Retrospective: The Hitcher — Suspense and Survival on a Deserted Highway

Veteran actor Rutger Hauer passed away in July of this year and sometimes it’s customary to look back on an actor’s career and remember them for their “best”, or at least most iconic role they were well-known for. The popular consensus for Hauer’s defining role would have to be the replicant Roy Batty in Blade Runner (1982), in which he gave one of the most quotable soliloquies in film history that truly does stand the test of time. Personally, I will always remember Hauer as the haunting John Ryder in The Hitcher (1986) being his most memorable and haunting performance.

The Hitcher is in many ways a prototypical killer-on-the-road movie. We have the unsuspecting motorist Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell) picking up what turns out to be a deranged, murderous hitchhiker in the form of John Ryder (Rutger Hauer), and what ensues is a game of cat-and-mouse throughout a deserted highway setting. The typical beats are there, but the quality of the acting and direction wring out the maximum amount of suspense from the rather simple concepts. In fact, Hauer’s performance as Ryder was so creepy and convincing it made Howell genuinely afraid of him, and it’s incredibly easy to see why in the movie.

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The Hitcher. Dir. Robert Harmon.

John Ryder is to the desert highways of western Texas what the shark was to the ocean in Jaws (1975). He seemingly pops out of nowhere to torment Halsey, or in some odd cases, to aid him. The relationship between the two characters is kept ambiguous throughout the movie and it keeps the viewer guessing what’s going to happen next. Ryder has something of a death wish, trying to push Halsey over the edge to finally take his life, but he’s not going to just give it to him easily. The antagonist-protagonist relationship is also equal parts mentor and student with Ryder pushing him into one no-win situation after the other, almost testing him. He’s not a single-minded killer in the vein of the slasher flicks that were dominant at the time, Ryder has layers and more complex motivations.

The main theme seems to be survivalism. What does not kill us makes us stronger, and Halsey is certainly tested throughout the film. There’s no “smart move” like in other horror movies for the protagonist to make, and doing the traditionally right things repeatedly backfires. Halsey is screwed either way, so why not fight back as hard as you can? Howell conveys Halsey’s character arc well and is entirely believable as a young man dealing with the horror around him, changed by his bloody run-ins with Ryder. He starts off scared and rather naive, and by the end of the movie is grimly determined to put a stop to Ryder, not even letting the police get in the way. 

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The Hitcher. Dir. Robert Harmon.

The Hitcher makes full usage of the desert background, quiet and ominous much like Ryder himself, and music is kept to a bare minimum, only truly taking part during the tensest scene in the movie: a chase sequence between Halsey, Ryder, and the entire police force (plus a chopper for good measure) in tow. Other than those handfuls of moments, it’s quite stark and captures the uneasiness of early morning on a desolate highway. It’s hard not to become as nerve-shot as Halsey is, constantly on edge and unsure of where Ryder might pop out of next.

Filled with tension and a fantastic performance from Rutger Hauer, The Hitcher set an extremely high bar. There’s action, horror, suspense, a fulfilling character arc for the protagonist, and a truly memorable villain who is an enduring enigma. There’s nothing else out there that has quite the same mixture of serial killer horror and suspense and high-octane road thrills. Both attempts to follow-up the original were disastrous. There was a direct-to-video sequel, The Hitcher II: I’ve Been Waiting (2003), featuring none other than Jake Busey as the villain. In 2007 there was a remake that cast Sean Bean in the Ryder role, and like practically all of that era’s 80s horror movie remakes, it failed to live up to the quality of its original namesake.

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The Hitcher. Dir. Robert Harmon.

Rutger Hauer’s extensive filmography as a character actor took him all across the spectrum from B-movies to bit parts in blockbuster pictures, but it’s truly The Hitcher that cements his status as one of the most memorable movie villains of the ’80s. The influence can still be felt decades later in the likes of Adam Wingard’s The Guest (2014) featuring an equally deadly drifter. I can remember watching Hauer’s performance as Ryder at a time in my life when I felt like giving up, same as Jim Halsey, and getting a twisted sense of the will to live from Ryder, his imparting lesson during the film: either lay down and die or fight back, no matter how tough the situation might be.

There’s only one man who could have played the role of John Ryder, and it was definitively Rutger Hauer. It’s a performance that has stayed with me, and it’s hard picturing anyone other than Hauer in the role, his blue eyes peering out under his unkempt shock of blonde hair as Ryder sadistically toys with Halsey. It’s the best in its own subgenre of horror/suspense and a must-see for anyone who is a fan of Rutger Hauer’s work. It’s one of those rare treats where every aspect is firing on all cylinders: the actors, the direction, and of course amazing writing from a young Eric Red who would go onto a prolific screenwriting career and even did some directing himself. The Hitcher, though, is by far his best work, and a high watermark that few 80s thrillers even come close to matching.

 

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