Hey, have you ever wanted to see the bad Replicant from Blade Runner drive around and try to stab that kid from Soul Man? Well, you're in luck, because that's basically what happens in 1986's The Hitcher. My last post was about remakes, and this movie was remade recently, as well, though I've never seen it. I'll have to check it out sometime soon and write about it.
This film stars C. Thomas Howell and Rutger Hauer, and some random other people (including Jennifer Jason Leigh, how wacky is that?). Jim Halsey (Howell) picks up John Ryder (Hauer) on a rainy night as he delivers a car from Chicago to San Diego, and he quickly finds out (quickly as in the first ten minutes) that Ryder is a psychopath and murderer, and has already killed the last person to pick him up. Jim literally boots him out of the car, and finds himself chased around the highway by this crazy serial killer, and the trail of blood and bodies start pointing to Jim, much to his chagrin. Then things get a little nutty. Okay, it doesn't really get that nutty, but some crazy stuff happens pretty consistently.
I like horror movies like this. We don't know much about these characters, and we don't really need to. Jim is a young kid just trying to get to California, because that's what kids in the 80s want to do. The John Ryder character isn't really given any motivation whatsoever for his behavior, and is purely a sociopath, killing for the joy of it. He pursues Jim so relentlessly because he had the courage to fight back and kick him out of the car, and Ryder seems to feel that Jim is a worthy adversary. In addition to just trying to kill him, he carves a bloody swatch across the highway, which leads to Jim's arrest for the murders (because Ryder's bloody knife is found on Jim's person). There are loads of car chases, and plenty of Rutger Hauer being pretty menacing. Also, C. Thomas Howell's character vomits out of sheer terror quite frequently, which is interesting. The Lady always complains that characters in movies don't seem to react naturally to extremely stressful situations (i.e. terror-vomiting), so I'm sure she'd be pretty satisfied with how this movie handles it.
The film also acts as a study in irrational human behavior. There's no real reason that Ryder should act the way that he does; he's a non-person, without any real identity, and thrives on the chaos that he creates. In Jim he finds a worthy opponent, someone who not only fights back, but genuinely seems capable of stopping him and restoring balance to the anarchic situation. Jim also finds himself acting as a criminal himself, taking two police officers hostages of sorts, trying to get the truth out, trying to get justice. He's also framed by Ryder and forced to go on the run, watching everyone he comes in contact with be killed in front of him by the ruthless and ever-present Ryder.
The fact that Ryder is clearly older, 40 when filming this, and C. Thomas Howell is 20 (literally, they were both born in '46 and '66, respectively, and the film was released in '86) is an interesting coincidence. There may be some subtle and possibly unintentional commentary on the modern "responsible" youth and the increasingly erratic and chaotic generation that came before it. When Ryder was Jim's age, it was the '60s, where things were more free, liberal, and the road movies of that era (like Easy Rider) were about existential wandering, sticking it to the man, etc. Now that it's the 80s, that aimless wandering and rebellion has taken on a sinister turn, resulting in violence and unchecked aggression, rather than civil disobedience and political dissent. Jim, a product of this decade, is bewildered and confused by Ryder's actions, though he continues to be drawn into them, unwittingly participating in this perverted twist on the road movie.
Or maybe I'm overthinking it, and taking it a bit too seriously.
I'll have to check out the remake they did a few years ago. They also made a sequel in 2003, starring C. Thomas Howell reprising his role as Jim Halsey, with the time between movies being literal time (basically, though not quite). I'll have to check them both out, and see how they compare. Given the state of remakes (and random, crappy sequels made 15 years later), I'm sure they'll both be terrible, and not in the excellent way that this version of The Hitcher is terrible. I still give it three puking and scared teenagers out of five, or three barely tolerable Jennifer Jason Leighs out of five.