A month ago when I first got the idea to do this 31 days thing, I asked everyone to recommend horror movies I should watch. One of the first people to respond was today’s special guest Adam P. Knave. To go along with his post, today’s movie is one of his recommendations, a movie I had never seen before, the really good 1986 original The Hitcher.

The Hitcher – USA, 1986. Dir. Robert Harmon. Starring Rutger Hauer, C. Thomas Howell, Jennifer Jason Leigh.

I watched The Hitcher at the recommendation of Mr. Adam P. Knave and can I just say, holy crap. This movie is kind of a mindf*ck.

It’s another one of these classic horror films that I have somehow managed to not see until this 31 Days project. I also haven’t seen the remake but, um, sorry Sean Bean. I don’t think I’m going to bother. (I still really like you though! Don’t take it personally.)

I’m going to try and be careful here. I know I haven’t always avoided spoilers but I feel like this movie relies so heavily on playing with your expectations, it wouldn’t be right to give things away. This post might be a little shorter than others.

If you’ve known me for a while, you may remember that this time last year I was in the middle of my own cross country road trip. Like Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell), my ultimate destination was San Diego, CA. I managed to avoid picking up a hitchhiking Rutger Hauer in the desert, but I traveled those same roads. Through Arizona, California, Texas, Nevada… I know those roads. The beauty, the emptiness. I know that feeling of being alone, late at night, with nothing but your own company to keep you awake. It feels like another world out there; you feel so small traveling through it.

I’m really glad I didn’t watch this movie before my trip.

Seriously. It’s a mindf*ck.

The Hitcher is a cat and mouse game of epic proportions. Rutger Hauer is just… Gah, I don’t know. Creepy as hell. Intense. Almost supernatural in his abilities. There’s this constant feeling that even when he’s not visibly there, he’s just around the corner, behind a wall, behind you, next to you, in bed with you…

C. Thomas Howell on the other hand is such a baby, he’s so young! His youth is partly what makes Jim such a likeable, sympathetic character. He’s naive and he’s got a sweet smile. He’s the perfect foil for Rutger Hauer’s crazy. John Ryder is terrifying. The first time we see him through the rain streaked window, we know this guy is just not right.

The entire opening sequence to this movie is brilliant. And right away I knew that whatever I expected to happen, this movie was not going to let me get ahead of it. You only know what the movie wants you to know. If you think John Ryder is around a corner, then he may just be there. But if he is, he will be there because those are the rules that are established early on. It won’t be because you outsmarted the film and guessed the plot.

The Hitcher is an incredibly tight and contained film. Frequently our view is obscured, we see things through doorways or dirty windows, the frame is cut off by the corner of a cubicle or the wall of a jail cell. Where is John Ryder hiding? It could be anywhere. But then we’ll be out of the prison, Jim will be back in the desert. And as he begins to crack under the pressure, the camera pulls back to a wide shot and we are reminded of exactly how tiny he is. Yet still he seems alone. We still don’t know where John Ryder is watching from. But we’re sure he’s watching.

Everything happens within the rules of this universe. John Ryder is imbued with almost godlike omniscience. He doesn’t just play with Jim, he dominates him. The movie is never completely clear on what is happening between Jim and John, but it is clear that there is an Oedipal struggle between them, they are tied to one another and it will not end until only one of them remains. Cat and mouse, dominant and dominated, father and son… They come closer and closer until one consumes the other.

I should stop here. There’s more I could say – about the shocks, the brutality, the one moment that left me literally speechless. If you’ve seen this, you possibly know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, I don’t want to spoil it.

Where did John Ryder come from? What is it he wants? I don’t know. It’s not as simple as good vs. evil. Ryder isn’t evil per se. Sadistic, violent, cruel… yes. But evil is just too easy. He’s malevolent. He is also nothing. He is no man. He has no history. For all intents and purposes, he might as well just not exist.

His history is as empty and vague as the road around him.

Some of the things that happen in this film are truly awful and insane. In the end, where does this all leave Jim? After what he’s been put through, what can possibly be left of his sanity?

This is the story of a boy driving alone into the empty vastness that is the American west, confronting demons, journeying into manhood. He’s going to come out damaged. If he comes out at all.

Thanks Adam for this wonderful suggestion. I loved it!