Like all good horror, The Hitcher starts with a picture of wholesome normality and an average everyman character whose world is suddenly overturned and they catapulted into a nightmare. It is the same jolt inversion that runs through classics like Psycho (1960), The Birds (1963), Night of the Living Dead (1968), Duel (1971) (a film that has many similarities to The Hitcher with its plot about an ordinary man being taunted on a desert highway by a mysterious truck), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and Jaws (1975). The only motivation Rutger Hauers psychopathic hitcher ever offers is to tell C. Thomas Howell Youre a smart kid you work it out. Of course, Howell never does, making The Hitcher into a work of existential horror a la The Birds, Night of the Living Dead, Duel and Texas Chain Saw films that are concentrated into remarkably brutal assaults that float disturbingly free of reason or apparent cause. Although, a line where C. Thomas Howell jokes My mother told me to never do this, as he initially opens the door to Rutger Hauer momentarily suggests that The Hitcher could be some type of monumental Oedipal black joke.
The Hitcher has the dream logic of a nightmare. The attacks on C. Thomas Howell come bereft of any raison detre. The film is one long extended nightmare as Robert Harmon undermines C. Thomas Howells every illusion of security Howell wields a gun against Rutger Hauer in a cafe but Hauer tells him it isnt loaded and produces the bullets to prove it; rather than being there to help, the police instead become convinced that Howell is the killer and mobilize all their forces against him; not even a deserved moment of exhausted sanctuary in a motel room or the security provided by being locked up in a jail cell is allowed. The tension throughout is utterly relentless.
The film a sublimely calculated piece of filmmaking. Robert Harmon has a fluid mastery of photography and editing that is quite extraordinary. The slow-motion sequence where C. Thomas Howell runs to escape as Rutger Hauer drops a lit match into a pool of spreading petrol at a gas station is seat-edge material. The cop car chase, which turns into a stunning slow-motion ballet of crashing vehicles, is one of the most amazing screen pileups ever staged and absolutely devastating in impact. The Hitcher is a film that needs to be seen on the widescreen for full impact. The jolts, twists and unexpected turns offered at every opportunity are the work of a master filmmaker. The scene where Harmon has Rutger Hauer tie Jennifer Jason Leigh between a truck and detached semi-trailer and challenges C. Thomas Howell to shoot him to stop him otherwise he will let the clutch out is a genuinely harrowing scene and one that plays against every convention the heroine has in a film even if Robert Harmon does eventually exhibit perhaps a little too much good taste and not show the outcome of the scene.
Subsequent to The Hitcher, one of the great mysteries of filmdom has been What ever happened to Robert Harmon? Harmon went onto to direct the insipid John Travolta vehicle Eyes of an Angel (1991) about a man and his dog pursued by the mob and the Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Nowhere to Run (1990), then lapsed into the tv wasteland. His most recent genre outing was the tepid horror film They (2002) and a further serial killer road movie with Highwaymen (2003), followed by a long lull in the tv movie wasteland. The films screenwriter Eric Red went onto a more substantial directorial career than Robert Harmon ever did. Red next tuned the script for the excellent modern day vampire film Near Dark (1987) and the psycho-thriller Blue Steel (1990), both for Kathryn Bigelow. Red made his directorial debut with the fine thriller Cohen and Tate (1989) about two hit men, which has some similarities to The Hitcher, and then went onto the likes of the disembodied limbs film Body Parts (1991), the werewolf film Bad Moon (1996), the thriller Undertow (1996), the ghost story 100 Feet (2008) and the killer dog film Night of the Wild (2015).
There have been several purported sequels to The Hitcher. Hourglass (1995), directed by and starring C. Thomas Howell, was passed off as a sequel, The Hitcher 2, although is a tawdry psycho-sexual thriller unrelated in any way and does not even feature any hitchers. The Italian film Fear in the Dark (1989) from Umberto Lenzi was also released as The Hitcher 2. An official sequel was eventually made as the incredibly poor The Hitcher II: Ive Been Waiting (2003), which does feature a return performance from C. Thomas Howell, and the film was then remade as the equally poor The Hitcher (2007) with Sean Bean in the Rutger Hauer role and C. Thomas Howell replaced by a young teen couple. There have been several other films influenced by The Hitcher, including Midnight Ride (1990), The Nature of the Beast (1995), American Perfekt (1997), Breakdown (1997), The Forsaken (2001) and Meeting Evil (2012).