It was released in 1986, and it features a bona-fide psycho serial killer for its titular character, but The Hitcher is not at all the film promised by those details. It could only have come out in the Age of the Slasher film (though by '86, that age was clearly starting to get tottery and threadbare), between its implacable, unstoppable killer and the way it depicts blood and murder; yet it has a narrative structure that falls more in the action wheelhouse, and the tone of the storytelling is that of a thriller. But the hitcher, he's pure horror movie evil.

Anyway, though I have now proposed a hybrid of three genres to explain what the thing is, I actually think of it mostly as a fairy tale. Its storytelling has the unstinting momentum and narrative flexibility of something out of the Brothers Grimm; it plunges into the action so quickly that it feels less like a first act warming up, but like a recitation. Once upon a time, a young man was driving from Chicago to San Diego, and he picked up a hitchhiker. But this hitchhiker was a wicked man... It's basically Little Red Riding Hood dusted up and hybridised with the classic "terror on the highway" TV movie Duel, with a villain who is far more visible than the unseen killer truck driver antagonist of that film, but not less inscrutable. There's absolutely nothing in the film to support this reading, but every time I've watched The Hitcher, I've found myself conjecturing that the hitcher isn't human at all, more like Satan come to earth to wreak a bit of deadly mischief. Or maybe his victim dies in the early going (practically the first thing that happens in the movie is that he jolts awake and has to quickly swerve to avoid a truck), and the whole film is his uanware subjugation to the torments of Hell.

That is, I want to reiterate, completely spurious, but it points to how much The Hitcher is a film that feels entirely divorced from reason and rationality; its most slasher-derived element is a killer who is as indestructible, and as prone to offscreen teleportation as Jason Voorhees at his most stubbornly logic-defying. And of course, he stages traps that could only ever work if the screenwriter kindly thought to set up all the pieces so that they happened just exactly so, regardless of how blatantly unlikely they'd be out in the real world.

Yet The Hitcher is a great work of intense and disconcerting genre filmmaking (whatever the hell genre we decide predominates), while the Friday the 13ths are contrived crap. Not least because unlike those films, it's not primarily about the fear of being chased by a killer - in fact, the exact opposite is true. Our hapless traveler, Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell) spends essentially the entire film, save for the opening sequence, specifically not at any personal danger from the hitcher, who calls himself John Ryder (Rutger Hauer). The Hitcher is focused instead on a kind of intellectual or spiritual terror: it is a film about the raw and discombobulating horror of spiraling out of control, not knowing why things are happening you and not knowing how to stop them from happening. There are details aplenty to flesh out Eric Red's hugely effective script, but all of it reduces to the same thing: after Jim determines that Ryder means him harm, he's able to push the hitcher out of his car; from that point, Ryder dedicates himself to perpetrating violent acts and framing Jim for them, and hanging around just far enough away that he can be clearly detected, watching. Every action he takes is designed to make Jim's life worse and to destroy the young man's sense of security, stability, or basic moral order; to break him down, essentially, and to make him feel as ineffectual, helpless, and vulnerable as possible. To contrast this, there's a relationship subplot, between Jim and the waitress Nash (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who comes to conclude that his desperation speaks to an innocence that outweighs the threat he seems to represent; for all Leigh's absolutely wonderful regional flair and film-defying naturalism, this adds up to nothing, because in the film's rather caustic worldview, what good can one minor little love affair do in the face of absolute evil?

Basically, then, we have a film about a young man's awareness that his universe is collapsing into chaos and torment, a cosmic horror film drawn out of a psychological thriller. To achieve this, the film managed to assemble a murderer's row of future talent: any one person involved would be impressive for something with such a low-rent pedigree - it was the first film ever produced by HBO Pictures, back when HBO was the classiest of the scattershot movie stations uncertainly filling out the relatively new development called "cable television" (to clarify, this was a theatrical release) - and The Hitcher has a whole handful. Director Robert Harmon, for all the clear talent he demonstrates here, had no career to speak of afterwards, but between them, cinematographer John Seale, editor Frank J. Urioste, production designer Dennis Gassner, and composer Mark Isham would combine in the future for 12 Oscar nominations and two wins (Oscars are no obvious marker of quality, of course, but I'd still get into a knife fight to defend Urioste and Gassner especially as masters within their fields). Then there's Hauer, of course, whose name has been a punchline as often as not, but who was an absolute genius for a stretch in the '80s, playing a certain kind of steely, intense figure who seems like the embodiment of the id more than a human character. The Hitcher isn't his best performance in that vein (there was the time he played an existential murdering robot), but it's still fantastic stuff, all creepy, probing intensity that succeeds in disintegrating anything human behind Ryder's eyes: he's a coiled up impulse to do evil out of arbitrary, barely-focused malice, inhuman murderous desire, and Hauer nails that beautifully.

