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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Riders on the Storm: The Hitcher

The Hitcher (1986)
Dir. Robert Harmon
Fright Level: 4/10
Scare Type: Psychological, the bogeyman.
Sub-genre: action/thriller, serial-killer, road movie, horror of personality.

I was lucky enough to catch a 35mm screening of this film. It was not in great shape, but seeing it on the big screen just reinforced how incredibly shot and blocked this film is. This was Eric Red's first screenplay and Robert Harmon's first film, but you wouldn't know it from watching it. The opening scene is insanely well written, to the point of being requisite for aspiring screenwriters on how to set up tension. This is a movie that doesn't waste time getting to where its going.

Red based this screenplay, or at least the opening sequence on the Doors song "Riders on the Storm." There is a very Jim Morrison feel to Red's scripts; a tie to the southwest, mythologies of violence, frustration, and rebirth, and very distinct natural moods. Red would follow this film with Near Dark, one of the three greatest vampire films ever made. Both films are among the best of the 80's. There are some areas where belief needs to be suspended in The Hitcher, much like any bogeyman film space/time are relative to the shadow figure, and one set-up that isn't adequately followed through, though it is effective. What makes the film work is its pacing, and Rutger Hauer's terrifying performance. Key to that performance is a strange endearment which highlights the psychological relationship between James (C. Thomas Howell) and the Hitcher. Unlike many horror films or action films where an element like this would need to be drawn out externally, there is enough internally inside the film to more than suggest that there is a lot going on, and the film allows the audience to decide whats going on. As Hauer tells Howell: "You're a smart kid, you'll figure it out."

The power of this film, and why it stands up so well after nearly 25 years, is that it subverts the spectator's gory gaze. We aren't allowed to see the violence that throws James deeper and deeper into a hellish game of cat and mouse. This is a forgotten key, perhaps the key to creating a horror classic. It's why films from Cat People to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre are so powerful and have such long shelf-lives. They suggest more than they show, allowing us to do work, and often scare ourselves more than they ever could have. In fact, the most violent and disturbing image in The Hitcher is a non-image: a tilt to the ground and a fade to black.

Watching this film now I can't help but think of its numerous similarities to No Country for Old Men. Both films take place in the same part of the country, both are serial killer films where a guy gets in over his head with a near superhuman killing machine, there is innocent collateral damage, inept police work, a strange code of morality among the amoral, a moral victory that is costly, etc. The locations for the action are even similar: a gas station, a motel, a highway, a police station (ok those last two were a stretch). I make this comparison in hopes that it can better place The Hitcher in a less specialized context, outside of genre and into a more general appreciation for what an excellent cinematic work it is. In fact, to place this as a horror film is to acknowledge its psychological potency, because in every other way its an action or suspense film. Its motifs are borrowed largely, as would Near Dark, from westerns and road movies. The horror is created because of the implications in the transformation of James' character, and his increasingly complex relationship with the Hitcher, and our place, as the audience psychologically tied to the protagonist, in that relationship both with the characters and with the film's worldview. In this way, it does the same thing No Country does to its audience. It forces us to decide to either chose a world of violence and chaos, or a character which embodies a corrupt moral world-view which orders and contains that violence and chaos.

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