think of it, there’s hardly a moment in The Hitcher when you’re not fearing the worst. This is bare bones filmmaking delivered at a breathless pace, thrusting us headlong into an excruciatingly tense scenario that never lets up. Even the film’s moments of respite are precursors to some ceaselessly agitating atrocity. There are fleeting moments when it all seems so peaceful, miles away from the chaos of the modern world. The rest of the time it is desperate, frantic, baying for blood like a pack of neo-western vampires descending on a plum red horizon (the script was actually penned by Near Dark screenwriter Eric Red, so you can probably imagine the kind of desolate destruction served up here).
Antagonist John Ryder (Rutger Hauer) is the personification of this, lurching from quietly calculated to all-out savagery, mutilating random victims and strolling in search of his next like an utterly contented soul with patience in abundance. He’s emotionless, without explanation, exuding a casual malevolence that borders on the humorous before the blunt confirmation that no humour resides there beyond sadistic pleasure — it’s all inevitable to him. As proven by his spellbinding portrayal of white-haired replicant Roy Batty in Ridley Scott’s sci-fi masterpiece Blade Runner, Hauer is a master at riding that tenuous line between alarmingly placid and all-out cruelty, and in The Hitcher he indulges like never before.
The Hitcher doesn’t fuck around. It is absolutely compelling from the offset, and much of that hinges on Hauer’s spellbinding performance, a queer blend of controlled nuance and overripe theatricality. Most horror movies build to a bloodthirsty crescendo. Not The Hitcher. The first ten minutes are excruciatingly claustrophobic. When the naive and fresh-faced Halsey stops to pick up the thumb-yielding vagrant strolling the desert like a whistling wanderer, he has no inkling of the horrors that motivate his outward serenity. The kid gets busy with the small talk, but Ryder is less a closed book, more a Rubick’s cube smudged with bloodied thumbprints. When Halsey attempts to engage his passenger, he merely stares, his urgent glare flashing in and out of the darkness like a barely glimpsed apparition. He’s a living, breathing nightmare.
Ryder doesn’t attempt to lull Halsey into a false sense of security. He lays it on thick and fast, is under no illusions as to why he’s there and what he intends to do. He doesn’t want to keep his intentions a secret, the fun is in the foreplay, and he’s a shameless exhibitionist. When Halsey enquires about Ryder’s destination, he is ostentatiously vague. When he asks about another car abandoned on the side of the highway, his enigmatic passenger glibly describes how he cuts the legs, arms and head off the last poor sucker who picked him up, and how he plans to do the same to him. Luckily, Halsey is able to distract Ryder enough to throw him out of the car onto the side of the road, and the release is palpable.
You best savour it too, because it doesn’t last long. Ryder is as relentless and cold-blooded as a flesh Terminator. He absolutely will not stop. Ever. Until EVERYONE is dead. Before we’re past the fifteen minute mark he’s already slaughtered an innocent family, popping up in the back window of their station wagon and sadistically waving at Halsey from behind a little girl’s teddy bear. You don’t see the bloody aftermath, but when our protagonist flees the crime scene and immediately begins throwing up all over the place, images of mutilated children stifle your imagination; you can almost taste the iron.
During their first meeting, Ryder holds a knife to Halsey’s throat and dares him to stop him, and when he has the temerity to temporarily halt his overly confident aggressor, he makes the leap from mere victim to prime target. But Halsey has graduated to something much worse than death. Instead, Ryder embarks on a cruel and sadistic game of cat-and-mouse. Just when you think the game is up, our nihilistic killer pops up to spoil the party all over again, exhibiting an almost supernatural ability to be everywhere at once. When Halsey is apprehended by sheriff cowboys looking to make an example of the city boy who heads their suspect list, Ryder is there to simultaneously free him and dig him an even bigger hole. And the bodies pile up. The hole gets deeper.
Ryder’s particular brand of torture is not just physical, but psychological. Instead of offing our protagonist he tracks him for the remainder of his journey, simultaneously framing him for the brutal murders of anyone he happens to come into contact with. It’s as if he’s tired of murder and mutilation as a main event, bestowing upon his prey the role of Death incarnate. Every life Halsey touches is doomed as a consequence, but when he meets a trusting, out-in-the-sticks waitress named Nash (Jennifer Jason Leigh), you smell the pretty scent of redemption in the air. Suckers!
