The Hitcher (1986 film)
|Directed by||Robert Harmon|
|Produced by||David Bombyk
|Written by||Eric Red|
|Music by||Mark Isham|
|Edited by||Frank J. Urioste|
|Distributed by||TriStar Pictures|
|Box office||$7.9 million|
Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell), a young man delivering a car from Chicago to San Diego, spots a man hitchhiking in the desert and gives him a ride. The hitcher, John Ryder (Rutger Hauer), is brooding and evasive; when Jim passes a stranded car, however, Ryder forces his leg down on the accelerator. Ryder calmly states that the car is stranded because he murdered and dismembered its driver, and he intends to do the same to Jim. Terrified, Jim asks what Ryder wants. He replies, "I want you to stop me." Ryder produces a switchblade knife and strokes Jim's face with it while telling him to say, "I want to die." When Jim realizes that Ryder never put on his seat belt and the car's passenger door is ajar, he shoves him out of the door.
Relieved, Jim continues on his journey, but then he sees Ryder in the back of a family car with a couple and their daughter. Jim tries to warn them but sideswipes a bus and spins off the road. He continues driving and after a while comes across the family's car, which has blood oozing out the doors. Whatever he sees in the car causes him to vomit. He drives on and pulls into an abandoned gas station to use a phone. While there, the hitcher corners him in the garage, but Ryder simply throws him the keys he took from Jim's car and leaves, catching a ride with a man in a truck. Jim continues driving and eventually sees another gas station. While filling up his car, the truck driven by Ryder bursts from the garage, nearly runs him over, and crashes into the pumps, causing gas to flood onto the concrete. As Jim attempts to flee, Ryder drops a match, igniting the spilled gas. The ensuing explosion destroys the gas station. In flames, Jim's car speeds away.
Jim eventually stops at a roadside diner, where he meets a pretty young waitress named Nash (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and calls the police. She then serves him a cheeseburger and French fries; he starts to relax. Upon discovering a severed finger among the fries, Jim realizes Ryder is present and tries to escape. Two police officers arrive and, after finding Ryder's bloody switchblade in Jim's pocket, mistakenly arrest him. During interrogation at the station, at least one of the officers seriously doubts Jim is the actual killer, but they decide to lock him up as protocol until morning.
Jim wakes up in his cell and finds the door is unlocked. When he leaves, he discovers all of the officers at the station have had their throats slit. Hearing approaching police sirens, Jim panics, takes an officer's gun, and flees into the desert. While attempting to use a payphone at another gas station, he sees a police car drive up. Holding the two officers in the car hostage, he orders them to drive while he rides in the back. As they are driving, Jim speaks via radio to the officer in charge of Jim's case, Captain Esteridge (Jeffrey DeMunn). He convinces Jim to surrender, but just then Ryder pulls up alongside the police car and kills the two officers.
The car crashes by the side of the road and Ryder disappears once again. Jim walks into the desert and contemplates suicide but resolves to keep going. Reaching a cafe, Jim sits in a booth and is suddenly confronted by the hitcher. He holds Ryder at gunpoint, but Ryder tells him the gun is unloaded. Jim tries to shoot the hitcher, but indeed his gun is empty. After putting pennies on Jim's eye, Ryder leaves him some bullets in a handkerchief and departs. Jim sneaks on a bus stopped at the cafe and hides in the back. Nash is on the bus, so when she gets up to use the bathroom, Jim grabs her and tries to explain his situation. A police car then pulls the bus over and Jim gives himself up. The two officers are furious, believing Jim killed two of their colleagues.
One officer claims Jim spit on his wrist and tells him to wipe it off. Knowing that he will be shot in what will look like an act of self-defense, Jim refuses. This infuriates the officer further and he threatens to shoot Jim anyway. Suddenly Nash appears with Jim's gun and holds the two officers at bay. Once they drop their weapons, Jim and Nash flee in their patrol car. Ryder has been watching the entire event nearby. The young couple are chased by other officers, their guns blazing, in two more cars. As they bracket Jim's car, he slams on the brakes; one officer inadvertently shoots the tires of the other police car, causing both vehicles to roll. Jim and Nash flee again, only to be chased by a police helicopter and new patrol cars. Ryder appears in his truck and shoots down the helicopter, which forces all of the police cruisers to crash or go off the road.
