SALEM HORROR FEST: The Hitcher (1986)

EDITOR’S NOTE: This movie was watched as part of Salem Horror Fest. You can still get a weekend pass for weekend two. Single tickets are also available. Here’s the program of what’s playing.

When I first saw The Hitcher, I was probably 14 years old and saw it as a straight-ahead story of violence on the highway. I probably cheered at the end when Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell) blew a hole into John Ryder (Rutger Hauer). But age and the miles wear on every man and now when I watch it, it does more than make me raise my fist in the air and shout. It makes me ruminate on the journeys life has taken me and how I’d rather be launched through a window and blasted down a hillside than live a slow, tedious and quiet death.

Halsey starts the film with the kind of confidence that someone at the end of their teens has. He picks up Ryder, who immediately confides to him that he’s killed someone else. But he says something else. Something we don’t expect. “I want you to stop me.”

That’s the whole point of this film. Ryder will transform Halsey into the empty man he is, whether through attrition or forcing him to blast him into oblivion. This road only goes one way.

What does it take to get Halsey to realize this isn’t a nightmare, but reality? Of course, it’s easy to think that this could all be a dream, in the same way that long stretches of drives with no one speaking seem to be visions that last and last. Sometimes, I wonder if I’m still driving and every moment up until here, up until this realization, is just me imagining my life and any moment now, I’m going to wake up with my fiancee asleep next to me.

For our hero, it takes seeing trucks plow into truck stops, station wagons filled with the blood of all American families and the typical movie love interest torn in half by two semis.

Halsey is stripped of his identity, not just because his license and keys — let’s face, the manhood of most red-blooded boys — have been taken away. Everything he may have believed was true — the goodness of giving someone a ride when they need it, that love can conquer fear, even that the role models and lawmakers that society sets up can protect us against one lone man who isn’t just unafraid to die but willingly chases it — is a lie.

Not even suicide can save our hero.

So who is at fault for all the crimes that come out of this spree? If Halsey just shot Ryder in the truck, while Nash (Jennifer Jason Lee, looking like the gorgeous girl who surely will survive all of this madness, right?) is tied between it and another, life would be different.

Look, when a killer says, “I want you to stop me,” you listen.

Eric Red wrote this story while traveling across America, wondering about the lyrics to The Doors “Riders On the Storm.” Pretty simple, really: “If ya give this man a ride, sweet memory will die. Killer on the road, yeah.”

Critics hated it. Both Siskel and Ebert gave it zero out of four stars, with Ebert even decrying the film by saying, “I could see that the film was meant as an allegory, not a documentary. But on its own terms, this movie is diseased and corrupt. I would have admired it more if it had found the courage to acknowledge the real relationship it was portraying between Howell and Rutger, but no: It prefers to disguise itself as a violent thriller, and on that level it is reprehensible.”


The end of this film, as Halsey stands against the sunset and smokes as we process what has just happened just attacks the viewer. The credits just stand there as we feel no celebration or victory. Maybe not even relief, because while it seems like this is over, there’s no way it is over.

The fact that this movie spawned a sequel and a Michael Bay remake are two things that I have added to the many things that I have tried to forget so that I can keep on living my life*. Kind of like how director Robert Harmon makes the Jesse Stone TV movies for Tom Selleck now instead of getting to create more movies like this (that said, I’ve heard good things about They, a movie he did with Wes Craven and I kind of don’t mind his Van Damme film Nowhere to Run). Red would move on to write a few other films that break the mold and are on my list of favorite films: Near Dark and Blue Steel.

The last thing that this movie makes me feel is loss. Rutger Hauer is such an essential part of my film nerd stable of actors, someone who always makes a movie way better than it seems like it will be just by his presence. Nighthawks is so intense because of him. Films like Wanted Dead or AliveThe Blood of Heroesand Buffy the Vampire Slayer (with Hauer getting to finally play the vampire lord that Anne Rice, who always wanted him as Lestat, saw him in) are actually great because of Hauer. And Blade Runner means nothing without him as Roy Batty.

Hauer astounded the stunt people in this movie, pulling off the car stunts by himself. And he also intimidated Howell, scaring him even when they weren’t acting. He even knocked out a tooth when he flew through the windshield himself. There is no one who could have played this character quite so well and stayed with me so long after the film was over.**

*The fact that René Cardona III made a Mexican version of this called Sendero Mortal does give me the energy to keep on living.  I’d also like to recommend the absolutely insane Umberto Lenzi in America  Hitcher In the Dark, which makes me wish that more Italian directors made their own versions of The Hitcher.

**Hauer said in his autobiography, All Those Moments, that Elliott “was so scary when he came in to audition that Edward S. Feldman was afraid to go out to his car afterward.”

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