The relationship between stalker and stalkee has rarely been as bizarre as the one at the center of 1986's The Hitcher. What looks like a simple plot - driver picks up hitcher, hitcher is crazy, driver is tormented by hitcher for days - is simply the mechanism that allows Harmon and writer Eric Red (one of the most underrated talents of his era, I say) to create one of horror's most personal and intense battles.
An understanding of this relationship must begin with an understanding of the players involved, which is no easy task. One of the biggest struggles I have had with The Hitcher over the years is that Red offers so little early in the film that can explain John Ryder, the hitcher, and Jim Halsey, the driver. With a lack of background information about them available, my mind often tends to stop thinking of the characters and start thinking about the actors who play them.
Rutger Hauer is Ryder, and it's near impossible to avoid thoughts of his robotic Blade Runner character each time he does something sadistic to Halsey or anyone else who stands in his way. Unlike many imported Hollywood stars, Hauer has always had a pretty solid command in dialogue, and his wild eyes and eloquent speech make Ryder an intimidating presence in any scene. After his initial interaction with the driver, which establishes his criminal and violent insanity, we primarily see Ryder and don't hear him - which makes Hauer, with his imposing size and piercing eyes - the perfect actor to play the role.
Opposing him as Halsey is C. Thomas Howell, a 20 year old who had been a teen star since he was 16 thanks to The Outsiders, Red Dawn, and (the incredibly underrated) Secret Admirer. Howell certainly comes off as young and naive in the film, and there are a few moments where his performance wavers opposite the intensity of Hauer, but what Howell offers is also what allows the film to really hit at the differences between the psychotic hitchhiker and the seemingly innocent young man.
But the differences between the characters aren't really as interesting as the similarities - or perhaps I should say the connection - between them. Personal space is no concern for the director, and the camera takes us into extreme close ups of either character early and often. These shots are often used to build up the strange fascination Ryder seems to have with the youngster, and there are more than a few moments that imply a deeper (and possibly sexual) interest in the young man.
The assailant's intentions are just one of the things that these filmmakers brilliantly leave up to our imagination. One haunting sequence has Halsey see Ryder riding along with a family in their station wagon and - after failed attempts to warn them - finding that vehicle lifeless and still on the side of the road. Harmon's camera never shows us what is inside the vehicle - he just shows us Halsey looking in the window, peeing his pants, and running back to his car to throw up. Now that, my friends, is how you tell us that Rutger Hauer's doing some sick stuff to people.
There are other characters that caught up in Halsey and Ryder's game - most notably Jennifer Jason Leigh as a young woman who gets caught in the middle and Jeffrey De Munn as the cop on the case - but the film is really all about how the older and more sociopathic character torments the younger. Phrases like "a game of cat and mouse" often get thrown around about movies like this, but it's clear from the onset that Ryder is the only one playing and Halsey is just scrambling to make it through alive. We don't know why he's doing it - Sexual attraction? Good old fashioned crazy? PTSD? - but that makes thinking about this movie after the fact that much more fun.