This week in Horror movie history, back on February 21, 1986, The Hitcher was released in the US, distributed by TriStar Pictures through HBO Pictures Productions. This nonstop thrill ride was shot by first time director Robert Harmon (They 2002, Jesse Stone movie series 2005-2012), who envisioned the movie as a Hitchcockian thriller. The script was penned by Eric Red (Near Dark 1987, 100 Feet) and produced by David Bombyk (Explorers 1985, Witness 1985) and Kip Ohman (The Fly 1986). The Hitcher stars Rutger Hauer (Blade Runner 1982, Ladyhawke 1985), C. Thomas Howell (The Outsiders 1983, Red Dawn 1984), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Fast Times at Ridgemont High 1982, Single White Female 1992), and Jeffrey DeMunn (The Shawshank Redemption 1994, The Walking Dead television series 2010-2012). Music was perfectly arranged by Mark Isham (Point Break 1991, Chicago Hope television series 1994-2000) and the special effects were by Arthur Brewer (Swamp Thing 1982, Masters of the Universe 1987). Other actors considered for the two main roles were Sam Elliott, David Bowie, Sting, Sam Shepard, Harry Dean Stanton and Terence Stamp for John Ryder and Matthew Modine, Tom Cruise and Emilio Estevez for Jim Halsey. The movie was mostly filmed in the dry, dusty deserts of California and Nevada.
Screenwriter Eric Red was inspired to write the script when he heard The Doors’ “Riders On the Storm” as he drove a drive-away car from New York City to Austin, Texas in the early ’80s. Originally much more barbaric, the studio forced filmmakers to cut the gore down, including scenes showing the slaughtered family in the station wagon, a graphic sex scene between two Jim and Nash, the waitress torn in half, a decapitation, shootings, car crashes and an eyeball discovered inside of a hamburger. Bombyk and Ohman wondered how they could make the studio happy, and settled on changing the eyeball to a finger and using implied but unseen violence. The original ending, showing Jim completely turned into a cold blooded killer, had him shooting the prone, defenseless Ryder in the road, but to avoid an X rating, filmmakers changed it to show the still threatening Ryder getting back on his feet, giving Jim justification for shooting him. Rutger Hauer was intent on his role – C. Thomas Howell has said that Hauer stayed in character during the entire shoot, making him nervous and afraid to be around the Dutch actor. He also did his own driving stunts and even knocked one of his teeth out with the prop shotgun during the filming of the windshield stunt at the end of the movie. No one can ever say that Rutger Hauer takes his roles lightly.
Young Jim Halsey (Howell) has always wanted to go to California, so when the opportunity arises to take a drive-away Cadillac from his hometown of Chicago to the West Coast, Jim jumps at the chance. A slight, wide eyed kid barely out of high school, Jim pulls right over when he sees a rain soaked hitchhiker on the side of the highway. This proves to be disastrous for the naïve Jim, as the man is John Ryder (Hauer), an emotionless psychopath who makes his way across the country by thumbing rides and then brutally slaughtering the Good Samaritans who pick him up. Jim is not about to go quietly, and when he sees an opportunity, he pushes the knife wielding maniac out of his car and drives away, thinking he is now safe. In fact, Ryder now sees Jim as something of a worthy adversary and decides to force the unblemished young man into a deadly game of cat-and-mouse, a plan that Ryder hopes will turn Jim into someone angry, frustrated and scared enough to finally take him out. He spends the next twenty-four hours one step ahead of Jim, setting him up for crimes and screwing with him mentally and physically. He starts off by killing the next family that picks him up, a couple and their young daughter, and leaving the car where he knows Jim will drive by and see it. As Jim tries desperately to find help somewhere out on the arid desert highway, Ryder leaves human fingers in Jim’s French fries, blows up gas stations, kills entire stations full of cops, and even takes out a helicopter to screw with his little mouse.
It is not until pink sweatered waitress Nash (Leigh), believing Jim to be innocent, breaks him out of police custody that the game changes. Seeing her as his leverage, Ryder kidnaps Nash and lashes her hanging body by the hands and feet to the grills of two top heavy tractor trailer trucks. With his foot on the clutch being the only thing keeping the truck from rolling and Nash from being torn apart, Ryder tells Jim the only way to save the girl is to shoot him. Jim refuses. Ryder, disappointed, releases the clutch, letting the truck roll and the weight of the huge vehicle to tear the waitress in half. This is a catalyst for the young man, and the skinny, high voiced Jim is finally aware that the killings will go on until John Ryder is dead. A bushel of cops are there to witness the brutal, excruciating murder of Nash, and they arrest Ryder. As the paddy wagon containing the cold blooded killer drives off, Jim takes Captain Esteridge’s (DeMunn) gun and kicks the cop out of his own car, then catches up with Ryder as the ultimate showdown takes place. Ryder takes out to the two cops driving the transport vehicle, grabs a shotgun and jumps through the windshield of Jim’s cop car. He taunts Jim right up until the end, until the kid first runs him over and then shoots him dead. As the sun sets on this long day, Jim lights a cigarette and waits for the remaining police to arrive, contemplating that in the end, Ryder still got what he wanted.
Beginning with a budget of $5.8 million, The Hitcher only made $7.9 million at the Box Office, barely squeaking by as successful. The movie rates a 61% fresh at Rotten Tomatoes. During its initial release, the movie was panned by critics, even while TriStar president called The Hitcher “the best film we have for 1986.” The movie has since become a cult classic by Horror fans far and wide. A 2003 sequel called The Hitcher II: I’ve Been Waiting also starred Howell in the role of an older Jim Halsey. In 2007, a remake was made, directed by Dave Meyers, produced by Michael Bay and starring Sean Bean in the horrifically murderous role of John Ryder. The remake scores a 21% rotten rating at Rotten Tomatoes and has generated mostly negative reviews. If the original did anything for drivers, it was to get them to think before pulling over for anyone with their thumb out.