It was the film no one wanted to make. It became the film no one wanted to see. When The Hitcher came out in 1986, it barely made a dent in the box office and what few critics did see the film, hated it for the unrelenting sadism and brutality that occurred with seemingly no rhyme or reason. The film was quickly relegated to home video hell and doomed to obscurity. And then a curious thing happened. The Hitcher gradually began to take on a second life through word of mouth, spawned by the riveting performance of Rutger Hauer, the actor who played the frightening yet charismatic antagonist. The film, much like its villain, is a nasty piece of work that doesn’t care if you like it or not – it just wants to scare the living hell out of you and I would argue that it does so with a refreshing simplicity. The Hitcher doesn’t beg to be psychoanalyzed – it is something to experience in all of its white-knuckled intensity. The film has gone to inspire films like Jeepers Creepers (2001) and The Forsaken (2001) and spawn a vastly inferior sequel and remake.
Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell) is driving a car for someone else across the country en route to San Diego. We meet him traveling along a deserted stretch of highway out in the middle of barren desolate terrain buffeted by mountains somewhere in Texas. As night gradually becomes very early morning, Jim struggles to stay awake. At one point, he actually drifts off and nearly drives headlong into a truck. It begins to rain heavily and he spots a lone figure on the side of the road. Ignoring the advice his mother once told him, Jim stops for the hitchhiker – a decision he will come to regret.
The man introduces himself as John Ryder (Rutger Hauer) and right from the get-go something doesn’t seem right about him. He doesn’t tell Jim where he’s going and when they pass a car on the side of the road, Ryder grabs Jim’s leg startling him so that they don’t stop. When Jim tells Ryder to get out, he ignores him and instead tells the young man that the car they just passed belonged to a man who also gave him a ride but he didn’t get far. Ryder says with a laugh that makes us and Jim uneasy, “I cut off his legs and his arms and his head, and I’m going to do the same to you.” Ryder says this last bit with an almost bored indifference as if he were reciting a shopping list.
Ryder proceeds to hold Jim at knifepoint and plays excruciating head games with the young man, including forcing him to say the words, “I want to die.” Fortunately, Jim manages to push Ryder out of the car and drive off. He thinks that he’s free and clear, that he’ll never see this creepy psychopath again. However, this isn’t the last time Jim will see Ryder – it’s only the beginning of a nightmarish journey. Ryder proceeds to stalk Jim, making his life a living hell as he torments the young man in all sorts of sadistic ways, like ramming his car with a pickup truck or framing him for several murders that he in fact committed or nasty little things like putting a severed finger in his food at a diner.
Jim is forced to literally fight for his life as he tries desperately to escape this madman. Along the way, he enlists the help of Nash (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a beautiful young waitress at a diner, and the local cops but to no avail. Ryder is like a force of nature that will not be denied and it’s up to Jim to stop him. Most of the film plays out like a cruel game of cat and mouse as Ryder pushes Jim to the brink of madness.
C. Thomas Howell is good as a young man trapped in a terrifying situation. He is able to convey just the right amount of sweaty desperation as his character tries to figure out a way of this state of affairs. With younger-than-he-looks features and that reedy voice, Howell is well-cast as a naive twentysomething who is forced to grow up real fast and do things he would never have dreamed of doing before. Up to that point in his career, Howell was known mostly as a Teen Beat poster boy with sympathetic roles in films like The Outsiders (1983) and director Robert Harmon uses this image to make Howell instantly sympathetic so that we care about what happens to his character. As the film progresses, Jim gradually comes apart at the seams while Ryder gets calmer and calmer – not at all the stereotypical psycho and his victim. Both actors get to play against type which makes them so interesting to watch.
Along with Wulfgar in Nighthawks (1980) and Roy Batty in Blade Runner (1982), John Ryder is one of Hauer’s signature roles. He has such a fascinating screen presence and infuses his character with a casual menace that is something to behold. He exudes an almost Zen-like calmness that is strangely unsettling. He has one of those dangerous smiles that on the surface seems inviting but is actually quite threatening. Hauer plays Ryder as an enigmatic force of nature. We are never told his backstory or find out why he’s doing this to Jim. These things aren’t important because the film exists entirely in the present. Even though Hauer doesn’t have all that much screen time, his presence dominates the film because when he does appear, he is so charismatic that you can’t take your eyes off him. Throughout it all, the actor gives Ryder a genial grin but it’s those eyes of his that tell a different story, one of madness. Unbeknownst to Hauer, during filming, Howell found him “frightening, intimidating, and that he was in a constant state of fear, almost as if he really was Jim Halsey and I really was John Ryder.” It certainly translates on the screen and makes the film better for it.
