The Hitcher (Special Edition) Review
On the long drive from Chicago to California, Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell) finds himself falling asleep at the wheel, so he decides to do what his mother always told him not to and picks up a hitcher. The hitcher (Rutger Hauer) gives his name as John Ryder but otherwise refuses to even give his destination. After the hitcher forces him to accelerate past a vehicle abandoned at the side of the road, Jim's suspicions are aroused and he stops the car and asks his passenger to exit. The hitcher refuses and Jim is forced to continue driving. Eventually, the hitcher explains that he slaughtered the driver of the abandoned car and promises Jim the same fate. Drawing a dagger and holding it against Jim's throat, the hitcher challenges Jim to stop him. Jim manages to propel his passenger out of the car and drives off, not suspecting that his relationship with the mysterious John Ryder is only just beginning.
Rather than using its urban legend starting point as the basis for another run-of-the-mill horror tale, both the script and direction of The Hitcher capitalise on the premise's urban mythical quality to produce a kind of modern dark fairy tale.
Eric Red's pared-down and clipped dialogue reveals little or no back-story for the characters and no subplots are developed to distract from the central narrative. The sparseness of the script is reflected too in the vast wide-open spaces of the desert locations and the almost total absence of bystanders, heightening the sense of emptiness and isolation as Jim Halsey tries in vain to rid himself of his relentless tormentor.
A young C. Thomas Howell is given his first opportunity to perform some real acting and acquits himself reasonably well as the initially innocent Jim Halsey, who is first led to despair but is then eventually hardened by the hitcher's psychological and physical tormenting. Jennifer Jason Leigh also performs well in the limited and thankless role of Nash Galveston, a waitress who is drawn into the conflict between Jim and the hitcher.
The standout performance, though, comes from Rutger Hauer in arguably his finest role. Rather than being a one-dimensional mindless killer, the hitcher is portrayed as a nihilistic sadist who is drawn to Jim Halsey for complex and contradictory reasons. Hauer's layered and characteristically intense performance helps audience acceptance of the hitcher as both a complex, twisted human being and as an almost supernatural entity. Hauer uses simple expressions and gestures to convey the perverse bond that develops between the hitcher and Jim Halsey.
The undertones in the central relationship give the film more psychological depth than the average horror and the film also differs from standard slasher fare in its handling of violence. Whereas the death scenes in slasher films are typically exploited for vicarious thrills, much of the violence in The Hitcher seems genuinely sadistic and more often than not remains implied rather than explicitly shown.
The Hitcher comes to the UK in the form of an extras-packed two-disc special edition from Momentum Pictures.
The anamorphic transfer is in the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Although the source print is mostly free from flecks and scratches, there is noticeable film grain, particularly in the darker scenes. The blacks are suitably strong, but there is a lack of shadow detail. Despite many scenes involving dust or smoke, which often prove troublesome, the transfer is free from noticeable compression artefacts, though there are some isolated incidents of moiré effects, most noticeably produced by the window blinds in Roy's Café. Despite these concerns, The Hitcher looks as good here as it is ever likely to.
The original stereo soundtrack has been remixed into a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track with above average success. The rears have been appropriately used for ambient and spot effects, as well as to give extra spatial dimension to Mark Isham's appropriately sparse and understated score. Despite claims made prior to release and on the packaging, no DTS soundtrack is included.
Director Robert Harmon and writer Eric Red provide a two-handed feature-length commentary. Unfortunately, neither proves to be a natural commentator and the track is filled with pauses, as for the most part the pair seem content to simply watch the film and throw in comments as they think of them. Although they provide explanations of many of the practicalities involved in making the film, they provide little insight into the film itself.
Much better are the individual scene-specific commentaries provided by Robert Harmon, Rutger Hauer, C. Thomas Howell, composer Mark Isham, producer Edward S. Feldman, cinematographer John Seale and Eric Red individually.
Robert Harmon is much more focused and informative than in the feature-length commentary and talks about his career progression into the world of movies before offering a little in the way of analysis of the movie.
Rutger Hauer talks about his decision to make the film despite having decided against performing any more villainous roles prior to reading the script. He also discusses his interpretations of the story and how they influenced Robert Harmon's approach to the film.
