Last year, around this time, I went through a whole spate of 80s horror films. My thesis then was that, for fans of cheap B horror, the 80s were a boom time thanks largely to the home video market and the demand for material. Outside of the schlock arena, though, some interesting and not so interesting things were happening. A big chunk of 80s horror was dominated by sequels and wannabe franchises for slasher films, usually repetitive formula films in which the main draw was a murderer killing teens in inventive ways that, more often than not, the audience was invited to identify as the “hero.” The auteur directors of the 70s were still around, but most of their efforts were mixed at best, as the age of blockbuster and the hunger for exploitable franchises led to increased attention from studio suits to genre films. The results, across the board, were generally films with interesting ideas and problematic executions.
And thus Robert Harmon’s 1986 “tourist horror” film The Hitcher, starring young and pretty C. Thomas Howell and slightly older and prettier Rutger Haur. The prettiness of the leads is key, as The Hitcher has that odd mix of homoerotic tension and vaguely homophobic tone that several other 80s horror film (A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 and Fright Night come most readily to mind) exploit, mostly unintentionally. But the frustrated homoeroticism of the film is mostly just an interesting minor point with this film; the truly frustrating thing about it is that it occupies a space half-way between a horror film and half-way between a loud, dumb, blustery Reagen-era action movie.
The film opens with Howell as Jim Halsey, driving a sports car through the deserts of Texas at night during a storm. He’s struggling to stay awake, and very nearly misses being killed in a collision with a semi. He then spots Hauer hitch-hiking at the side of the road, and despite the fact that “his mother told (him) never to do this” decides to pick him up. The man introduces himself as Jack Ryder, a man literally walking out of nowhere in a storm, in a Doors reference so shameless that screen-writer Eric Red pretty much had to cop to it. Jim attempts to engage his passenger in conversation, fruitlessly, until Jim sees a car pulled over to the side of the road that had passed him shortly before his near collision. Ryder forces Jim to drive on, before pulling out a knife and telling him how he killed the driver of that car and is going to kill Jim as well unless Jim stops him. Unable to expose Ryder when they are forced to stop at a construction check-point, Jim eventually manages to force Ryder from the car. He is pleased at his escape, only to see a family sedan pull past him with Ryder in the back-seat. And a violent game of cat-and-mouse between Jim and Ryder than plays out across the desert, with Ryder on an inhuman rampage and Jim pursuing him while trying to stay ahead of the police who believe Jim to be guilty of Ryder’s crimes, with aid only coming to Jim from Nash, a waitress who improbably believes his story of a psychopath who comes and goes from the ether.
The first third of the film is unabashedly horror. Hauer plays up the cold menace of Ryder perfectly, while Howell does a convincing job of playing a naive young man horribly out of his depth who is quickly hardened by the events he witnesses. The extent of Ryder’s brutalities is played ambiguously. We never actually see any of his victims on the road, and most of the violence he commits is implied, with only a grisly police station massacre shown in full, and even then only via Jim’s after-the-fact discovery of the bodies. That shying away from violence is a bit curious in the later part of the film, when it morphs into a more conventional action movie, with explosions and car chases and crashes. The ambiguity of the earlier horror portions feel like an important element of deciphering what is going on. Ryder’s ability to come and go without being detected and to perfectly frame Jim for his crimes suggests either a supernatural component to Ryder’s character, or to his being a complete fiction of Jim’s-the theory supported by the police in the film. When the film devolves into action mode it becomes harder to plausibly deny the full reality of Ryder’s existence, though his curious ability to travel and escape from anywhere is still curious.
The film does its best to maintain some of that ambiguity regarding what Ryder is and what he wants. A pivotal scene occurs in yet another diner, where Ryder again comes from nowhere to terrify Jim and escapes unseen by anyone else. Jim asks him, directly, why Ryder is doing this, “this” presumably being toying with Jim and framing him rather than simply kill him. Ryder’s response is to tell Jim to figure it out, while placing coins over his eyes, a distinct classical reference regarding the preparation of the dead. Given Ryder’s seemingly supernatural abilities, what does this mean? Did Jim really survive that near collision, or is he now in some sort of Purgatorial state, with Ryder acting as his personal angel of death? Or, to go back to those oddly homoerotic moments earlier in the film:
Is Ryder simply a lunatic obsessed with Jim for his own reasons? The film never really wants to make it clear. Until, of course, it has to, and Ryder kills Nash in one of the most brutal deaths in horror films; a death that, again, happens off screen-it’s painfully clear to the audience what happens, and it’s horrible, but the restraint that the film displays in not showing it is admirable and more effective than a special effect would have been. Sometimes what isn’t seen is more horrible than what is. Once Nash (tomboyish Nash with her ambiguously gendered name…) is dead, the physical reality of Ryder is obvious and public, which only leaves the inevitable bloody shoot-out between hero and villain to end the film. It’s frustrating to see a film which starts out with a good, strong sense of dread turn into a more cliche film by the end, especially when you continue to see little glimpses of the good film lurking below the surface.