Strangers On A Highway: The Masterful Suspense of 1986’s The Hitcher

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Junkfood Cinema takes an end of summer road trip to Hell.

You’re on a lonely road trip. You’ve been driving all night through the center of nowhere and you passed the last exit to civilization miles ago. Your head is heavy, and your stomach is running on empty. You see some hovering neon, a sign bereft of style and cutting to the quick with its oh-so-concise message: EAT. The diner may not look like much, it may not look like anything at all, but somehow the burger plopped on the counter in front of you is the most delicious thing you have ever tasted.

You never know where you’ll find greatness, a very basic idea that drives our Junkfood Cinema podcast. Along the forgotten back roads of filmdom you will find brilliant films more than worthy of your detour.

Such is the case with 1986’s The Hitcher.

Written by Eric Red, The Hitcher is one of the most basic stories ever to be explored by a screenplay: man unwisely picks up hitchhiker, hitchhiker makes life a living hell for man for next 90 minutes. However, the craft and care taken to bring that story to life is stunning. It’s rare that character depth, cinematography, and stunt work culminate into an artful horror film; all the more rare is when a film that manages to expertly navigate all those intersections is then largely forgotten.

Rutger Hauer stars as John Ryder, a roadside wraith of pure evil hellbent not simply on killing helpful motorist Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell), but instead torturing him at 100 mph. Hauer is icy, otherworldly terrifying. He is the prototype Anton Chigurh, but an Anton unburdened by assignment.The story is simplistic, sure, but the progressively more severe and extraordinary events that spawn from Jim’s unwise gesture to a stranger illustrate that The Hitcher is really an extrapolation of urban legend. As rooted in reality as it is, the moments wherein Hitcher bends credulity function almost as the inherent embellishments that come with the retelling of such a cautionary tale. “That,” you can hear the sister of a friend of Jim’s mother telling her kids, “is why you don’t pick up hitchhikers.”

What is so masterful about The Hitcher, is that it siphons thematic elements from Alfred Hitchcock into its own gas tank. The every man, the chance encounter, the elaborate frame-up are all signature components of the Hitchcock engine, but it doesn’t end there. The fateful meeting between Ryder and Jim is not terribly dissimilar from Farley Granger and Robert Walker crossing paths on that train car in 1955, with one character woefully unaware of the dangerous nature of the other. To wit, during the below episode of Junkfood Cinema, we took to referring to The Hitcher as Strangers on a Highway for this very reason.

In the same lane, the visual aesthetics of The Hitcher seemed ripped directly from Hitch’s manual. Cinematographer John Seale does not shoot The Hitcher as if it is an exploitative horror flick. Instead, he presents a master class of how to create tension with a camera. Seale seems as playfully sadistic as Ryder, using light and engaging composition to withhold and reveal at perfect intervals to maximize suspense.

Seale also shares credit, with a brilliant second unit, for another of The Hitcher’s triumphs: the stunts. This film is a beautiful ballet of chaos. Throughout the movie, high-speed mayhem is shot from low angles and with as few cuts as possible. This, coupled with the symphony of pistons that roars under every crash and chase sequence brought racing into our minds the vehicular anarchy of George Miller. This turns out to be no coincidence as Seale would later shoot, and be Oscar-nominated for, Mad Max: Fury Road.

This Hitchcock/Miller pastiche incidentally makes The Hitcher the perfect pairing with another overlooked highway thriller: Jonathan Mostow’s Breakdown (1997). But where The Hitcher pulls a U-turn on both of the filmmakers to whom it is beholden, and where it races past the newer model Breakdown, is that it is relentlessly bleak. Hitcher is a story about the eradication of innocence at the hands of a hell agent along America’s open road. Ryder methodically extracts everything in Jim’s life that motivates him to remain human. Their conflict is straight-up biblical, Jim serving as the version of Job who could not hold onto his faith.

The Hitcher ultimately failed to connect with audiences in 1986, despite being crammed with truckloads of horror and action spectacle that should theoretically have driven audiences wild. It can easily be argued that the nihilism of its central story is what pumped the brakes on its commercial success. Ironically, as we argue in the below podcast episode, this element is very reminiscent of the films of Sam Peckinpah and would have likely made The Hitcher a hit were it released in the 1970s. We indulge in the fantasy of a 1976 Hitcher starring Steve McQueen as Jim pursued by a menacing Warren Oates.

Buckle up, there are miles of musings still to come on this week’s Junkfood Cinema podcast.

As a special treat, anyone who backs JFC on Patreon will have access to a weekly bonus episode covering an additional movie from the summer of 1986, a new movie in theaters, or a mailbag episode devoted to your submitted questions! Have a couple bucks to throw in the hat, we’ll reward you!

On This Week’s Show:

  • The Pickup[0:00–6:04]
  • The Ride[6:05–57:04]
  • The Drop-off[57:05–1:02:38]

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.