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Inyo Film Journal No. 286: Existential terror in the desert

June 12, 2014

Rutger Hauer’s “John Ryder” showing his true colors to C. Thomas Howell’s “Jim Halsey,” the driver with the misfortune of having decided to give him a ride. Hauer’s performance was reportedly so convincing, Howell was afraid of him throughout the shoot. Photo courtesy Chris Langley

“Existential terror, in the case of Robert Harmon’s ‘The Hitcher’ (1986), means an unmotivated viciousness that’s as cryptic at the story’s end as it was in the beginning. The film, which owes a things or two to Steven Spielberg’s early ‘Duel,’ concerns the mysterious antagonism that springs up between two strangers who meet on the highway.” Thus begins Janet Maslin’s review for the New York Times which goes onto basically pan the movie. Other critics also generally wrote negatively about the film. Although it is flawed in some ways, it is also very interesting in other ways, earning some serious consideration.
This is a horror road picture and could be categorized as a “road” picture genre as we have already seen. But at times this is really a very terrifying film, and plays on instinctual fears that have only grown more intense in us in the last three decades since its premier. A subgenre to which it belongs could be called a “horror road” picture.
The plot is basically simple. Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell) gives a hitchhiker (Rutger Hauer) a ride on a stormy, lightning filled dawn somewhere near El Paso. The film begins with the tension immediately pitch perfect in the ten minutes of interaction in the front seat of the car. As the writer for Movie Reviews by Ethan states, “The first 10 minutes of ‘The Hitcher’ account for some of the most intense and terrifying moments I can recollect having seen in film … Watching this scene only solidified it for me – I would never even consider giving anyone a lift again.” The point here is that what happens during the film between the hunter and the prey, should you give a stranger a lift, could happen to anyone.
Sadly, the rest of the film plays variations on this initial horror brilliance, except with a slow dilution of the suspense. Director Robert Harmon, in an interview on the DVD release of the film, explains this tension. “The silences, the ambiance, the combination of odd language causing some level of concern to the characters followed by laughter and lightness. You don’t really know which way it’s going to go …” Scriptwriter Eric Red adds, “The fact that it is just two guys in a car, the dialogue, looks and glances giving the slow reveal that one is a bloodthirsty psychopath and the other is going to get really hurt. The claustrophobic confinement of the sequence and the visceral performances contributed to the effectiveness. There’s no gore but the potential of what can happen.”
Red has said that the inspiration for the film came from The Doors’ song, “Riders on the Storm.” “I thought the elements of the song – a killer in a storm plus the cinematic feel of the music – would make a terrific opening for a film. I started with that scene and went from there.” Robert Townsend has written that, “C. Thomas Howell declared later that he was actually frightened of Hauer throughout the filming, and not just acting.” Hauer was unaware of this during the shoot.
Often cited as a major weakness of the film, is that we know almost nothing of who the hitchhiker, John Ryder, actually is. There is no backstory at all. Noted film critic Roger Ebert had stressed it was his view that the relationship between these two men is sick, but the movie does not want to fully explore this aspect. Ebert had written, “And yet this showdown does not represent a fight between good and evil, because the movie suggests that there is something sadomasochistic going on between the two men.”
Philipp Lenssen writes of Derek Winnert’s assertion that the relationship of the protagonists is dominated by latent homosexuality. “There is a subtle sexual undertone in the way Rutger Hauer plays the character, and it emphasizes Ryder’s evil ironic humor. But not only do we see him touching Halsey, we see him kiss the little girl in the car and the same tender scheme towards Nash. A cat’s playing with the mouse before striking, showing a certain elegance which might arouse sympathy in us … it makes the movie even more ambiguous and intriguing.”
This is a complex film for which many critical considerations are raised. The film is gory but some of the goriest parts that were originally in the first draft of the script have been removed. Nash’s being torn apart by two opposing trucks, an eyeball in a hamburger are just two. The character of Nash (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is introduced to modulate Halsey’s isolation. Ultimately an innocent, she is sacrificed as a victim in a very gory, off-camera action.
Hauer’s character evolves towards supernatural powers. At first he appears as a psychopath searching for victims as he hitchhikes across the country. In this way he is reminiscent of The Hitchhiker in the film of the same name directed by Ida Lupino in nearby Lone Pine in 1955.
This hitcher is always there, impossibly successful as he sets up one terrible situation after another to torment Halsey. He seems to operate beyond time. He reappears like a phantom over and over again. This takes on the aura of universal fear of the stranger that we all may carry from when we were children, and our mothers warned us of him. In fact, when Halsey picks up John Ryder, he even comments that he is doing something his mother warned him never to do.
The horror of the set-up is very real for all of us. It is simply in the execution that the film falls away. Still it is worthy of a view. By the way, it was all filmed in various parts of California’s Mojave Desert, but there is one scene in a dust storm at Death Valley Junction that is among one of the most effective of the entire film. That alone will send some goose bumps up your spine.

(Chris Langley is an independent writer and film historian living in Lone Pine. He can be reached at 760-937-1189 or at

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