Here's an odd tidbit about your humble horror host.
When I first arrived in New York, some million or so years ago, I took a small photo of C. Thomas Howell to one of the sketch artists in Central Park and asked him to make a portrait from it. The photo was Howell in his snow-camo from the bleak winter of the Wolverines' betrayal in the searing and powerful classic Red Dawn. I explained to the artist that it was crucial to capture what Tommy was feeling inside: a restless hunger for vengeance tempered, just slightly, by a tragic awareness that chosen path would lead to his doom. "He's an angry man," I said. "But he knows his anger will destroy him."
The artist nodded gravely and then got to work.
The finished expression was not exactly what I'd hoped for. The finished product featured Howell, wrapped loosely in white swatches of camouflage as if it were a jaunty head scarf, AK-47 tucked in his arms, with a vapid "Hey, I'm a tourist in New York" smile on his face. He looked serene and placid, like he was thinking back to a really fun field trip he'd once been on as a small kid. "Remember the Field Museum and Robin MacGower was total afraid of the dinosaur skeletons? What a fun day."
I was still too much a not-New Yorker to kick up a shit storm, so I ended up owning this picture of a combat-equipped C. Thomas Howell giving the world a vacantly satisfied grin. I must have had that thing hang on my walk for a year or two before I finally gave it to the Salvation Army.
Watching Howell's engaging 1986 road thriller The Hitcher made me realize that I really should have held on to that thing.
But we still have The Hitcher.
If you haven't had the chance to see it, The Hitcher is one of the better flicks to emerge from the morass of 1980s horror. Though it was then, and remains, overshadowed by works in the more iconic slasher franchises of the day, The Hitcher is generally fondly remembered for baddie Rutger Hauer's wonderfully restrained performance and the flick's several memorable set pieces. I think, however, that the movie deserves more credit than that. I praised 2008's The Strangers for taking a basic slasher outline and stripping it down to its barest essentials and then executing the streamlined plan with earnest intensity. Director Robert Harmon and writer Eric Red (who later penned the script for Bigelow's Near Dark and Blue Steel) pulled off the same trick more than 20 years earlier. Harmon and Red strip the whole slasher formula to its core concept: the chase.
Though other characters, most of them expendable, pass through The Hitcher, the story is really just about two men. Delivering a car to California, young Jim Halsey attempts to fight the soporific monotony of the desert highway by taking on a hitchhiker. Enter serial murderer "John Ryder," who is in Jim's car for only a few minutes before he's threatening to carve Jim up. But Ryder quickly ends up a victim of his own nonchalant attitudes about road safety when Jim realizes that the passenger side door is not fully latched and he pushes the non-seat belted Ryder out.
Some psycho killers would have just let that go. You can't gut them all, you know? But Ryder's not that kind of guy. He begins stalking Jim, killing people who cross Jim's path but leaving Jim himself unscathed. This is a particularly nice touch as it puts a novel twist on the paradigmatic power imbalance between slashers and their victims. In your generic stalker pic, the victims are powerless to save themselves. In The Hitcher, Jim's the safest guy on the screen. He's powerless to save anybody else. Worse yet, he ends up becoming the killer's unwitting partner in so much as his efforts to save himself, which require contact with others, are what brings more flies in Ryder's lethal web.
As trail of corpses and carnage that follow Jimbo about gets wider and wider, Ryder frames Jim for his dark deeds, forcing Jim to run from both the five-o and the psycho. He finds some aid in the form of Nash (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh), a kindly truck stop waitress who ends as Jim's hostage/accomplice. Though the generic role is no great showcase for Leigh, the relationship between Jim and Nash is refreshing. A lazier flick would have just written them up as a love interests and been done with developing them. Instead, Nash and Jim have a pleasingly conflicted relationship. Neither really character really trusts the other, whatever sexual interest might have existed is quickly overwhelmed by the violence they've witnessed and perpetrated, and the two interact with somber determination that shows they can already tell that this story does not end with the phrase "happily ever after." I don't want to overstate the depth of these characters. Typical of everybody Jim meets, Nash is really little more than an earnestly played and well-written cliché. Still, the atypical relationship they share gives this grim flick a hint of pathos.
Eventually Jim and John's nasty game comes to an end. John, inscrutable as always, chooses to end the chase, confront Jim, and do it all in a way that clears Jim of the airtight frame John trapped him in. As with everything else in their relationship, John does this unilaterally. What could be another twist of the knife into the shambles of Jim's life turns out to be the end of the game simply because John wills it. Jim gets his life back, but Nash looses hers.
With John in custody, we learn from the police that they have no records for him. Not only does John have no criminal record, they don't have any paper evidence of his existence at all. Jim leaves the police station just as officers are dragging John to the bus that will take him to prison. Jim realizes that the conflict isn't over. As John quickly breaks free of his restraints and overpowers his guards, Jim highjacks a police cruiser, and chases John down for a final showdown.
One of the joys of the film is Hauer's restrained, yet oddly all over the place performance. Hauer's Ryder speaks almost exclusively in a slow, quiet monotone. He moves languidly, as if he knows he's in a movie and is just hitting marks while everybody else is desperately fleeing him. Unlike the robotic Terminator (release two years prior), whom Ryder most resembles (indeed, he even lifts the "kill all the cops" riff), Ryder seems less determined than cosmically bored. It is as if he's aware of the fact that, as the killer in the movie, he's essentially a different species than the other characters. He knows he's there to kill and they're there to die. But, since he can't communicate this information over the vast gulf that exists between him and all the other characters in the film, he is constantly halting his efforts at reaching them. He'll start to show anger or impatience or even approval, and the go stone faced again. One gets the sense that Ryder is obsessed with Jim because he's the only one who survived an encounter with him and that, somehow, marks him as a special character as well.
In a way, Ryder and Jim's relationship parallels the inert, doomed relationship between Jim and Nash. Just as Jim can't really explain what the hell is happening to him to Nash, and therefore can't really connect, Ryder can't explain the rules of the film to Jim and is, instead, locked in this weird effort to show him how the rules of their world bend for them by virtue of their special status. One imagines that Ryder wants to just grab Jim and say, "Do you think any two other people could live through all this? Haven't you noticed that I'm always exactly where I need to be to run into you? You're not curious about that?" He's like an inarticulate version of the fourth-wall breaking killers in Funny Games, only he's just found his partner and discovered that the one other special person in the world isn't like him.
(This foiled "romance" is given extra emphasis by a scene in which Ryder pretends he is Jim's lover to deflect a construction worker's suspicious interest in them.)
The Hitcher is far from perfect. The longer Ryder's game goes on, the bigger the director and writer felt the stakes had to get. This leads to blow out action sequences that belong in another movie. The sequence in which Ryder shoots down a police chopper with his revolver shows just how cartoonish the action can get. Not that cartoonish violence isn't a hoot, mind you. But it feels out of scale with the rest of the flick.
Still, even with those problematic shifts in tone, The Hitcher remains, in my opinion, one of the gems '80s horror.
Oh, and I should mention, The Hitcher gets credit for showing roadside diners and gas stations that aren't insanely disgusting cesspits. Which is nice.