July 21, 2012

THE HITCHER (1986) - road movie, horror movie

(1986, USA)

Memorable shocks in the intelligent, original road movie horror

A young man (C. Thomas Howell) is making some extra cash by delivering a new car by driving across several states. In a torrential downpour, he obligingly picks up a hitchhiker (Rutger Hauer). As they start chatting, the details of the hitcher's stranded story don't quite add up. So he ditches the stranger as soon as possible. But this chance meeting leads into a nightmare of murder and unrelenting paranoia...

While 1980s horror films were awash with breakthroughs in prosthetic gore and wise-cracking paedophiles from hell, the most shocking moments in those films were often censored for both the big screen and the small. Watching horror movies on home video rarely delivered shocks based on explicit violence because those moments had been edited down (or completely cut out).

One movie that still made an impression was The Hitcher. Despite being panned and scanned from 2.35 widescreen in the cinema down to 4:3 on videotape (the way I first saw it), the story's power was increased by deliberately avoiding always showing the gore while suggesting very violent scenes. Aided by the suspense and emotional impact on the characters, the film was memorably surprising and chilling without troubling the censors.

Between a truck and a hard place
The simple premise is elaborately crafted by scriptwriter Eric Red, who seemed to specialise in mixing the horror genre up with car action (see also Near Dark and Body Parts). Although he delivered a violent story with a high bodycount, director Robert Harmon then had to reassure ace cinematographer John Seale (Witness, The Perfect Storm) that he wasn't out to make gory exploitation, and intended to use a subtler approach to horror and an attempt to shoot action scenes in more unusual and original ways.

Revisiting this on DVD, an overdue chance to see it widescreen, I was rewarded with a horror film that was an old friend, as well as a worthy road movie, with dreamy atmospheric cinematography and suitably muted moody music (from Mark Isham) that befits the genre, beauty and isolation of wide open spaces.

In the cast, a sad reminder of the early promise of C. Thomas Howell (The Outsiders) before he became synonymous with direct-to-video. Rutger Hauer elevates the film as the enigmatic murderer - a villain of the most dangerous kind, fiercely intelligent. Anyone wanting more of the Hauer we got in Blade Runner will enjoy this.

Along the way, a young woman inevitably gets drawn up in the events, played by a young Jennifer Jason Leigh (Single White Female, The Hudsucker Proxy) we benefit from getting a tough, cautious, realistic character rather than an annoying love interest.

There's not a weak link in the cast, and I retrospectively recognised Jeffrey DeMunn from The Walking Dead as the confused Police Captain trying to pick through the carnage.

I watched this on a US DVD (pictured at the very top) and then checked the UK 2-disc Special Edition (above) which added a great making-of documentary, with interviews with most of the principal cast and crew. But this newer transfer was marred by a standards-conversion that kept adding annoying 'kicks' in the long smooth camera moves. It looked like the film had also had some 'restoration' - so now there are compression problems from digital video noise reduction fighting against the film grain, as well as the rain and smoke in some low-light scenes. Until a Blu-ray happens, I'd favour the older US release, which happily is also anamorphic widescreen.

(2003, USA)

I was interested in seeing the grown-up C. Thomas Howell in the belated sequel, but was immediately was daunted by the opening credit 'Home Entertainment Production', indicating that this was primarily made for home video. The very opening scene with a CGI plane in a CGI rainstorm also unimpressed. 

C. Thomas Howell's character is now an adult, obviously haunted by his bad experiences with road trips. Despite the lesson he learned the hard way, he winds up picking up another hitcher with plenty of baggage.

The story adds some new twists, racks up a high bodycount and some impressively staged stunts. But with a story that keeps quitting the road, and a numbing fast-edit approach to action scenes, it's more action than horror. It should be so very easy to make Jake Busey into a memorable psycho, but this somehow doesn't manage it.

(2007, USA)

Won over by Sean Bean's rounded performance in Game of Thrones, I even tried out the recent remake.

Whereas the original movie took a more oblique approach to the gore and the stunts, the remake takes a hard line on getting the most violence and suffering out of the plot, but only as far as the 'R' rating will allow. The action and momentum of the story is more straightforward than the meandering sequel, but less complex and less mystical than the original. And Sean Bean is no Rutger Hauer. He a plot device propelling the movie, rather than a believable antagonist.

There's still much to enjoy, with new twists and turns in the road, and some fantastic shock moments that ejected me from my seat. Great to see the amazing car stunts being done for real rather than cheated with CGI.


The underused Neal McDonough carves an interesting role out of very little as the police captain in charge of the chase. When he gets angry, it occurred to me he'd have made a far more interesting Hitcher than Sean Bean.

But! It took a while to impress. For the sake of an elaborate long tracking shot, the opening shot uses CGI animals. I then didn't connect very well with the two young leading actors. Perhaps I was distracted by the opening half hour of the movie using a barrage of forgettable soft rock music.

Worse still, using that Nine Inch Nails track that backed the opening titles to Se7en is the clunkiest way to spoil the best action scene in the film. The soundtrack abruptly opts out of Steve Jablonsky's score like a bad playlist.

Also, the editing and staging of two of the stunts sequences included shots that completely 'crossed the line' (a basic rule of visual editing). I was so confused about 'who was going where' that I had to backtrack to get my bearings. Action on a long straight road shouldn't be that hard to follow.

Overall, a good-looking, action-packed shocker. A very different film, less elaborate, less atmospheric than the original. But more brutal rather than more cleverer.

I watched the US version on an HD/DVD combo disc. Looked good, with some interesting behind-the-scenes featurettes.


  1. Great reviews. Got to say I love the original. Hauer is hypnotic and terrifying. That film has a very unique atmosphere. Not sure if you've caught Harmon's other road killer movie Highwaymen. Again, a ludicrous plot but still some very interesting set pieces and great Mark Isham score.

    Actually have a copy of the sequel sitting in my "to watch" pile. Knew it won't be any good but should be fun to see Howell back behind the wheel.

    Avoided the remake but it sounds like it wasn't too bad.

  2. I always find it more terrifying when they DON'T show gore. We have to imagine it and it's always worse in my head.

  3. I love the original, it's such a moody film, so subtle yet when it impacts, it really gets you...love Hauer on this one, so demented.

    Agree abot Red and his road movies, you can add Highwaymen to that list!

    Im am now official curious for the sequel which I never bothered with because I consider the first one such a classic, that I thought a straight to dvd sequel could not do it justice, but your review made me want to watch it.

  4. If you want an 80s actioner, the 2003 sequel won't disappoint. But if you want something with the same tone as the original, the sequel and remake will disappoint...

    Wasn't intending to turn people on to the other films - I tjought I was warning you off!

  5. I have had the occasion to see the original on cable but alas, I was too young and too scared to sit through the whole film. Now that I am old enough I would love to watch The Hitcher. The sequel and remake I'll skip. Cheers!

    Buy TV, Radio

  6. Curiously, or not, the hitcher is a movie that's always forgotten among the horror lovers crowd. And and I don't understand why has it is such a good movie with the 3 actors in their best.