C. Thomas Howell talks a little about his career previous to The Hitcher before acknowledging the great help he had from Rutger Hauer and Jennifer Jason-Leigh with his performance as Jim Halsey.
Mark Isham explains that the film score is the first he produced using sampling technology, which had only just become affordable at the time. As well as discussing the soundtrack for The Hitcher, he also talks about the pros and cons of acoustic and electronic scores in general.
Producer Edward S Feldman offers a single anecdote about how he had to coax a reluctant Rutger Hauer into performing one of the film's pivotal scenes.
Australian director of cinematography John Seale discuss the use of filters to achieve the desired look of the film, as well as the various techniques and special camera rigs that were used for the filming of the car stunts.
Finally, Eric Red mentions a small change to the script that occurred in one of the later scenes.
All of the parties who provide scene-specific commentaries also contribute to the thirty-eight minute retrospective documentary The Hitcher - How Do These Films Get Made? Presented in anamorphic widescreen, the documentary is an interesting look back at the making of the film, though sadly due to a lack of available material there is no on-set footage. Some of the ground already covered by the commentaries is repeated, but there is still enough unique information supplied to make the documentary more than worthwhile.
Robert Harmon provides introductory text and a commentary track for his debut short film, China Lake, which is also included. Completed in 1983, the film was self-financed by Harmon as a means of facilitating his progression from cameraman to director. All of the cast and crew who worked on the film did so for free, in return for the opportunity to gain experience or perform jobs a step up from their usual role. Presented in non-anamorphic 2.35:1, the film runs for thirty-five minutes and stars Charles Napier as a psychopathic cop who has ceased to understand the difference between innocent and guilty. The similarities between the locations and mood of The Hitcher and China Moon are striking, and as Robert Harmon himself says, he could not have chosen a better film to make to demonstrate his skills to the producers of The Hitcher.
Less directly relevant, but welcome nonetheless, is the inclusion of The Room, a short film co-directed by and starring Rutger Hauer. Based on a story by Dutch writer Harry Mulisch, The Room tells the story of Harry (Rutger Hauer) and his lifelong obsession with a room he first passed by in his youth. Returning to his home city later in life, Harry rents the room that has haunted him and comes to realise the cause of his obsession. Shot in 2001 in moody black-and-white and running for nine-and-a-half minutes, The Room is presented in a non-anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer with a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. Rutger Hauer provides a commentary for the film in which he explains the circumstances in which it was made as well as his pleasure at being able to fulfil his long-standing desire to direct.
Seven excerpts from the original script of The Hitcher are presented in the form of a number of text pages that can be navigated using the DVD controller's forward and back buttons. Although only two of the excerpts are listed as being deleted scenes, the other excerpts are also at variance with the finished film in a number of ways, not least of which is the original, more traditionally monster-like, depiction of the hitcher.
Concise text filmographies are included for Robert Harmon, Eric Red, Rutger Hauer, C. Thomas Howell, Mark Isham, Edward S. Feldman and John Seale.
The original teaser and theatrical trailers are both presented in anamorphic widescreen and run for approximately one minute and two minutes respectively. Both concentrate on the traditional horror elements of the film and give little indication of the twisted relationship that lies at the film's core. The trailers are more dated than the film itself due to the now hilarious deep-voiced narration that was a staple of the time.
A highly commendable effort has been made to supply a quality range of extras for The Hitcher despite the age of the film and the lack of existent background material. The absence of Jennifer Jason Leigh is conspicuous, if unsurprising, but her presence is not really missed and the contributors who are present provide plenty of background and insight into the making of the film.
Regarded by many as a genre classic, The Hitcher is distinguished by its semi-mythical quality, sparse dialogue, intriguing central relationship and a standout performance from Rutger Hauer. Despite being influenced by Spielberg's Duel and in turn influencing the recent Roadkill (known in the US as Joy Ride), The Hitcher still maintains its own unique horror-thriller identity, something that will hopefully remain undiluted by the recently produced direct-to-DVD sequel, The Hitcher II: I've Been Waiting.
In this Special Edition release from Momentum, The Hitcher looks and sounds as good as it is ever likely to. In stark contrast to the barebones US release, already reviewed by Daniel Stephens, the set comes with a selection of extras that, aside from the disappointing feature-length commentary, are of high quality and should please admirers of the film.