Jim and Nash abandon the patrol car and hike to a motel. While Jim is in the shower, Ryder appears, lies on the bed next to Nash, covers her mouth to stop her from screaming, and abducts her. Jim begins looking for Nash, but he is grabbed by Captain Esteridge and another officer who take him to two trucks with Nash tied between them. Ryder is at the wheel of one truck and threatens to tear Nash apart. Esteridge tells Jim that his men cannot shoot Ryder as his foot will slip off the clutch, which would cause the truck to roll and kill Nash. Jim gets in the cab of the truck with Ryder, who gives him a gun and tells him to shoot, but Jim is unable to do so. Ryder, disappointed, releases the clutch, killing Nash.
Ryder is taken into custody, but further interrogation proves futile, so he is placed aboard a prison bus for transport. At the same time, Jim is given a ride by police Captain Esteridge. Having no confidence in the police to contain Ryder, Jim suddenly takes the officer's gun and vehicle from him and chases after the prison bus. As he catches up to the bus, Ryder has managed to arm himself with a shotgun. He kills the deputies transporting him, opens the back door of the bus, and leaps through Jim's windshield just as the bus careens off the road. Jim slams on his brakes, sending Ryder back through the windshield and onto the road in front of Jim's now-stalled vehicle. Ryder begins shooting at the car while Jim frantically tries to restart it. Finally, the engine starts again, but Ryder taunts Jim, challenging him to run him over, which Jim does. Jim then exits his car and looks upon an apparently lifeless Ryder. When Ryder jumps up, Jim shoots and kills him. He then stands by his car, smoking as the sun sets, realizing his ordeal is finally over.
- Rutger Hauer as John Ryder
- C. Thomas Howell as Jim Halsey
- Jennifer Jason Leigh as Nash
- Jeffrey DeMunn as Captain Esteridge
- John M. Jackson as Sergeant Starr
- Billy Green Bush as Trooper Donner
- Jack Thibeau as Trooper Prestone
- Armin Shimerman as Interrogation Sergeant
- Gene Davis as Trooper Dodge
- Jon Van Ness as Trooper Hapscomb
- Henry Darrow as Trooper Hancock
- Tony Epper as Trooper Conners
When writer Eric Red was 20 years old, he made a short film entitled "Gunman's Blues" in the hopes of getting the opportunity to direct a feature-length film. When no offers came, he moved from New York City to Austin, Texas, taking a drive-away car cross-country. While driving from one city to another, he got the idea for a film from The Doors song "Riders on the Storm". He found that the "elements of the song – a killer on the road in a storm plus the cinematic feel of the music – would make a terrific opening for a film". Red had a lot of time to think about the song and it inspired ideas for the story. During his seven-month stay in Austin, he drove a taxi cab and wrote The Hitcher. In 1983, he sent a letter to several Hollywood producers asking if he could send them a copy of the screenplay for The Hitcher. His letter concluded: "It (the story) grabs you by the guts and does not let up and it does not let go. When you read it, you will not sleep for a week. When the movie is made, the country will not sleep for a week". Script development executive David Bombyk received a copy of Red's letter and was intrigued by the description of the film. Red sent him a script that was approximately 190 pages in length (one page traditionally equals one minute of screen time).
The original script was not for the faint of heart. An entire family was slaughtered in their station wagon, an eyeball was discovered inside of a hamburger, a woman was tied to a truck and a pole and then torn in half, a graphic sex scene between two teenagers, a decapitation as well as several slashings, shootings and car crashes. In its original form, Bombyk found the script to be "extremely brutal and extremely gory", but he and personal manager Kip Ohman (who later became co-producers of the film) also saw in it "a level of challenge, intensity and poetry". Bombyk and Ohman were worried about getting it into good enough shape to show their boss, producer Ed Feldman and his partner Charles Meeker and prove to them that it was more than an exploitation film. Bombyk worked with Red via several long distance phone calls to Texas and eventually the writer moved to Los Angeles. Red agreed to work with Ohman on the script until it was ready to be shown to Feldman and Meeker. They liked the script but wondered, "how could we manage to translate it to the screen without making a slasher movie?" Meeker said.
