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The Hitcher (1986)

“There’s a killer on the road.  His brain is squirmin’ like a toad.  Take a long holiday, let your children play.  If ya give this man a ride, sweet memory will die.  Killer on the road.”  These are lyrics from The Doors’ “Riders on the Storm” which inspired the story for this film for screenwriter Eric Red.  The Hitcher is a masterpiece of suspense and tension headed up by an intelligent and brilliant performance by Rutger Hauer, portraying the title character.  It’s a film that was never a major hit, but remains as a gleaming gem of a horror film.

Transporting a car from Chicago to San Diego, the young Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell) picks up hitch-hiker John Ryder (Rutger Hauer) one rainy night hoping he might be able to saved off his own drowsiness.  However, this man soon reveals that he is a homicidal psychopath, having already butchered another driver, and threatens Jim with a knife to his throat.  Jim, fortunately, is able to eject this killer from his car, but the terror for him has only just begun.  Through this American southwest desert landscape, the cunning and methodical Ryder plays a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with Halsey.  He even frames Halsey for his murders, forcing Jim to fiercely evade the police at every turn.  The only aid Jim receives is from diner waitress Nash (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who eventually becomes caught up in this terrifying, blood-stained fight for survival.

The Hitcher is so effective for two major reasons.  Firstly, director Robert Harmon does an amazing job crafting a desolate feeling of isolation which creates an atmosphere of unease.  The desert landscape gives the film a sense of barren hopelessness.  It is so wide open, but offers no place for escape for Jim Halsey from John Ryder’s malicious intent.  It’s also a film that gives you degrees of suspense and tension.  Sometimes, it’s low key and subtle just unnerving you enough to setup for something horrifically gruesome.  Other times, it’s wrapped so tight, it might just choke you.

The other reason is Rutger Hauer.  His is a frightening performance on the most realistic level imaginable.  His John Ryder is a man of twisted charm wrapped up in the mind of a homicidal psychopath.  Those chillingly cold eyes show no soul or humanity behind them, and they are unflinching.  They offer no reprieve from his relentless insanity.  Yet, Hauer injects so much sadistic, insidious pleasure into this role, engrossing himself deeply and fully into the madness, showing just how much perverse enjoyment Ryder gets out of all of this.  There is so much multi-layered dimension constantly showing the sick, depraved gears turning in his head.  He’s not your ordinary psychopath who is going to murder everyone in sight.  After Jim gets the better of him, Ryder becomes intently focused on Jim, and decides to psychologically torment him relentlessly.  Ryder doesn’t want to kill him.  Instead, he provokes Jim repeatedly because he wants Jim to stop him.  Ryder is the one who wants to die, but suicide is not in his psychological make-up.  He needs someone else to do it for him, and he is entirely incapable of stopping his murder spree until someone does stop him.  It is a terrifying, riveting performance filled with immense intelligence by Rutger Hauer, and it is one of his best roles alongside Roy Batty in Blade Runner.

Likewise, C. Thomas Howell is amazing.  You can see and feel the intense, paralyzing fear that Ryder puts into Jim Halsey.  Howell pours so much into Jim’s desperation which drives him to further rash action.  There is even one powerful moment, after Ryder has murdered an entire station of police officers, where Jim contemplates suicide to escape what seems like an otherwise inescapable nightmare.  You can see the very average, decent person he was slowly get pushed further and further towards his limits.  The torment by Ryder forges a seemingly compulsive symbiosis between them.  The connection between Ryder and Halsey is brilliantly crafted to intertwine their fates, and build up to an absolutely shocking final twenty minutes.  Despite being very familiar with what happens in the truck stop scene, even after all these years, I was still horrified by its outcome.  Some might say that not showing the actual shockingly gruesome outcome actually detracts from the film.  I say that it works either way, but I can definitely feel the need to have that visceral image of horror going into the final confrontation between Halsey and Ryder.  Regardless, the moment still has powerful impact without it.

Jennifer Jason Leigh makes an immediate charming impression.  She quickly endears herself with both a warm sensibility and a tough enough edge to give Nash some strength of character.  I think that sweet Southern accent really aids these qualities of her performance.  Leigh and Howell work very, very well opposite one another, and I think it’s refreshing that no romantic connection is forced into the story.  Jim and Nash are certainly bonded, to an extent, but their time together doesn’t give them the opportunity to get that deeply emotionally involved.  Leigh does plenty without that contrivance to build sympathy for Nash.

