Solitary road trips can be daunting even for the most seasoned drivers. At night, as the highway empties and civilization fades into the distance, just staying awake can be a challenge. Yet what would happen if you did fall asleep at the wheel? Death would be the obvious answer but what if, instead of dying, you woke up in an endless nightmare? Something to consider when revisiting the classic on-the-road thriller The Hitcher, a film about a man who picks up the most sinister passenger.
The route taken to make The Hitcher was more curved than straight. On February 21, 1986, The Hitcher premiered in 800 theaters after a grueling three year journey. According to Deborah Caulfield’s extensive 1986 write-up in the Los Angeles Times, then-novice writer Eric Red penned the story while working as a taxi driver in Austin, Texas. His inspiration included The Doors’ song Riders on the Storm, which itself was inspired by Billy Cook, a hitchhiker who murdered six people on his way to California between 1950 and 1951. After soliciting his work to various Hollywood people, Red finally received a response from the late David Bombyk (Witness, Explorers) who was intrigued by the cover letter Red attached to the script. In the letter, Red wrote: “[This 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.”
“There’s hardly ever a moment in The Hitcher where you can catch your breath.”
With the first draft being 190 pages, Bombyk had to whittle Red’s script down to something more practical. This incidentally removed a lot of excessively graphic violence, and an explicit sex scene that never came to be. Bombyk and his colleagues’ ultimate goal was to make The Hitcher different from its contemporaries. With the script was in good order, production was ready to begin. Potential actors for the menacing antagonist John Ryder included David Bowie (Labyrinth), Sting (Dune), Harry Dean Stanton (Alien), and Sam Elliott (The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then The Bigfoot). The script found its way to Rutger Hauer (Blade Runner), who was hesitant since he wanted more non-villainous roles. He liked what he read, but he was not a fan of one particular death in the movie. Nonetheless, Hauer accepted the part. C. Thomas Howell (E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial) and Jennifer Jason Leigh (Eyes of a Stranger) were later respectively cast as Jim Halsey and Nash.
Unfortunately for the team behind The Hitcher, 20th Century Fox passed on the project, after production went over-budget. They also found the script to be “pretty gross” Other studios—Universal Pictures, Warner Bros, Orion Pictures, and New World Pictures—all passed on the film as well but Silver Screen Partners and HBO Pictures stepped in at the eleventh hour. The movie was finally completed, and by contractual obligations, TriStar Pictures distributed the film. In its opening weekend, The Hitcher earned $2.1 million against a $5.8 million budget but would eventually go on to make $5.8 million domestically. The return wasn’t great, and critics were generally unkind. One of the producers, Paul Lewis, thought the censorship cheated audiences, and Hauer would later go on to say that critics misunderstood the film.
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No Good Deed Goes Unpunished
This cat-and-mouse thriller immediately puts its cards on the table and the roles are just as quickly carved out as well. In the first eight minutes, Jim Halsey’s new-found passenger boldly confesses to murdering his previous driver. Everything happening outside the car is unimportant. A hushed score takes a backseat as Ryder threatens Halsey, a young man who simply wanted some company to keep him awake. As soon as our amiable hero overcomes one obstacle, he’s hit with another. Halsey’s perseverance under the most stressful of circumstances is not only spectacular to witness, it’s admirable. Viewers can easily root for him and his need to do the right thing.
There’s hardly ever a moment in The Hitcher where you can catch your breath. It is as wired as its protagonist, who is in desperate need of some rest. His one escape is Nash (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a diner employee who gets caught up in this lethal game of cat-and-mouse. Jennifer Jason Leigh is a welcomed respite. Her clear concern for justice and proving Halsey’s innocence is what makes her fate hurt so much more.
Open To Interpretation
Over the years, fans have viewed The Hitcher under a more analytical eye. This dust laden thriller almost seems unreal because everything Ryder does is outlandish. The stuff of bad dreams. While the film is likely meant to be set in reality, calling it a living nightmare could explain away all the reckless behavior on the authorities’ part. It’s also speculated that Ryder was suicidal, and his wanton destruction was influenced solely by his looming mortality.
Something else picked up by people—even back during the film’s original release—was the homoerotic subtext between the two male leads. It all begins when Halsey greets the rain soaked Ryder with, “My mother told me never to do this.” The undertone becomes more obvious as the story furthers along. To scare off the attention of another man, Ryder grabs Halsey’s crotch like a jealous lover. Then there’s him literally doing away with the woman that’s come between them. All of this might be purely coincidental, but the undercurrents are still fascinating to examine.
Scenic Route To The Climax
The occasional times of rest in the film are by no means serene, steeped in quiet anticipation of what’s to come. The recurring desert scenery evokes Halsey‘s feelings of separation and loneliness. Director Harmon’s history as a still photographer is evident in several shots, bringing out an eerie sense of relaxation in his subjects as they collapse into their immediate surroundings. Watching makes you almost feel lethargic. These instances are short-lived though, with car chases, gunfire, and fiery explosions filling the second half of The Hitcher. For some people, the action sequences might be disruptive, but for others, they remind you of what’s at stake.
There is one scene in the film that is forever ingrained in people’s minds. Halsey and Nash have evaded the law, taking refuge in a truck-stop motel. Their downtime comes to a screeching halt as Ryder forces Halsey into making a life-altering decision. A haunting scene almost didn’t make it into the movie. HBO and Silver Screen wanted it removed altogether but the filmmakers and the studios reached a compromise at the last minute. The scene would be left intact, but the graphic outcome would not be shown on screen. This decision worked out for the best, as sometimes the most horrible images are the ones we create in our own minds.
The shocking nature of the film understandably trafficked adverse reactions in 1986. Horror can have that effect. Robert Harmon’s debut is comparatively tame in the presence of more recent films—including the gratuitously brutal remake in 2007. Our growing desensitization to the red stuff can lead us to examine older horror in other ways. Originally, The Hitcher was met with harsh disapproval from plenty of outlets. People focused mainly on the violence. Now, the psychological aspects and Hauer’s equivocal performance are all praised. The filmmakers were not deterred by the lukewarm reviews back then. Neither are fans after all these years. They look past the violent exterior and see a compelling story of good versus evil. A tale that is as timeless as The Hitcher continues to be today.
Will you be celebrating The Hitcher’s 33rd anniversary with a rewatch? Were you old lucky enough to see the film in its original theatrical run? Let us know on Twitter, in the official NOFS Subreddit, and on Facebook in the Horror Movie Fiend Club!