But I don't want to drift too far from those crew heads, especially Seale. The Hitcher is a tremendously visual film, with a handful of key repeated shot set-ups, the most important of which are extreme wide shots with Jim's car practically disappearing against the immense scrubby nothingness of the American Southwest. One of the film's successes that impresses me the most on a personal level is its way of depicting the extreme loneliness of traveling by car in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, where the distance between even the shabbiest little outposts of humanity starts to cut at your soul a little bit, and the enormous fact of the empty landscape makes one's own humanity feel as microscopic as all the Elder Gods in Lovecraft. With that as its background, both literally and figuratively, The Hitcher's depiction of an assault on the sanity of one human is all the more impressive, and that's without calling into account the many shots where Harmon and Seale ramped up the atmospheric lighting both inside and out; not just to suggest the implacable grandeur of nature, either. One of the film's most hellishly nightmare-like sequences (it's the one centered around what would have been a showcase gory death, but the filmmakers elected not to show it; a wise move, both because it would have been unbearably cruel to the audience, and because the casual fade to black has more thematic weight than all the stageblood in the world) is lit entirely with the red and blue lights of police cars, casting garishly-colored lens flares across the action in a way that adds to the sequence's, and film's, overriding feeling of unreality.

There's one other element that makes The Hitcher work as well as it does, and it's a shocker: C. Thomas Howell is close to perfect in the part. Not because his performance is particularly great: it's solid, but merely functional. He is, instead, a triumphant piece of casting:the most immediately observable fact about Howell in '86 was his unnerving baby face, which The Hitcher uses to complete its fairy tale sensibility: even as he's smoking cigarettes or cursing, Howell looks like a kid (that is, a young adult; but the kind of young adult that even other young adults tend to talk down to): a simple, average kid, not very bright, not very brave, just passing from here to there. He's completely helpless in the face of something as inexplicable and implacable as Ryder; he has no reservoir of skills that come into play as he is put to the test (it takes him several tries just to load bullets into a revolver). The exaggerated purity Howell brings to the character just by being Howell makes Jim's travails that much more upsetting to watch, and the outcome far more severe.

All in all, the film is bottomlessly nihilistic, which certainly accounts for the acidic reception it received in 1986 (it has since picked up a bit of a cult; you've no doubt picked up by now that I enthusiastically count myself a member). But it earns the nihilism, I think; for one, by casting things so clearly as a kind of dark fantasy, divorced from the actions of real people. And also, by being so utterly damn good at creating that nihilism: it is a brilliantly shot and acted film with drum-tight editing and a tetchy, synth-driven score that should sound irredeemably like the '80s (and honestly, that's often just how it does sound), but hits certain points where it's sufficiently otherworldly to boost those scenes to an extra level of bleakness. Just because something isn't nice doesn't mean it can't be well-made.

Besides, a little nihilism never hurt anybody. Sometimes, life is completely horrible; and sometimes, it's completely horrible for reasons that make no sense and are never explained. As a fable, The Hitcher presents that fact bluntly and unromantically, but damned effectively. I wouldn't want a diet comprised mostly of films with the dire philosophy of this one, but I am entirely glad to know that expressions of that philosophy as powerful and unrelenting as this exist.

Body Count: 14, broken down thus: 9 where we see either the corpse or cut away right at the moment of a killing, 4 where the corpse is very strongly implied to exist though we do not see it, and 1 murder that is merely reported to us. Then there are 6 cops who are probably dead, given the way their cars rolled over, and a whole busload of convicts and guards, but I'm not comfortable counting them. This is serious and dignified business, after all.