The introduction of a love interest promises hope, but in reality it’s the set-up for the film’s most devastating moment. Like much of The Hitcher, you don’t get to see the act being committed. Hauer gives such a convincingly deranged and sadistic performance that our imagination does all the work. Nash is a simple, trusting girl with a pleasant nature, the last person in the world who deserves to be dragged into this, and in Ryder’s mind that makes her the perfect target. For him, it’s all part of the fun.
Jim Halsey: Why are you doing this to me?
John Ryder: You’re a smart kid… figure it out.
The infamous truck scene is still excruciating to behold. Again, you don’t witness the actual tearing in half; it’s all in the anticipation: the beastly revving of the cargo truck, the sickly squeak of rope creaking like limbs on the verge of separation, and then there’s the gut-wrenching screams of a girl who has shown nothing but faith and affection, who harbours an underlying sadness in a male-dominated environment that has left her feeling isolated. And it’s all so futile. You’re almost certain that Ryder will go through with it. From the filmmaker’s perspective it’s an exercise in sadism. Ryder even forces Halsey to press a gun against his head, knowing that if he pulls the trigger, Nash will be torn in half. He may as well have done it.
In committing this act Ryder reveals himself absolutely, surrendering to the cops as blithely as he has evaded them. He’s already wiped out an entire precinct, their suspicions of Halsey’s innocence dying with them, but with every subsequent set-up Halsey’s innocence becomes less likely, and when he hijacks two patrolmen with the aim of clearing his name, Ryder pulls up beside them and turns their car into a spurting artery. By that point, Halsey doesn’t have a friend in the world.
Hauer brings such a sly humour to proceedings, the raised eyebrows and an almost orgasmic sense of sadistic elation. There’s a desperately creepy moment when Ryder crawls into bed with a resting Nash, spooning her affectionately while Halsey showers. It’s like he’s walking in Halsey’s shoes, feeling what his victim feels before stealing it all away from him as if it’s the only way he can fully appreciate it. When Halsey is at his lowest ebb, Ryder appears in the restaurant booth where the kid, drowning in the blood, sweat and tears of an earth-shattering ordeal, is trying to pull himself together. Ryder slides in, arriving like an Apache plume on the desert winds. Like a macabre game of peek-a-boo, Halsey removes his hands from his face to see Ryder sitting there wearing a vague smile. He isn’t there to kill him, only to soak up his despair, sending him on his way like a kid given a head-start in a game of tag or hide and go seek. His threats are intimate. He thrives on each desperate development, anticipating every emotion and indulging in it before his victim has even had the chance to experience it himself. By the end of the ordeal, he’s so under Halsey’s skin he’s practically wearing it.
The Hitcher was slammed by critics across the board. Particularly damning was renown critic and horror detractor Roger Ebert. It’s slightly unfair to generalise Ebert as a horror detractor, and future Nowhere to Run director Robert Harmon delivers smash-mouth action in equal doses, but it’s fair to say that Ebert had an aversion to violence when delivered in a context that offended his sensibilities, and the tale of a hitchhiker hellbent on a rampage of nondiscriminatory murder certainly fell under that category. His main issue was with Ryder’s lack of motive or backstory, not to mention his almost ceaseless acts of cruelty. But for me it works for all those reasons. Like Michael Myers before him, Ryder is almost supernatural in his abilities to go undetected. He is omnipotent, shrouded in mystique, beyond all semblance of mortal comprehension. When he appears like a highway ghost, shooting a chopper out of the sky with a revolver and taking a couple of cop cars out in the process, you’d be forgiven for thinking he was the devil incarnate.
The Hitcher isn’t all doom and gloom. It may be tough going for the more squeamish, and any film that kills its love interest with such exhibitionism isn’t trying to win an award for congeniality, but there’s no knocking the movie’s breakneck action sequences and hyper-tense stand-offs. It’s also beautifully framed at times. Future Mad Max: Fury Road cinematographer John Seale captures the West Texas desert in all of its desolate glory, particularly an end credits parting shot of Halsey, all blank silhouette and orange pastel, which allows both the character and the audience to breath out and finally reflect on what they have consumed. Like an epic music composition that drags us screaming through harsh improvisations, turning up the heat to the point of discomfort before cradling us with a melodic digression, it’s all about the pay-off. The near-silence is beautiful.
