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Film / The Hitcher

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Once you pick up The Hitcher, you'll never pick up another!
The original 1986 trailer's slogan

The Hitcher is a 1986 road thriller starring C. Thomas Howell, Rutger Hauer, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Jeffrey DeMunn.

The story is about a young man named Jim Halsey (Howell), who's driving a car through the US of A. He decides to go against his mother's warnings and pick up a hitchhiker, John Ryder (Hauer), who then turns his next few days into a waking nightmare.

It got a sequel in 2003, The Hitcher II: I've Been Waiting, with C. Thomas Howell reprising his role as Jim, and this time featuring Jake Busey as the murderer. It was remade in 2007 by Platinum Dunes, with Sophia Bush, Zachary Knighton, Neal McDonough and Sean Bean. See also Highwaymen, its Spiritual Successor by the same director.

Compare with Duel.


The Hitcher contains examples of:

  • Actor Allusion: This isn't the first time Henry Darrow played a Vigilante Man, as he had played one before as the iconic Zorro in the 1981 animated series The New Adventures of Zorro (through voice acting) and in the short-lived series Zorro and Son in 1983. Also, this is not the first time Darrow played an Inspector Javert law enforcer attempting to execute a Wrongly Accused protagonist for murder, while ignoring the accused's friend's protesting his innocence and attempts to stop the execution.
  • Adaptational Heroism: In the original screenplay, the second batch of arresting officers, Troopers Hancock and Hapscomb, while the former's still a Vigilante Man, were way more corrupt and Hapscomb was more willing to partake in the Vigilante Execution unlike in the actual film where he was a By-the-Book Cop reluctant to participate, while Hancock, who unlike in the screenplay is instead on-screen had a justified and understandable personal motivation behind being a one man judge, jury and executioner out of thinking Jim killed two of his work friends and was in an emotionally compromised grief-stricken rage that was making him behaving irrationally and is hinted to be a Hero of Another Story because of his reasons that are left unexplored in the final cut, tells him to shut up as he proceeds with the execution.
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  • Adaptational Jerkass: Not that he wasn't a Jerkass in the original (simply calling him that would be a huge understatement), but John Ryder is much more blatantly misogynistic in the remake, casually asking Jim "how long he's been fucking" Grace, and trying to violently rape Grace when he sneaks into bed with her at the motel.
  • Adaptational Nice Guy: In the original screenplay, the Rabid Cops on Jim's tail were more vicious, nastier, crueler and borderline corrupt towards him then in the actual movie, making their on-screen still-abrasive counterparts looking like upstanding sweethearts in comparison.
  • Ambiguously Evil: The police officers who first arrested Jim, while their persecution of him can be viewed as them being Inspector Javerts towards Jim, it's left unknown if they really started to think Jim could be innocent after interrogation and only still booked and jailed him as part of police protocol until further confirmation of his innocence or they don't really care and are borderline Dirty Cops who wants to imprison him anyway without giving him a chance to clear himself.
  • Ambiguously Human: John. See Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane below.
  • Antagonist Title: Jim is the protagonist; the Hitcher is Serial Killer John Ryder.
  • Arch-Enemy: Jim Halsey has John Ryder, a homicidal hitchhiker who makes a game out of stalking him.
  • Artistic License – Biology: It is not possible to rip a human apart between two trucks in the way shown in the remake. The joints - whether in the elbow, arm, knee, pelvis or feet - would give way earlier, and the victim would get their arms or legs ripped off instead of being ripped in half - still, a messy way to die. In the original, a cop says the victim would be torn in half, but whether he meant that literally or not, nothing is shown.
  • Asshole Victim: Downplayed, but Trooper Jack Donner and Trooper Dodge would count, due to them abrasively mishandling Jim when arresting him (to a point Donner calls Jim a "sack of shit") and Donner not giving a chance for Jim to have his brother to call him by not letting the phone ring a little longer.
  • Ax-Crazy: John Ryder is a serial killer who butchers whole families for kicks.
  • Badass Longcoat: In a villainous example, John Ryder wears one.
  • Beware of Hitchhiking Ghosts: Although the film has a living hitchhiker, John Ryder has no social security number, driver's license, or any other indication that he exists. Oh, and he's a psychopathic killer that beats down anybody he pleases.
  • Big Bad:
    • Original film and remake: John Ryder is the hitchhiking Serial Killer.