I always wondered if most of the film is a nightmare that Jim experiences and that his dream state starts when he nods off at the beginning of the film with Ryder as a grinning boogeyman, the 1980s answer to Robert Mitchum’s evil preacher in The Night of the Hunter (1955). Ryder seems to magically appear just when Jim begins to feel a tiny bit safe. Interestingly, Jim also dreams while holed up in a jail cell and when he awakes it feels like he’s still dreaming, that none of what is happening is real. In retrospect, Hauer has said of his character, “To me he doesn’t exist. He’s just a ghost that comes out of the desert.” Another theory that has been put out there is that Jim is schizophrenic and that Ryder is actually a split personality with Jim, in reality, doing all of the killing. This is one of the things that elevates The Hitcher above your typical hack-and-slash horror film from the 1980s – it is open to interpretation because it refuses to provide in easy answers.
Director Robert Harmon certainly knows how to ratchet up the tension when required, like in the scene where Jim wakes up in a seemingly empty police station only to find everyone in it dead. The opening scene between Jim and Ryder also crackles with intensity as the psycho nonchalantly threatens the young man. Eric Red wrote the screenplay and this was the follow-up to the one he wrote for Near Dark (1987). Both films are set in desolate Texas landscapes with protagonists thrust into nightmarish worlds that they must try and escape from. Red has a real knack for exploring extreme behavior that offers glimpses into the darkest parts of our souls. For a film that has such a notorious reputation, people tend to forget that The Hitcher isn’t all that gory. Even its most shocking set piece largely happens off-screen but, much like with the original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), the use of sound and our imagination fills in everything else to horrifying effect.
When he was 20-years-old, New York City-based writer Eric Red made a short film entitled, “Gunman’s Blues” in the hopes of getting the opportunity to direct a feature-length film. When no offers came, he moved from New York to Austin, Texas in 1983, taking a drive-away car cross-country (just like Jim in the film). During the journey, Red had a lot of time to think and became inspired by The Doors song, “Riders on the Storm.” He found that the “elements of the song – a killer on the road in a storm plus the cinematic feel of the music – would make a terrific opening for a film.” According to Hauer, Red had Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards in mind when he wrote the part of John Ryder. Interestingly, the screenwriter also felt that the character should have an electronic voice box. For seven months, he drove a cab and wrote the screenplay for The Hitcher.
After it was completed, Red sent a letter to several Hollywood producers asking if he could send them a copy of his script for The Hitcher. His letter concluded: “It (the story) grabs you by the guts and does not let up and it does not let go. When you read it, you will not sleep for a week. When the movie is made, the country will not sleep for a week.” Script development executive David Bombyk received a copy of Red’s letter and was intrigued by the description of the film. Red sent him a script that ran approximately 190 pages in length (one page traditionally equals one minute of screen time). By all accounts, the original script was not for the faint of heart: an entire family was slaughtered in their station wagon; an eyeball was discovered inside a hamburger; a woman was tied to a truck and a pole and then torn in half; there was a decapitation, as well as several slashings, shootings and car crashes. A big fan of horror films, Red has said that his favorite scene in the script is when the woman is torn apart.
In its original form, Bombyk found the script to be “extremely brutal and extremely gory,” but he and personal manager Kip Ohman (who later became co-producers of the film) also saw in it “a level of challenge, intensity and poetry.” In addition, Ohman described the script as “a suspense Hitchcockian-type thriller.” Bombyk and Ohman were worried about getting it in good enough shape to show their bosses in order to prove to them that it was more than an exploitation film. Bombyk worked with Red via several long distance phone calls to Texas and eventually the writer moved to Los Angeles. Red agreed to work with Ohman on the script until it was ready to be shown to the powers that be. The two men spent six months reworking the script, removing most of what Ohman felt was repetitive violence.
Bombyk brought a revised, toned down version of the script to his boss, producer Eric Feldman and his partner Charles Meeker. Feldman had cut his teeth in the movie biz shepherding a diverse collection of films like Six Pack (1982), Hot Dog... the Movie (1984), Witness (1985), and Explorers (1985). They liked the script but wondered, “how could we manage to translate it to the screen without making a slasher movie?” Meeker said. Feldman and Meeker decided to come on board as executive producers. At this time, Bombyk had also given a copy of the revised script to David Madden, a production executive for 20th Century Fox. Within a few days, Madden called back and told them that the script was “terrific.” However, the studio wasn’t comfortable with the subject matter, but they felt that the writing was unique and interesting enough to give the producers a letter-of-intent to distribute The Hitcher. This would allow them to get financing and then once filming was completed, the studio would reimburse them for the budget.
