THE HITCHER (1986)

An expertly balanced action-horror chase film

While transporting a car from Chicago to San Diego, Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell) picks up a hitchhiker named John Ryder (Rutger Hauer), who claims to be a serial killer. After a daring escape, Jim hopes to never see Ryder again. But when he witnesses the hitchhiker murdering an entire family, Jim pursues Ryder with the help of truck-stop waitress Nash (Jennifer Jason Leigh), pitting the rivals against each other in a deadly series of car chases and brutal murders.

While transporting a car from Chicago to San Diego, Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell) picks up a hitchhiker named John Ryder (Rutger Hauer), who claims to be a serial killer. After a daring escape, Jim hopes to never see Ryder again. But when he witnesses the hitchhiker murdering an entire family, Jim pursues Ryder with the help of truck-stop waitress Nash (Jennifer Jason Leigh), pitting the rivals against each other in a deadly series of car chases and brutal murders.

Release date: February 21, 1986 (USA)

Director: Robert Harmon

Film series: The Hitcher

Screenplay: Eric Red

Budget: 6 million USD

1 Hour 38 Minutes

REVIEW BY CHRISTIAN VALENTIN

I still have vague memories of the remake, so I was totally unprepared for the original Hitcher to be one of the best action-horror movies I've ever watched. It's on par with The Terminator, which is fitting since this film is like Duel infused with the slasher movie dread of Cameron's classic. The Hitcher is approximately 90 minutes of unrelenting suspense, dread, and thrills, propelled by an unforgettable villain.

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The movie transforms a simple premise into a harrowing nightmare unfolding across the Texan desert. It's a film that wastes no time; within minutes, Rutger Hauer's villain is already tormenting young Jim Halsey. Hauer as John Ryder is absolutely terrifying in this, an antagonist that radiates wild-eyed intensity and venomous conviction. He seems less like a man and more like a devil, something unknowable, pure malice. If Ryder was merely a man, his pursuit would just be the single-minded actions of a stock slasher, but there's an otherworldly, almost mythic quality to him. He appears like a wraith, leaves death in his wake, and acts as a macabre benefactor to his victim.

As the protagonist, C. Thomas Howell perfectly sells Halsey's confusion, fear, and gradual loss of innocence. His mystified terror is palpable, and serves to make the evil hitchhiker that much more inscrutable. Halsey's relationship with Nash is handled with similar efficiency. In only a few scenes, Jennifer Jason Leigh succinctly establishes her character as charming, brave, and empathetic. just enough time for their dynamic to have an impact when the movie plays its most infamous hand.

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Besides the characters, the pacing is the other masterful facet of The Hitcher. Uncomfortable dread and intense chases occur in equal measure, and the movie never settles for cheap scares. Its horror is subtle, letting the unease linger until the audience realizes what they're witnessing. But The Hitcher is also a fantastic chase thriller, escalating from highway stalking reminiscent of Duel to multi-car pursuits with huge crashes and flying lead. Much like Terminator, the action and the horror are expertly balanced.

I was pleasantly surprised to learn afterwards that the cinematographer of Mad Max Fury Road worked on this. Whether we're watching vehicular mayhem or a tense confrontation, the film is always gorgeously shot. The use of color and light and shadow, the framing and composition of the open road and Midwest locales, elevate the pulpy b-movie concept into bleak, even haunting cinema.

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