Feldman and Meeker decided to come on board as executive producers. Ohman and Red spent six months reworking the script, removing most of what Ohman felt was repetitive violence. Once they got it in good enough shape, Ohman gave it back to Bombyk and also to David Madden, a production executive for 20th Century Fox. Within a few days, Madden called back and told them the script was "terrific". However, the studio was not comfortable with the subject matter but felt that the writing was unique and interesting enough to give the filmmakers a letter-of-intent to distribute the film. This would allow them to get financing and then once filming was completed, the studio would reimburse them for the budget.
The film's producers then went looking for an inexpensive director. Still photographer-turned-cameraman Robert Harmon was given a copy of the script by his agent but thought it was just another script – that is, until he listened to a series of messages left by his agent on his answering machine encouraging him to read Red's script. Harmon read it and early the next morning called his agent and told him that he wanted to do it. In February 1984, Harmon met with the producers to talk about the script. He recalled, "even the exact actions that remained in the script were described in much bloodier and gorier detail". The producers were impressed with him and the fact that he also envisioned the film as a Hitchcockian thriller. However, Harmon objected to the eyeball in the hamburger scene and never planned to show the girl getting ripped in half.
In early drafts of the script, John Ryder had been described as skeletal in nature and so actors like David Bowie, Sting, Sam Shepard, Harry Dean Stanton, and Terence Stamp were mentioned. Harmon was set on casting Stamp and even carried around his picture to pitch meetings. Stamp received a copy of the script but he turned down the role. Sam Elliott was offered the role but an agreement could not be reached on his salary. Singer mentioned Dutch actor Rutger Hauer. While in L.A. for a short visit, Hauer read the script. Even though he was looking for non-villainous roles, the script "really got ahold of me ... I thought, 'If I do one more villain, I should do this.' I couldn't refuse it". The one reservation Hauer had was with the scene where the girl is torn apart and Feldman told him, "you are the bad guy and you'll be the baddest bad guy there ever was!" Red mentioned to Hauer that he had Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards in mind when he wrote the part of Ryder. Furthermore, Red felt that the character should have an electronic voice box.
For the role of Jim Halsey, the producers mentioned Matthew Modine, Tom Cruise and Emilio Estevez. They agreed on C. Thomas Howell and liked his look. At the time, he was being more selective with the roles he took and heard that the script was a generic thriller. Harmon personally gave Howell a copy of the script. He could not put it down and "couldn't believe the things that happened to my character in the first 12 pages. I knew I wanted to do it". He also wanted to work with Hauer. Unbeknownst to Hauer, Howell found him "frightening, intimidating, and that he was in a constant state of fear, almost as if he really was John Ryder and I really was Jim Halsey".
In addition to the cast, veteran character actors Billy Green Bush (known for playing ill-fated police officers in Electra Glide in Blue and Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday), Gene Davis (known for playing the naked psychopathic killer Warren Stacy in 10 to Midnight), Armin Shimerman (who would later be the voice of General Skarr in The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy) and Emmy-winner Henry Darrow make cameo appearances as police officers who pursue Jim Halsey.
Fox ultimately rejected the project over the budget and saw it as a "straight-out horror movie". Madden also admitted that he would have "argued to soften the movie. There were some people at the studio who thought it was pretty gross". Feldman and Meeker optioned the film themselves, paying Red $25,000. Major studios like Universal Pictures and Warner Brothers passed on it, as did smaller ones like Orion Pictures and New World Pictures. Many executives liked the script but balked at the girl being ripped apart scene. At least two studios were willing to consider making it but only if Harmon was replaced. However, the film's producers had faith in their director and stuck by Harmon.
