The Hitcher (1986)

7 Apr

HITCHER1

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Usually in horror movies of the 1980s, there is either lack of motivation or too much for the menacing figure that stalked the young hero (or heroes). Arguably, it makes the film more unnerving if there is no motive, but in the case with “The Hitcher,” there may be a motive that hardly anyone could have expected when about to watch it. And it’s a strange, creepily effective motive—to be stopped. The psychopathic title character, the “hitcher,” does his murderous deeds by way of causing misery for a young man’s life, because what he really wants is for this young man to stop him before the situation gets even worse.

I didn’t get this until the second time I watched “The Hitcher.” The first time I watched it, I just thought it was a pointless exercise in violence and gore. There are many gruesome murders and disgusting moments that involve a severed finger in some French fries and a dog licking the dripping blood of his murdered owner. Oh, and there’s also a scene in which the hero’s girlfriend is tied hand and foot between two huge trucks, and the hero has to make sure the hitcher doesn’t take his foot off the clutch of one of them, or the girl will be split in half.

But I digress. The second time I watched “The Hitcher,” my opinion of the film strangely changed. The violence and gore was one thing, but the escalating tension is clearly evident throughout. In that sense, I admired “The Hitcher” more and found it to be an effective thriller.

“The Hitcher” begins as a young man, Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell), goes driving at dawn, and picks up a hitchhiker (Rutger Hauer, chillingly charismatic). “My mother told me never to do this,” he tells the hitcher with a grin. Soon enough, he learns he should have taken his mother’s advice, because it turns out this brooding, tranquil stranger is a sick, murderous mind. He tells Jim that he mutilated the previous driver who picked him up and that he’s going to do the same to him. Before he can do anything to him, Jim manages to eject him from the car. But unfortunately, Jim hasn’t seen the last of the hitcher, who keeps appearing and murdering innocent people. And worst of all, Jim himself is framed for the murders as the hitcher continues to make his life a living hell.

One of the most intriguing things about “The Hitcher,” in my opinion, is that we know very little about the hitcher. He has neither a backstory nor a grudge. We just know he’s a sick, murderous mind that is like an ongoing force that seemingly can’t be stopped. And from what we can gather, he doesn’t want to kill Jim; he just wants to ruin his life. But there’s a unique twist here—it’s declared in nonspecific terms that the hitcher is doing this to Jim so that Jim will ultimately stand up and put an end to all of this madness by killing the hitcher. That’s as psychotic a motive as they come, especially considering that the hitcher is doing these terrible things in order for this to happen. And this includes tying a young waitress, Nash (Jennifer Jason Leigh), to two trucks by her hands and feet.

“The Hitcher” may be gory and violent, but it has a great amount of suspense and mounting dread to keep it interesting, effective, and unnerving. The ending of this movie is a final showdown, but it’s more than you’d expect, in an unsettling way. It’s fierce, but it’s also psychological with a certain symbolic final shot that makes you question what really just happened. This is because you realize you never really understood the relationship between Jim and the hitcher, and that climax says a lot by displaying very little.

I’m actually surprised that I like “The Hitcher” more the second viewing. Its central elements are subtler than I originally thought, and the more I thought about it, the more fascinated I was with it. Others can easily dismiss this as just another deplorable slasher-flick. I think it’s better than that.

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