As anyone who’s ever attended can tell you, the Coolidge Corner Theatre’s annual Halloween Marathon can be a grueling experience. While twelve hours of horror movies in an art deco theater is a genre fan’s dream (I’ve written before about my endless affection for the event), there comes a point – maybe around 8AM – when your body simply gives out. Subsequently, this slot frequently goes to something most viewers don’t mind nodding out to: either a beloved genre favorite they’ve likely seen a million times, or a trifling back-catalog oddity. Occasionally, the wearying effect of the marathon can lead to rising tempers, as when Tobe Hooper’s feverish, claustrophobic hillbilly nightmare Eaten Alive was met with a round of boos.
This past year, however, saw something that I’ve never witnessed in all my years of attendance. The penultimate film – number six of seven, thanks to Daylight Savings Time – held the remaining audience members in rapt attention. The second the end credits rolled, the crowd burst into enthusiastic applause. Even program director Mark Anastasio was taken aback: “Where did that come from?” The mood, ordinarily numb by this point, was positively electric.
The film in question was 1986’s The Hitcher, and while most horror fans are at least aware of its existence, its reputation is curiously muted. The plot is simple enough to more or less glean from the title: Rutger Hauer, at his Roy Batty creepiest, plays a sinister hitchhiker bent on tormenting the one guy dumb enough to pick him up (here played by ‘80s staple-teen C. Thomas Howell). Arriving at the peak of the ‘80s horror boom, perhaps it seemed a touch too generic to outmuscle its flashier neighbors on the video shelves. Why spend $4 on the same old urban legend, after all, when you can rent something as balls-out nutsy as Phantasm?
But what The Hitcher lacks in conceptual bravado, it more than makes up for in white-knuckle intensity. To describe the exact crimes of Hauer’s character (unsubtly named John Ryder) would be to spoil the film’s constantly unspooling surprises, but suffice to say they go far, far beyond your average psycho stalker. Ryder is portrayed less as a man and more as a malevolent force of nature, in the tradition of Max Cady, Anton Chigurh, and the Terminator. When Ryder enters a scene, you know that shit’s about to go down; that he never seems to break a sweat or lose his smirk just makes him all the more terrifying.
That deadpan insanity extends to the film itself. While the desert locations and long car chases draw comparisons to Steven Spielberg’s minimalist thriller Duel, they bely the deeply twisted psychology that underlies the entire affair. One can easily imagine Bryan Fuller taking notes while crafting the twisted homoeroticism in his TV adaptation of Hannibal; as a police officer says to Howell at one point, “There’s something strange going on between the two of you. I don’t know what it is, and I don’t want to know.” And Jennifer Jason Leigh plays another one of her trademark tough/smart characters as a diner waitress caught in the middle, albeit one whose story takes an unexpected turn.
So let’s hope this marks the beginning of The Hitcher’s critical rehabilitation. It’s not an underrated movie, per se, so much as an overlooked one, and one that deserves a cult of ardent followers. Pick it up.
dir. Robert Harmon