While delivering a car to California, teenager Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell) crosses the Texas Panhandle and begins to fall asleep at the wheel. It is four o’clock in the morning and raining hard. In need of conversation to stay awake, Halsey picks up a hitchhiker (Rutger Hauer). The two men stop when they see a Volkswagen on the side of the road, with its doors open. A shocked Halsey notices that the passengers have been mutilated. Then the hitchhiker, who gives his name as John Ryder, takes credit for the deed. Horrified, Halsey asks, “What do you want?” Ryder grins and says that he wants Halsey to stop him from killing others. Halsey flees, pursued by the psychopathic Ryder, who allows him to escape only to catch him again and taunt him. With a glazed, crazed look in his eyes, Ryder becomes a lonely driver’s worst nightmare.
The Hitcher is frightening, effective nonsense, littered with gruesome suggestions. The viewer seldom sees the gore. Still, the film offers moments when little is left to the imagination: in a roadside diner, Halsey picks up what he thinks is a french fry—but discovers that it is a severed finger. After the Texas police decide that Halsey himself is the mass murderer, the action turns to shootouts and car chases. Although derivative, the movie still manages to convey the inexplicable logic of a horrible dream. Director Robert Harmon composes impressive images of desolation in the wide expanses of the Panhandle. And cinematographer John Seale (Witness) drenches the daylight scenes with unmerciful harshness. Although the stalking camera is a familiar technique in modern horror films, Harmon deploys it to maximum effect.
Still, the movie would have been more compelling had the script given Halsey a distinctive personality. It is difficult to care about him until he is befriended by a waitress named Nash (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and even that human element arrives too late. As well, the strange communion between Ryder and Halsey becomes ludicrous when they meet for a final showdown. Despite the fact that The Hitcher is both conventional and ultimately hollow, it does take the viewer for a terrifying ride.
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