The only odd thing in the film is that I do find it confusing why the local police immediately believe that Jim is the killer they are looking for.  As most of us have, I’ve watched plenty of police procedural shows over the years, and the last thing an experienced officer does is jump to conclusions without evidence to back them up.  Of course, after John Ryder has begun deliberately framing Jim for the murdered police officers, it becomes very easy to grasp this idea, but before then, the cops have no honest reason to dead-set accuse Jim for the murders on the highway and at the service station.

The car chase sequences are amazingly well done.  Each one is intense and exciting creating real imminent danger for our protagonists.  The filmmakers even go further when a police helicopter begins chasing after Jim and Nash, but the film never loses sight of its true focus.  These action scenes flow organically from the plot as Jim runs from the police, or John Ryder tries to run him off the road.  Also, the film doesn’t go for large amounts of gore, and thus, when something grisly hits, it has so much more impact.  The same goes for the violence Ryder inflicts.  We don’t see every death.  There’s a good amount that is chillingly implied, or we only see the bloody aftermath.  This shows what Ryder is capable of, and sets an atmosphere of impending dread and unpredictable horror.  Yet, we do get some gory, violent kills which have immense impact on both the audience and Jim Halsey.

The cinematography is absolutely superb.  There is excellent use of composition – both tight and wide – along with smart camera movement, mainly with steadicams, and well chosen angles, all of which complement and enhance the dramatic depth of the film.  Director Robert Harmon, his editor, and director of photography do a rock solid job with every shot to tell a competent visual story with plenty of tight suspense and tension.

Mark Isham’s primarily electronically based score is excellent as well.  It creates a subtle presence that complements the desolate atmosphere, and never oversells any moment of quiet terror.  It also deeply highlights the moments of emotional pain and despair with its light, ambient style.  The aforementioned action sequences are scored with frenetic intensity, and really ramp up the adrenalin and danger.

The Hitcher feels like a slow, psychotic descent into hell.  One would almost welcome death after half of what Ryder puts Halsey through, but Jim shows the will to survive and the desire not to die.  Even with cops trying to lock him up and even kill him, being psychologically tormented at every turn, Jim fights to break free of this psychotic web of madness.  This is what constantly pushes him forward to either find a way out this deadly game, or to combat Ryder himself.  Ultimately, he is pushed so hard to where, as the audience, we won’t accept anything less than an intense one-on-one confrontation between them.  And because this film is so brilliantly crafted and executed by so many magnificent talents, the ending does not disappoint at all.  Truly a fitting end which will leave you feeling the emotional impact straight through the film’s sobering end credits score.

Rutger Hauer absolutely plays one of the best villains of cinema here in a film that is one of the best examples of suspenseful terror I’ve ever witnessed.  John Ryder is immensely intelligent, but also a complete sociopath and psychopath.  The fact that the film builds that relationship between Ryder and Halsey is really what gives the film its strength and edge.  Director Robert Harmon and writer Eric Red did a phenomenal job The Hitcher assembling an immensely talented cast which grounded the film in deep, intense emotion.  The suspense couldn’t be more masterfully crafted, and the tension is so nerve racking and thick.  Every technical and artistic element works in perfect to make this one of the best, most effective psychological horror films I’ve ever experienced.  You will do yourself a real favor by giving this 1986 original a watch.  I never saw the remake because, like in so many cases, the original required no improvement or re-invention.  The Hitcher is a dead-on classic.

Transporting a car from Chicago to San Diego, the young Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell) picks up hitch-hiker John Ryder (Rutger Hauer) one rainy night hoping he might be able to saved off his own drowsiness.  However, this man soon reveals that he is a homicidal psychopath, having already butchered another driver, and threatens Jim with a knife to his throat.  Jim, fortunately, is able to eject this killer from his car, but the terror for him has only just begun.  Through this American southwest desert landscape, the cunning and methodical Ryder plays a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with Halsey.  He even frames Halsey for his murders, forcing Jim to fiercely evade the police at every turn.  The only aid Jim receives is from diner waitress Nash (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who eventually becomes caught up in this terrifying, blood-stained fight for survival.