The producers went looking for an inexpensive director. Still photographer-turned-cameraman Robert Harmon was given a copy of the script by his agent but thought it was just another script – that is, until he listened to a series of messages left by his agent on his answering machine encouraging him to read it. Harmon read the script and early the next morning called his agent and told him that he wanted to do it. In February 1984, the director met with the producers to talk about the project. He recalled, “Even the exact actions that remained in the script were described in much bloodier and gorier detail.” The producers were impressed with Harmon and the fact that he also envisioned the film as a Hitchcockian thriller. However, he objected to the eyeball in the hamburger scene and never planned to show the poor girl getting ripped in half.
Fox ultimately rejected the project over the size of the budget and saw it as a “straight-out horror movie.” Madden also admitted that he would have “argued to soften the movie. There were some people at the studio who thought it was pretty gross.” Feldman and Meeker optioned the film themselves, paying Red $25,000. Major studios like Universal Pictures and Warner Brothers passed on it, as did smaller ones like Orion Pictures and New World Pictures. Reportedly, many executives liked the script but balked at the girl being ripped in half scene. At least two studios were willing to consider making The Hitcher but only if Harmon was replaced. However, to their credit, the producers had faith in the director and stuck by him.
Independent producer Donna Dubrow had heard about The Hitcher while working on another film and to her it sounded like “Duel with a person.” When she went on to work for Silver Screen Partners/Home Box Office, she contacted Feldman, a former employer, and asked for a copy of Red’s script. She submitted it to her boss, HBO senior vice-president Maurice Singer. He liked it and sent it back to New York to be read by Michael Fuchs, HBO chairman and chief operating officer. They needed his approval to get the film made. It would not be easy to convince him because it was not the kind of material that he liked. Sure enough, he passed on the project. However, Dubrow had to go back to New York on other business and met with Fuchs. She mentioned The Hitcher script and pitched the Hitchcockian thriller angle. He listened politely to her and that was that.
When Dubrow returned to L.A., Singer told her that Fuchs agreed to make the film but with the stipulation that the girl would not be torn apart and the violence would be reduced. Over the next few months, the filmmakers negotiated two key scenes in the script with studio executives: the girl getting ripped apart and the eyeball in the hamburger. For the latter scene, Harmon just changed the body part to a finger. As for the former, everyone at HBO/Silver Screen, except Dubrow, wanted it changed. Fuchs did not want the girl to die but Dubrow argued that this would change the story significantly. There were arguments about how she should die and Dubrow remembers, “they were trying to make her death not horrible, when – by the nature of the script – it had to be.” The studio even suggested softening her death by having a funeral. The filmmakers refused to back down and executives finally relented at the last minute.
While these discussions were going on, the producers began the casting process. In early drafts, John Ryder had been described as skeletal in nature and so actors like David Bowie, Sting, Sam Shepard, Harry Dean Stanton, and Terence Stamp were mentioned. Harmon was set on casting Stamp and even carried around his picture to pitch meetings. The actor received a copy of the script but he turned down the role. Sam Elliott was offered the role but an agreement could not be reached on his salary. Singer mentioned Dutch actor Rutger Hauer. While in L.A. for a short visit, he read the script. Even though he was looking for non-villainous roles, the script “really got ahold of me ... I thought, ‘If I do one more villain, I should do this.’ I couldn’t refuse it.” The one reservation he had was with the scene of the girl being ripped apart and Feldman told him, “You are the bad guy and you’ll be the baddest bad guy there ever was!”
For the role of Jim Halsey, the producers mentioned Matthew Modine, Tom Cruise and Emilio Estevez (who, reportedly, was interested). They agreed on C. Thomas Howell and liked his look. At the time, the actor was being more selective with the roles he took and heard that the script was a generic thriller. Harmon personally gave Howell a copy of the script. The actor couldn’t put it down and “couldn’t believe the things that happened to my character in the first 12 pages. I knew I wanted to do it.” Howell also wanted to work with Hauer, fresh from a career-defining performance in Blade Runner. Jennifer Jason Leigh agreed to do the film because she also wanted to work with Hauer again (they co-starred in Flesh + Blood) and loved the character of Nash because “there was a real person there.”
