“You wanna know what happens to an eyeball when it gets punctured? Do you got any idea how much blood jets out of a guy’s neck when his throat’s been slit?”
In 1986, a horror thriller was released that Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert would give zero combined stars to, finding it nasty, violent, and repellent. “The killer has no motive, no backstory!” they’d claim. They weren’t as enlightened as you or I, and unfortunately they’d both pass away before they could revisit this film and give it a fair shake. We’re talking 1986’s The Hitcher this week, folks, and it’s a gritty little number. It’s also, by a long-shot, the best movie based loosely off of the lyrics of “Riders on the Storm,” by The Doors, smartly excising the “his brain is squirming like a toad” lyric, which is stupid and drags the song down. It’s a bad rhyme. Anyway, The Hitcher.
One thing I love about this movie is that it just gets right into the madness. We meet John Ryder (the aforementioned The Hitcher!) in the opening scene when he’s picked up by our hero, Jim Halsey (played by C. Thomas Howell). Rather than let the audience wonder what’s going on with this unhinged-looking drifter, he laughingly tells Jim and us immediately that he killed the last man who picked him up. “Couldn’t have run very far,” he says, “Because I cut off his legs…
Then his arms… then his head… and I’m gonna do the same thing to you!” Boom! What an opening. Jim manages to escape from this hell pretty quickly, but then sees Ryder in a family’s station wagon and in a truck behind him, and his day gets pretty awful from there.
Let’s talk about the cast, mostly about Rutger Hauer! He unfortunately passed away late last year, and he was a legend. The menace he brings to this role is truly frightening, and he jumps into the role head first. We’re as scared as Jim is every time we see his face. It’s a legendary horror performance. C. Thomas Howell is pretty solid as Jim, but unfortunately he would tank his own career later in 1986 by starring in the ill-advised Soul Man, a terrible and blackface heavy attempt to satirize affirmative action. It’s a bad movie on every level, and it’s no surprise his career never fully recovered. This movie also has Jennifer Jason Leigh, one of our nation’s finest actors, as Nash, a diner employee who helps young Jim out despite possibly paying the ultimate price in the end.
This is a particularly brutal movie, but in the original script the violence was taken much further. The original screenplay depicted an entire family in a station wagon getting murdered as well as a character being literally torn in half. While the violence in the movie never quite reaches that level of extremity, it’s nasty and effective. This one sits with you a bit. As screenwriter Eric Red said in his pitch letter for the project, “When you read it, you won’t sleep for a week. When this movie is made, the country won’t sleep for a week.” It plays like a combination of Steven Spielberg’s Duel and Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker, both amped up to eleven (hey, that’s an 80’s movie reference! I watch things!)
Should I Show This To My Five-Year-Old?
Oh, definitely. This is an excellent object lesson about the brutal nature of hitchhikers and what can happen when you pick one up. This is a great opportunity to get the conversation started about road safety early. Another great thing you can teach your child with a double feature of this and Soul Man is that blackface is wrong for many reasons, including that it can destroy your young career just as it’s taking off. You can also show your child that the 1980s were a brutal and unforgiving landscape, full of menace and violence. Your child can learn a lot from this film. You should probably show it to them soon, just to be safe.
I really like this one. As a student of the grimy and gruesome exploitation pictures of the 70’s and 80’s, this plays like a slightly slicker version of those, and it’s constantly suspenseful. It grabs you from the opening scene and then never lets go. Every scene thereafter builds and builds on the nightmare at hand. It’s masterful stuff, despite what two of our nation’s most famous critics would have you believe (they also didn’t like Baby’s Day Out, or many of our other horror treasures discussed here in past and future). I’m gonna say, definitely check it out. It’s currently on HBO Now and you can also use the Amazon link here to purchase a copy, if you’d like. I would! What have you got to lose? Your legs? Your arms? Your head?
Greg Orme is a comedian/writer based out of Salt Lake City, where he lives with his five plants. You should follow him on Twitter if you aren’t already.
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