The Hitcher is so effective for two major reasons.  Firstly, director Robert Harmon does an amazing job crafting a desolate feeling of isolation which creates an atmosphere of unease.  The desert landscape gives the film a sense of barren hopelessness.  It is so wide open, but offers no place for escape for Jim Halsey from John Ryder’s malicious intent.  It’s also a film that gives you degrees of suspense and tension.  Sometimes, it’s low key and subtle just unnerving you enough to setup for something horrifically gruesome.  Other times, it’s wrapped so tight, it might just choke you.

The other reason is Rutger Hauer.  His is a frightening performance on the most realistic level imaginable.  His John Ryder is a man of twisted charm wrapped up in the mind of a homicidal psychopath.  Those chillingly cold eyes show no soul or humanity behind them, and they are unflinching.  They offer no reprieve from his relentless insanity.  Yet, Hauer injects so much sadistic, insidious pleasure into this role, engrossing himself deeply and fully into the madness, showing just how much perverse enjoyment Ryder gets out of all of this.  There is so much multi-layered dimension constantly showing the sick, depraved gears turning in his head.  He’s not your ordinary psychopath who is going to murder everyone in sight.  After Jim gets the better of him, Ryder becomes intently focused on Jim, and decides to psychologically torment him relentlessly.  Ryder doesn’t want to kill him.  Instead, he provokes Jim repeatedly because he wants Jim to stop him.  Ryder is the one who wants to die, but suicide is not in his psychological make-up.  He needs someone else to do it for him, and he is entirely incapable of stopping his murder spree until someone does stop him.  It is a terrifying, riveting performance filled with immense intelligence by Rutger Hauer, and it is one of his best roles alongside Roy Batty in Blade Runner.

Likewise, C. Thomas Howell is amazing.  You can see and feel the intense, paralyzing fear that Ryder puts into Jim Halsey.  Howell pours so much into Jim’s desperation which drives him to further rash action.  There is even one powerful moment, after Ryder has murdered an entire station of police officers, where Jim contemplates suicide to escape what seems like an otherwise inescapable nightmare.  You can see the very average, decent person he was slowly get pushed further and further towards his limits.  The torment by Ryder forges a seemingly compulsive symbiosis between them.  The connection between Ryder and Halsey is brilliantly crafted to intertwine their fates, and build up to an absolutely shocking final twenty minutes.  Despite being very familiar with what happens in the truck stop scene, even after all these years, I was still horrified by its outcome.  Some might say that not showing the actual shockingly gruesome outcome actually detracts from the film.  I say that it works either way, but I can definitely feel the need to have that visceral image of horror going into the final confrontation between Halsey and Ryder.  Regardless, the moment still has powerful impact without it.

Jennifer Jason Leigh makes an immediate charming impression.  She quickly endears herself with both a warm sensibility and a tough enough edge to give Nash some strength of character.  I think that sweet Southern accent really aids these qualities of her performance.  Leigh and Howell work very, very well opposite one another, and I think it’s refreshing that no romantic connection is forced into the story.  Jim and Nash are certainly bonded, to an extent, but their time together doesn’t give them the opportunity to get that deeply emotionally involved.  Leigh does plenty without that contrivance to build sympathy for Nash.

The only odd thing in the film is that I do find it confusing why the local police immediately believe that Jim is the killer they are looking for.  As most of us have, I’ve watched plenty of police procedural shows over the years, and the last thing an experienced officer does is jump to conclusions without evidence to back them up.  Of course, after John Ryder has begun deliberately framing Jim for the murdered police officers, it becomes very easy to grasp this idea, but before then, the cops have no honest reason to dead-set accuse Jim for the murders on the highway and at the service station.

The car chase sequences are amazingly well done.  Each one is intense and exciting creating real imminent danger for our protagonists.  The filmmakers even go further when a police helicopter begins chasing after Jim and Nash, but the film never loses sight of its true focus.  These action scenes flow organically from the plot as Jim runs from the police, or John Ryder tries to run him off the road.  Also, the film doesn’t go for large amounts of gore, and thus, when something grisly hits, it has so much more impact.  The same goes for the violence Ryder inflicts.  We don’t see every death.  There’s a good amount that is chillingly implied, or we only see the bloody aftermath.  This shows what Ryder is capable of, and sets an atmosphere of impending dread and unpredictable horror.  Yet, we do get some gory, violent kills which have immense impact on both the audience and Jim Halsey.