Independent producer Donna Dubrow heard about The Hitcher while working on another film and to her it sounded like "Duel with a person". When she went to work for Silver Screen Partners/Home Box Office, she contacted Feldman, a former employer, and asked for a copy of the script. She submitted it to her boss, HBO senior vice-president Maurice Singer. He liked it and sent it back to New York to be read by Michael Fuchs, HBO chairman and chief operating officer. They needed Fuch's approval to get the film made. It would not be easy to convince him because it was not the kind of material that he liked and he did not want to make it. However, Dubrow had to go back to New York on other business and met with Fuchs. She mentioned The Hitcher script and pitched the Hitchcockian thriller angle. When she returned to L.A., Singer told her that Fuchs agreed to make the film but with the stipulation that the girl would not be torn apart and the violence would be reduced. The film's budget was set $5.8 million.
Over the next few months, the filmmakers negotiated two keys scenes in the script: the girl getting ripped apart and the eyeball in the hamburger. For the latter scene, Harmon just changed the body part to a finger. As for the former, everyone at HBO/Silver Screen, except Dubrow, wanted it changed. Fuchs did not want the girl to die and Dubrow argued that this would change the story significantly. There were arguments about how the girl should die and Dubrow remembers, "they were trying to make her death not horrible, when – by the nature of the script – it had to be". The studio even suggested softening her death by having a funeral. The filmmakers refused to back down and Silver Screen executives finally relented at the last minute.
Contractually, Tri-Star Pictures was obligated to distribute any film by HBO/Silver Screen. They saw an early screening and Tri-Star president David Matalon said, "It's the best film that we have for 1986". The Hitcher opened in 800 theaters on February 21, 1986 where it made $2.1 million on its opening weekend and went on to gross $5.8 million in North America. The film screened on 20 March 2015, to the 29 anniversary at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Yonkers, New York, narrated from Fangoria Magazine's Michael Gingold.
The film received mixed reviews. The review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes gave the film a 61% "Fresh" rating. Upon the film's original release, The Hitcher was panned by film critics. Roger Ebert awarded it no stars and wrote, "But on its own terms, this movie is diseased and corrupt. I would have admired it more if it had found the courage to acknowledge the real relationship it was portraying between Howell and Rutger, but no: It prefers to disguise itself as a violent thriller, and on that level it is reprehensible". In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, "Mr. Harmon, making his feature debut, displays a much surer hand for action than for character, though even some of the action footage here looks meaninglessly overblown". In his review for the Washington Post, Paul Attanasio wrote, "The script (by Eric Red) is laconic in a dull way, much Cain but hardly able. And Harmon and his cinematographer, John Seale, have shot the movie in such brown murk, you can hardly make anything out. By the end, you're willing to forgive Ryder his worst if someone would just change the light bulb". In his review for the Globe and Mail, Jay Scott described the film as a "slasher movie about gay panic, a nasty piece of homophobic angst for the age of AIDS". A rare positive review came from Newsweek magazine's Jack Kroll who called it, "an odyssey of horror and suspense that's as tightly wound as a garrote and as beautifully designed as a guillotine".
One of the film's producers claimed that the film's commercial failure was because of a lack of violence and that Nash's death should have been shown: "There's other gore in the movie, other killings, but this is the main one. It's the motivation for the hero. You can't show all the killings we showed and then not show the main one. It's cheating the audience".
Sequel and remake
The film spawned a sequel in 2003, The Hitcher II: I've Been Waiting, with C. Thomas Howell returning to the role of Jim Halsey.
A remake was filmed and released on January 19, 2007, which starred Sean Bean as John Ryder, Zachary Knighton as Jim Halsey and Neal McDonough as Esteridge. The remake added a female protagonist named Grace Andrews, who was portrayed by Sophia Bush. In the film, Andrews survives, while Halsey suffers Nash's fate. The movie was released to generally negative reviews.
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- Attanasio, Paul (February 21, 1986). "Taking a Joyless Ride". Washington Post.
- Scott, Jay (February 25, 1986). "Nasty piece of homophobic angst Logic takes a hike in Hitcher". Globe and Mail.
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- The Hitcher at Rotten Tomatoes
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