Whether drinking Monster or watching Quiz Call, we’ve all done stupid things to stay awake – but none more stupid than Jim (C. Thomas Howell) in 1986’s The Hitcher, who staves off drifting by picking up a drifter (Rutger Hauer).
This being the pre-satnav era, Jim is delivering a car from Chicago to San Diego via Texas (because Leatherface made it the must-visit destination for motiveless serial killers) where he starts nodding off and picks up a psychotic hitchhiker to stay awake. And it works. One reading would suggest that Jim actually did fall asleep at the wheel, crashed his car and died, explaining the purgatorial nightmare that ensues – it wouldn’t be the last movie (spoiler alert) to employ that particular twist.
Fortunately it’s not that obvious, nor is it remotely subtle. Gas station explosions, car chases and helicopter crashes helped the film lose money (no mean feat for a horror movie) and to resemble a nihilistic version of Thelma & Louise, a cat-and-mouse thriller with Itchy & Scratchy levels of overkill. The hitcher’s (with the imaginative name John Ryder) obsession with corrupting a young man also makes this the most homoerotic genre flick since the previous year’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, with a similarly forgettable lead in Howell – and a diner confrontation scene so steamy it rivals Heat.
The late, great Hauer is truly terrifying as the proto-hobo with a shotgun, looking like a weird cross between Christopher Walken and the Terminator. The always brilliant Jennifer Jason Leigh elevates the film further, as does John Seale’s (Mad Max: Fury Road) cinematography which makes every frame into a desert rock album cover. Inspired by Duel, Hitchcock and The Doors, The Hitcher is a nasty little number about the liminality and demonisation of youth – the police are dangerous, the violence unexplained and the roads as empty as the space between Jim’s ears.
For a first-time director, Robert Harmon knows how to make an impression – or he barely has a handle on the overdriven chaos. Either way he keeps his foot on the gas and leaves the worst gore to the imagination, making many scenes genuinely unforgettable. Combined with the simple setup, eerie score and sadomasochistic undertones, this makes for an intense, indelible rash of road rage. A sequel came in 2003 and a Michael Bay remake in 2007 (with Sean Bean as Ryder) but unless your radio has got stuck on LBC, no car journey can match The Hitcher‘s sheer trauma.