Color, 1986, 97 mins.

Directed by Robert Harmon

Starring Rutger Hauer, C. Thomas Howell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jeffrey DeMunn, John M. Jackson / Written by Eric Red / Produced by David Bombyk & Kip Ohman / Music by Mark Isham / Cinematography by John Seale

Format: DVD - HBO (MSRP $24.98)

Letterboxed (2.35:1) (16x9 enhanced) / Dolby Digital 5.1

You'd be hard pressed to name a mainstream film more atypical for the mid-'80s than The Hitcher, which died a quick box-office death but gradually won a large cult of admirers thanks to endless late night screenings on HBO. Brutal and uncompromising, this film gets down and dirty with the audience and pulls no punches, though like such films as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, most of the gore is created in the audience's imaginations. Much like people still swear they saw the knife actually tear Janet Leigh's body in Psycho, theatergoers continue to insist they saw various gory snippets during The Hitcher's infamous truck-pulling scene. What sets The Hitcher apart from standard slasher films is its relentless narrative drive, sort of a cross between Duel and Candyman, and the compelling script by Eric Red (who also penned the cult favorite vampire road film, Near Dark, and directed the less successful Blood Moon, also with Hauer, and Body Parts).

Jim Halsey (Howell), a Chicago kid transporting a drive-away car to San Diego, decides to relieve his late night road fatigue by picking up a hitchhiker during a rainstorm. The hitchhiker, John Ryder (Hauer), explains to Jim that the last man who picked him up is lying dismembered in his car down the road and that Jim will be next. After narrowly escaping with his life and continuing cross country, Jim is stalked by Ryder as he tears a bloody swath across the desert and frames Jim for the crimes. With the state troopers in hot pursuit, Jim finds the only person he can trust is a kindly waitress, Nash (Leigh), who puts her own life on the line to keep Jim from being killed by either side.

Designed as a macabre rite of passage into manhood, The Hitcher presents its villain as an almost supernatural force anxious to transmit its evil force on to Jim. "There's something funny going on between the two of you," one character observes late in the film, and Hauer and Howell (doing some of their best work here) make the entire bizarre metaphysical conflict all too believable and chilling. Leigh's delicately etched performance elicits quite a bit of sympathy from viewers, but... Well, I won't spoil it. Mark Isham's moody New Age score eerily drifts in and out of the scenic desert landscape shots like an icy breeze, and Harmon does a fine job handling all the road action (whatever happened to him?).

Previous transfers of The Hitcher have been mostly hit and miss. The U.S. release from HBO on laser and VHS was watchable but badly pan and scanned and definitely on the soft side; the British widescreen release from Warner in 1997 restored the entire scope image but was noticeably less colorful. The DVD from HBO is a substantial improvement on all counts, though unfortunately the image is so crisply transferred that it exposes too much grain during some of the darker scenes (a la Conan the Barbarian, Aliens, etc.). This quibble aside, the long overdue scope release of The Hitcher finally presents one of the '80s' most significant horror releases in a version approximating the harrowing theatrical experience, and hopefully this release will allow its reputation to continue to soar.

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