Horrorvember Diary #1: The Hitcher (1986)

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I watched Robert Harmon’s The Hitcher by mistake. I was chasing the memory of something I saw on TV when I was about 11 years old...a motorist spots a hitchhiker at the side of a rural highway at night. The hitchhiker, mostly hidden by shadow and rain, wears a trench coat and a hat, waving a briefcase over his head as if desperate for a ride. Not that you can really see his face, but as depicted, his features are sort of…absent. The motorist wisely doesn’t stop but, impossibly, continues encountering the same figure again and again as he drives on, the hitchhiker always waving the briefcase with marionette-like motion. Whatever this was, I found it incredibly creepy, enough so that the memory has stuck with me for most of my life.

The Hitcher is not the thing I remember. But The Hitcher is not bad. It fared okay with most critics, with the notable exception of Roger Ebert, who gave it zero out of four stars and called it “diseased and corrupt.” I’ll have to consider Ebert’s review a while longer to decide if The Hitcher is more diseased and corrupt than your typical slasher horror film, and whether there’s actually anything wrong with that.

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C. Thomas Howell is Jim Halsey, a teen driving from Illinois to California, presumably chasing the same vague dreams as most people in movies on their way to California. He’s driving a Cadillac, but it’s not his; he’s just delivering it to the owner. In the first few minutes of the film he encounters a hitchhiker – sorry, a hitcher – whom he lets in while commenting, “My mother told me never to do this.” The hitcher (Rutger Hauer) almost immediately begins playing unnerving games with Jim. Before long there’s a knife at Jim’s throat, and he manages to shove the hitcher out of the moving car. Of course, this isn’t the last he sees of the hitcher. The hitcher has an almost supernatural ability to keep pace with Jim, murdering people along the way, and he eventually frames Jim for all that he’s done. Inexplicably, the hitcher also sometimes spares Jim and demands that he defend himself better. At a roadside diner Jim meets Nash (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the one person who believes he’s innocent.

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The Hitcher blurs the line between horror, action and suspense in a way I found effective. Rutger Hauer plays the hitcher as magnetically insane, if almost completely inscrutable. I suppose the hitcher is a stand-in for whatever horrors lurk off the highway (of life, man) and keep us from taking risks. There’s a lot of rad 80s car action here – cop cars tumbling end over end, buses driving off cliffs – but sometimes rad 80s car action is what you want, and it’s done well here. There’s one instance where I can see Ebert’s point of view – one character’s death feels especially brutal and arguably unnecessary to plot function, but paradoxically, the rest of the film would feel kind of toothless had it not followed through.

So yeah, The Hitcher. Now to figure out what's been haunting my memory since I was 11…

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