Cult Corner: Taking a Ride with the Devil: The Hitcher (1986)



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Although The Hitcher (1986) was panned by most critics on its release, it stands out from the myriad of other '80s slashers because it feels more like an allegory than a straightforward tale of a killer and his victims. The story starts out unassuming as it follows a young man named Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell) who is on the road delivering a car from Chicago to San Diego. The skyline on the highway is filled with dark and foreboding storm clouds, a sign of things to come. A torrential rain starts to fall and he sees a lone figure staggering up the road. Impulsively he stops and offers the man a ride. As he opens the door to the sopping wet figure he quips "My mother told me to never do this." His mother was right.

The hitcher's name is John Ryder (Rutger Hauer), and he's exactly the type of scary hitchhiker that people are warned about. He doesn't waste any time letting Jim know two things: he's a sociopathic maniac and that he is going to murder him. After a harrowing trip down the road, Jim manages to push Ryder out of his vehicle and drives off giddily celebrating the fact that he has escaped death. Has he escaped though?





Most of The Hitcher is spent as an extended chase scene, both in cars and on foot as Ryder methodically stalks Jim and brutally kills everyone he comes in contact with. Ryder feels mystical and Biblical, like some demon sent from hell to torment Jim. In a lesser film they would have Ryder explain his motives, but it seems like he is chaos incarnate and his only motivation is the kill or die trying. It is hinted that he perhaps finds Jim to be a worthy adversary--someone who can finally end his existence. Both Jim and Ryder are archetypes, representations of the light and the dark. Neither of them have backstories, but in this tale it doesn't matter, only the present is what is important. The atmosphere of the film is startlingly apocalyptic and though there are several other characters it always seems as though they are the only people in existence. Every road is abandoned, every gas station and restaurant is empty, like a dusty purgatory.

John Seale's cinematography is incredibly dreamlike but it also invokes a bit of a western feel especially with the numerous wide shots. There are a few moments that have Jim and Ryder squared off at each end of the screen not unlike a gunslinger duel in a spaghetti western. Seale expertly uses color to enhance the aesthetic with dark reddish orange sunsets framing neo-noir silhouette shots and dark blue night skies gloomily hanging over the protagonist as he tries to escape from Ryder. The electronic heavy score by Mark Isham is full of lush pads and reverb drenched keyboards adding to the brooding atmosphere.





The critics of 1986 found The Hitcher to be off-putting partly because of its brutality and grimness and also because of its abject nihilism. Ryder has no motives for his actions and ultimately Jim has to put aside his own notions of morality to finally take him out. There is no triumphant scene where Jim becomes a lauded hero and the ending is anticlimactic and pensive. In order to escape death he had to become death himself. Earlier in the film, Jim is apprehended by the police and interrogated for the murders that he has been framed for. He yells in exasperation, "Do I look like a killer to you?!" and at that time, he indeed looks like an innocent kid who wouldn't hurt anyone. By the end of the film he is a haunted man driven to kill (and previously haven considered killing himself) and as he stands next to his car covered in blood and silently smoking a cigarette it's apparent he will never be the same.

--Michelle Kisner