The budget was set at $5.8 million and contractually, Tri-Star was obligated to distribute any film by HBO/Silver Screen. They saw an early screening and Tri-Star president David Matalon said, “It’s the best film that we have for 1986.” The Hitcher opened in 800 theaters and it performed poorly at the box office. To add insult to injury, it was also savaged by critics at the time. Roger Ebert gave the film no stars and wrote, “But on its own terms, this movie is diseased and corrupt.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “It's very clear what sort of spine-tingling suspense Mr. Harmon is after, and just as clear that neither his direction nor Eric Red's screenplay can generate that kind of intensity.” The Chicago Tribune’s Gene Siskel wrote, “This is the kind of movie that may satisfy the mentally deficient, but it is more likely to drive away from moviegoing every unsuspecting adult who stumbles into it hoping for a decent thrill or two.” In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Michael Wilmington wrote, "In the end, the only thing that does scare you about The Hitcher is its emptiness: not the emptiness of a desert road or a fear-soaked night, but a shriveling void in the people who made it." The one lone positive review came from Newsweek magazine’s Jack Kroll who called it “an odyssey of horror and suspense that’s as tightly wound as a garrote and as beautifully designed as a guillotine.”
In attempt at damage control, one of the film’s producers claimed that its commercial failure was because there wasn’t enough violence and that Nash’s death should have been shown: “There’s other gore in the movie, other killings, but this is the main one. It’s the motivation for the hero. You can’t show all the killings we showed and then not the main one. It’s cheating the audience.” He claimed that this hurt word-of-mouth and resulted in its dismal box office results.
In keeping with the current trend of remaking classic horror films that don’t need to be remade (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Friday the 13th), Michael Bay decided to give The Hitcher (2007) a go with music video director Dave Meyers behind the camera and television actress Sophia Bush in the C. Thomas Howell role along with fellow T.V. thespian Zachery Knighton in the Jennifer Jason Leigh role (sort of).
In this version, two college kids – Grace (Sophia Bush) and Jim (Zachery Knighton) – are traveling through New Mexico on the way to Spring Break. Along the way they pick up a mysterious hitchhiker who calls himself John Ryder (Sean Bean) and this remake proceeds to follow the original’s plot quite faithfully. This new version hits a false note right from the opening shot as a cute bunny rabbit is unnecessarily run over by a car in a feeble attempt to quickly establish the film’s badass credibility. Instead, it comes across as a lame attempt that does not bode well for the rest of the film. From there, it quickly trots out the stereotypes, including the slack-jawed yokel cliché complete with lazy eye no less.
Sean Bean is fine as the psychotic killer but he lacks the casual menace of Rutger Hauer who could go from genial to intensely frightening at the drop of a dime. Bean’s take on Ryder is rather generic – he is just another monster that has to be destroyed. With Hauer’s performance, there was a certain twinkle in his eyes, a sly look and shark-like grin as if to suggest that Ryder was actually getting off on all of the carnage he was causing. It’s damn near impossible to improve on an iconic character such as this one and Bean doesn’t quite do it but certainly gets an A for effort. Sophia Bush and Zachery Knighton don’t fare nearly as well as the good-looking young couple but to be honest their characters could be played by anyone. It doesn’t help that they lack any kind of on-screen chemistry. They don’t do anything to make themselves distinctive and certainly don’t hold a candle to their original counterparts, C. Thomas Howell and Jennifer Jason Leigh.
To his credit, first-time feature film director Dave Meyers shoots the hell out of the film. It looks good and almost distracts you from the weak script and generic performances. Sadly, much of the ingenuity he demonstrates in some of his music video work is absent here except for a car chase that is scored to “Closer” by Nine Inch Nails. The same holds true for the scare tactics as Meyers eschews the original’s unrelenting terror for cheap jolts that we’ve seen in countless other, better movies.
This film proves yet again that producer Michael Bay has no understanding of the horror genre, merely offering up a clone of the original film. The Hitcher was a nasty little horror film that had no ambitions other than to scare the crap out of you and succeeded due in large part to Rutger Hauer’s creepy turn as a charismatic and seemingly unstoppable hitchhiker cum killer. The film was an exercise in white knuckle primal fear, charting a young man’s journey on the road trip from hell. What makes The Hitcher so scary is that it takes the plausible set-up of picking up a hitchhiker and then proceeds to take it to all kinds of unexpected places. The film plays on some pretty basic fears only to then heighten them to almost absurd levels as represented by the nearly superhuman Ryder who seems capable of anything. The original film’s stature has improved over the years, helped along by the unnecessary sequel and the instantly forgettable remake. All they do is remind one just how superior the original is – a timeless horror film featuring the ultimate boogeyman.
For more on The Hitcher, check out Sean Gill's fantastic review of the film over at his blog, Junta Juleil's Culture Shock where, last week, he dedicated entirely to Rutger Hauer!