The cinematography is absolutely superb.  There is excellent use of composition – both tight and wide – along with smart camera movement, mainly with steadicams, and well chosen angles, all of which complement and enhance the dramatic depth of the film.  Director Robert Harmon, his editor, and director of photography do a rock solid job with every shot to tell a competent visual story with plenty of tight suspense and tension.

Mark Isham’s primarily electronically based score is excellent as well.  It creates a subtle presence that complements the desolate atmosphere, and never oversells any moment of quiet terror.  It also deeply highlights the moments of emotional pain and despair with its light, ambient style.  The aforementioned action sequences are scored with frenetic intensity, and really ramp up the adrenalin and danger.

The Hitcher feels like a slow, psychotic descent into hell.  One would almost welcome death after half of what Ryder puts Halsey through, but Jim shows the will to survive and the desire not to die.  Even with cops trying to lock him up and even kill him, being psychologically tormented at every turn, Jim fights to break free of this psychotic web of madness.  This is what constantly pushes him forward to either find a way out this deadly game, or to combat Ryder himself.  Ultimately, he is pushed so hard to where, as the audience, we won’t accept anything less than an intense one-on-one confrontation between them.  And because this film is so brilliantly crafted and executed by so many magnificent talents, the ending does not disappoint at all.  Truly a fitting end which will leave you feeling the emotional impact straight through the film’s sobering end credits score.

Rutger Hauer absolutely plays one of the best villains of cinema here in a film that is one of the best examples of suspenseful terror I’ve ever witnessed.  John Ryder is immensely intelligent, but also a complete sociopath and psychopath.  The fact that the film builds that relationship between Ryder and Halsey is really what gives the film its strength and edge.  Director Robert Harmon and writer Eric Red did a phenomenal job The Hitcher assembling an immensely talented cast which grounded the film in deep, intense emotion.  The suspense couldn’t be more masterfully crafted, and the tension is so nerve racking and thick.  Every technical and artistic element works in perfect to make this one of the best, most effective psychological horror films I’ve ever experienced.  You will do yourself a real favor by giving this 1986 original a watch.  I never saw the remake because, like in so many cases, the original required no improvement or re-invention.  The Hitcher is a dead-on classic.


The Machinist (2004)

This is a unique film.  Helmed by Brad Anderson, the director of Session 9, and written by Scott Kossar, screenwriter of the recent remakes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre & The Amityville Horror.  I’ve never seen Anderson’s work before, but I’ve heard good things about it.  Whatever the case, The Machinist pulsates with rare talent and dedication for a style of film that few venture into.  The most shockingly impactful display of dedication comes from Christian Bale (American Psycho, Batman Begins) who shed 63 lbs for this gaunt, troubled role leaving him at a frail 120 lbs.  The scenes showing his skeletal physique will just blow your mind.  With this being such a unique film, a plot synopsis cannot go into details without spoiling anything.

Simply put, there is something wrong with Trevor Reznik (Christian Bale), but what it is, even he doesn’t know.  Trevor is a machinist that has wasted away to the point where “if you were any thinner, you wouldn’t exist.”  But what happens to be worse is that Trevor has not slept in a year.  Trevor is in such bad shape that his machine factory co-workers believe he’s doing drugs, but it’s hardly the case.  Still, the deterioration of his physical and mental state beg the question, “what the hell happened to him?”  On the brighter side, Trevor has two women in his life – the lover and the mother.  The lover is Stevie (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who is a very warm and affectionate girl who happens to be a prostitute, but is certainly more to Trevor than that.  The mother is Marie (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón) who is a mother to a young boy, and gives Trevor some company while drinking coffee in the late night hours.  Still, Trevor has recently become very interested in a supposed co-worker named Ivan (John Sharian) who he’s never seen before, and comes off a little creepier than anyone would be comfortable with.  But what’s even creepier is that no one at the factory seems to know who he is – it’s as if he doesn’t exist.  Although, to Trevor, he is very real, and Ivan continues to haunt Trevor to no end.  Then, there’s the mystery of who’s leaving post-it notes on Trevor’s refrigerator door – taunting him with a game of hangman.  Paranoia is only the beginning as Trevor tries to decipher this bizarre mystery, and ultimately, discover what secrets are buried in his scattered, tired mind.  Like the tagline says, How do you wake up from a nightmare when you’re not asleep?

