Starring: C. Thomas Howell, Rutger Hauer, Jennifer Jason Leigh
Rated R (probably for Strong Violence/Gore and Language)
"The Hitcher" should be a great little horror movie. The lead is likable, the villain is the definition of malevolence, the editing is crisp and the director has the ability to generate tension with ease. The problem? It's stupid. The script by Eric Red is written at such a brainless level that the hard efforts of the cast and director become futile.
Jim Halsey (Howell) is driving from Chicago to San Diego. But it's late at night and he's on the verge of falling asleep at the wheel. Coffee and cigarettes aren't cutting it anymore. So when he spots a man on the side of the road looking for a ride, he picks him up with the hopes that at the very least, the guy will keep him awake. Big mistake. Jim gets a bad feeling about this guy, who calls himself John Ryder (Hauer), almost immediately, and it isn't long before Ryder pulls a knife on him. Naturally, Jim asks him to stop, and Ryder says that he wants Jim to say four words: "I want to die." Given the first opportunity, Jim seizes his chance for freedom and throws his passenger out of the car. But Jim hasn't seen the last of John Ryder; the guy slaughters everyone in his path and pins the blame on poor Jim. The only one who believes him is a pretty waitress named Nash (Leigh). Together, they have to figure out how to stop the rampaging psychopath and clear Jim's name.
In most horror movies, the killer's face is unseen until the big reveal (one, but not the only, exception is "A Nightmare on Elm Street," but Freddy Krueger's face was disfigured beyond the point of recognition, so it doesn't really count). Michael Myers had the altered Captain Kirk mask, Jason has the hockey mask, the killer in "Scream" has the Ghostface costume, and so on. The idea is that it keeps the killer's identity hidden and am unmoving face is creepy in and of itself. "The Hitcher" throws that idea away. From the minute John Ryder is in the car, we see his face. Rutger Hauer is shows that this is a man who thinks nothing of killing someone. It's a shake-up of the genre that works.
His co-star is 80's heartthrob C. Thomas Howell, and it's a good performance in a relatively tricky role. Jim is the all-American kid, and the handsome and friendly Howell has no problem essaying that. It's impossible not to like him, and that's what gives the film its edge. We care about him and want him to survive. His co-star, Jennifer Jason Leigh, is also good, doing quite a bit with a relatively thankless role.
Unfortunately, all these efforts go to waste, since the script is so fatally dumb. It seeks to be more than your average slasher movie, but the characters are so stupid all around that the movie's credibility is shattered around the halfway mark. Horror movies have to be given a little leeway on the intelligence level to provide the scares; if every character did the smart thing when being attacked by a killer/monster/demon/whatever, the movie would be over in two seconds. But when you have the hero take cops hostage to prove his innocence, or have cops lock him up even though they know he can't be the killer, or how a bunch of armed cops send the hero to negotiate with the killer who has a girl tied up between two trucks, it crosses the line.
I wanted to like this movie. The acting and the direction are so strong that I gave it all the leeway I could. But in the end, it fell apart.