Captain Esteridge: You’re gonna get yourself killed. And if you don’t, you’re gonna be in a whole lotta trouble.
Jim Halsey: I’m sorry, sir. It’s something I gotta do.
Captain Esteridge: No, you don’t know what you’re doin’.
Jim Halsey: Yeah, I do.
A refusal to bow to convention almost certainly hurt The Hitcher from a critical perspective. Horror, however relentless and without moral justification, is more palatable if the hero maintains his integrity, and when the boy gets the girl all is usually forgiven. The Hitcher has none of that. Halsey achieves some semblance of redemption, but the bodies left in his wake are to some degree on him, and by the movie’s finale he is forced to take a leaf out of his pursuer’s book in order to put him down for good. The fact that Halsey holds a cop at gunpoint and goes after Ryder after he has already been detained would probably mean life in prison at the very least, but by this point we don’t reject it as mere contrivance for one final showdown. We know Ryder will just keep coming back, no matter how highly the odds are stacked against him. This is a man with absolutely nothing to lose and every means of escape.
Through their relentless back-and-forth, the two opponents form a strange bond, one of almost co-dependency. In some ways their connection reminds me of that between Batman and nemesis Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. On some warped level, they thrive on each other, and when the dust clears and the wreckage is but a plume of fading smoke, C. Thomas Howell’s once-gangling sweetheart is carved from granite. After the film’s brutal showdown, you wonder what’s in store for Halsey next. If he manages to evade prison, it’s hard to imagine him returning to the sheltered realms of suburban California. Is it too much of a stretch to imagine him taking to the highway himself, a newfound drifter with an equally shrouded backstory? At the beginning, he’s all big city affability and wide-eyed gaiety, but by the end he’s a cautious sceptic, unsure of the law’s ability to get the job done, with a new grasp on the wretchedness of life in the psychotic wilderness. In many ways, Ryder has forged a coldblooded warrior in his own image.
Much like Jack Sholder’s hugely controversial Freddy’s Revenge, The Hitcher has been described as harbouring gay subtext, the young and pretty Halsey becoming the object of Ryder’s taboo sexual desires. It certainly makes sense. It’s uncommon and somewhat refreshing to have a male protagonist in a what is essentially a slasher movie. When Halsey first picks up Ryder, he tells him, “my mother told me not to do this.” When the two pull up to some roadworks early in the movie, Ryder does enough to convince the intrusive workman that they are lovers, a ruse to avoid detection that could be taken both ways. The fact that Ryder’s next victims are a wholesome American family could also be perceived as a direct message to Halsey to pursue a different future than the one expected of him.
Then you have Jennifer Jason Leigh’s strong-willed Nash, a woman who has struggled to find a man in a patriarchal society who becomes the main obstacle standing between Ryder and Halsey, and there is no sexual romance between them; most of the time Nash seems somewhat lost, almost like a spare part in the equation. Later, Halsey asks, “Why are you doing this?” to which Ryder replies, “You’re a smart kid… figure it out.” This homosexual undercurrent certainly explains a lot about the movie, and would also provide Ryder with the motivations Ebert claimed were lacking.
As a kid, I had no real awareness of homosexuality, and certainly no understanding of subtext, so the movie worked on a much more literal level. For me, The Hitcher is not the sick piece of trash many had it pegged for. The movie may have been deemed excessively violent at a time when censorship hysteria was still very much up society’s nostrils, but it’s actually rather restrained in terms of graphic violence, reserving the truly horrific acts for our imaginations. Above all else, The Hitcher is a tightly-plotted, fear-inducing thrill ride driven by an incredible lead performance, one so indulgent you can’t help but smile in spite of yourself. A lack of conventional insight into our killer’s psyche and a failure to adhere to audience expectation may have proved damning for those who simply had no time for the movie, but as with Steven Spielberg’s nerve-jangling debut thriller Duel, sometimes the less we know about a pursuing menace the better.