The sparkling gem in this film is truly Christian Bale.  Beyond any other performance of his, this is the one that demonstrates the extremes Bale will goto for a great role.  His dedication is full heart, body, and soul.  He has a passion for film and acting that is just as unique and rare as this film.  Bale practically starved himself to reach this striking physical goal, and believe me, you won’t be able to understand how anyone could live in this condition.  Trevor’s a bit lighthearted about it all, and doesn’t really let it bother him (frankly, he’s got much more pressing matters at hand).  Bale’s performance here is powerhouse indeed, treading through a flood of emotions over the course of the film.  I simply cannot praise Bale’s acting talents enough, there aren’t the words for it.  He is truly one of the greatest actors of our time, and I’m glad to be a witness to it.

The rest of the cast is very complementary as well.  Michael Ironside’s role as Miller, a co-worker of Trevor’s that suffers an unfortunate mishap at the factory, is small but interesting.  Ironside’s always so typecast as a villain or a hard-ass tough guy, it’s nice to see him as someone more light-hearted.  Jennifer Jason Leigh is, as always, a wonderful talent.  She’s done some fantastic roles in the past, and while this role as Stevie is more understated, she has heart and sympathy.  Leigh is still a beautiful woman, and brings a needed bit of consult to Trevor’s troubled mind.  Aitana Sánchez-Gijón (pronounce it if you can) is the overnight waitress at an airport coffee shop that Trevor visits every night.  She’s also a mother with a son named Nicholas (gives me a smile) that Trevor befriends on Mother’s Day.  And probably the capper is the mysterious and creepy Ivan as portrayed by John Sharian.  He essentially haunts Trevor throughout the movie, and makes himself very suspect by the fact that he comes off as overtly suspicious.  He seems like a sociopath, but there’s something far more unforeseen about him than that.  Furthermore, his look is great!  It was augmented to make him appear creepier than normal with a false set of larger teeth and a mangled hand (which is exceptionally freaky).  Sharian plays up the role, but not too much.  His look takes a lot of credit for Ivan’s effectiveness, and Sharian really has quite the Brando mojo going here.

Another striking element here is the cinematography and the entire visual design of the film.  There are a lot of filters used, making the film take on a cold, monotone feel, but there is one or two scenes with a warmer look.  Though, the surreal, unwelcoming visuals are what dominate the film.  And while the story is set in L.A., it was actually shot in Spain, and I feel that the visual style applied here really pushes the film towards a more European look.  The pitfalls, but I think it helps the film seem more surreal.  The cinematography is absolutely wonderful, very inspired – admittedly – by Hitchcock among other things.  It’s amazing work that is rarely seen these days.  I mean, this is photography where the entire film is a large canvas that is painted on with great care.  That’s much like how the script is with many layers, details, and textures that are slowly put together before we ultimately see the entire masterwork.  The score also blends these elements together.  It’s another Hitchcock-inspired detail, and has a very special, unique quality.  Some films don’t utilize the score as a storytelling device, but here it is used to perfect potential.  It definitely enhances all parts of the film with the eerie, mysterious qualities being in the forefront.  Roque Baños has a rare talent for a style of score that isn’t heard enough any more.

Now, where everything really connects is director Brad Anderson.  Again, I’ve never seen any of his other work, but I have to believe it’s just amazing.  The talent he displays in this film, between subtle and obvious, is remarkable.  Not a whole lot of directors develop their own personal style, but when they do, it makes them that much better.  Anderson definitely leaves his mark with The Machinist.  Whether it’s driving the actors, planning out the action in a scene, or what have you, he delivers a wonderfully crafted work of film.  It would certainly take a very competent and highly skilled director to make this script work, but not only does it work, it lives, it breathes.  Brad Anderson really made a potentially very confusing story and made it compelling, intriguing, thrilling, and engaging.  He slowly reels you in, and you have no desire to pull away until the very end.

All in all, this is a great film.  It’s strong, eerie, and by the end, will definitely have you in an array of emotions.  It’s somber and strange, but Brad Anderson makes sense of it all.  The entire cast is a pleasure with Christian Bale putting in everything he had, and showing his dedication and devotion on every single frame.  The photography is something not seen since Hitchcock, and the score resides in that same class.  Simply put, everything and everyone here makes this film everything it was meant to be and more.  This is one great piece of filmmaking, and I highly recommend everyone check it out sooner than later.  A pure 10 out of 10!