    • The Hitcher 2: I've Been Waiting: Jack is the hitchhiker Serial Killer who wants to kill Jim and Maggie.
  • Bittersweet Ending: With a heavy emphasis on the Bitter part. The first film ends with Jim finally killing John Ryder, ending his reign of madness. However, Jim is traumatized by all the hell John has put him through, and worst of all, Jim's love interest, Nash, has been killed by John.
  • Book Ends: The original begins and ends with Jim lighting a match, although photographed in different ways.
  • Break the Cutie: No explanation is given as to why Jim isn't simply killed immediately like everyone else, so this is the implied motivation.
  • Car Fu: In the remake, coupled with an odd variant of Improbable Aiming Skills.
    • Ryder is also briefly the target of this in the original.
  • Cellphones Are Useless: Used shamelessly in the remake.
  • Central Theme: The thrill of the hunt.
  • Cop Killer: Ryder kills a lot of police throughout the movie. In fact, most of his victims are cops.
  • Creator Cameo: Eric Red can be seen in a cameo role toward the end of the film as a sheriff's deputy escorting the prisoner to the transfer bus.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: Nash's horrific death by being tied between a Mack truck and its trailer and then ripped in half by the completely psycho title character.
  • Daylight Horror: Much of the blood and gore happens during the day.
  • Deadly Road Trip: In the remake, Jim Halsey and Grace Andrews are a young couple driving across New Mexico on Spring Break. Unfortunately, things don't go very well for them...
  • Death by Adaptation: Jim and Lt. Esteridge are BOTH killed in the remake.
  • Death Seeker: John Ryder. As the plot uncovers, he repeatedly asks Jim Halsey to kill him in cold blood (after their first encounter when Jim picked up Ryder as an unsuspecting hitchhiker). When Jim fails to do so, John proceeds to go on a path of carnage.
  • Decoy Protagonist: Jim and Lt. Esteridge are both Back for the Dead in the continuation to the original film. The true protagonist is Jim's new girlfriend, who is even framed for their deaths by the new hitcher. Same thing happens to them in The Remake.
  • Determinator: John Ryder, especially in the remake, where he mutilates his own hand to break out of his cuffs just to keep his killing streak going.
  • Diabolus ex Nihilo: When the police arrest John Ryder, they can't match his finger prints to any existing criminals, nobody knows anything about him, and even his name is undoubtedly an alias. It's as if the desert just spat out Death in human form.
  • Didn't Think This Through: When trying to warn the family who picked up John Ryder about how dangerous he is, Jim and Grace pull into the other lane to get their attention. When the family doesn't seem to hear them, rather than pulling in front of their car to try to have them pull over, they linger in the other lane long enough for a semi to run them off the road, thus costing the lives of the family.
  • Dissonant Serenity: John Ryder, who never loses his calm as he continues killing people in gruesome ways.
  • The End... Or Is It?: Subverted. John does get up at the end of the original, but Jim shoots him dead on the spot.
  • Evil Is Petty: Ryder spends the whole film harassing and trying to kill Jim, simply because he fought back.
  • Expy: John Ryder is possibly inspired by the nameless truck driver from Duel.
  • Expy Coexistence: Jack from the sequel is also clearly meant to be an Expy of Ryder, to the point where he not only has blonde hair like Ryder, but even dresses in exactly the same clothes. That, and he's psychotic killer who terrorizes people.
  • Extremely Short Time Span: The film begins around 5:00 AM on one day, and ends sometime before noon the next.
  • Fatal Family Photo: It happens in the ending of the remake; one of the cops on the cop bus that's carrying John Ryder takes out a photo of his daughter.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Downplayed. Ryder will occasionally put up a friendly front, but it never lasts long.
  • Film Noir: The original 1986 film mostly plays out as this; the original screenplay was even more noir-ish then the actual film.
  • The Film of the Song: The movie was inspired by "Riders on the Storm" by The Doors: "There's a killer on the road/His brain is squirming like a toad/Take a long holiday/Let your children play/If you give this man a ride/Sweet memory will die..." Just to drive the point home, the movie opens on the road in a storm, and the Hitcher gives his name as John Ryder.
  • Final Girl: Jim Halsey (to an extent) and Grace in the remake.
  • Finger in the Mail: The protagonist stops at a roadside diner to call the cops on the serial killer who's been pursuing him. The killer slips a human finger into a plate of fries the waitress brings him.
  • Fingore: One of the most infamous scenes involves Jim finding a severed finger in his french fries.
  • Foe Romance Subtext: Deliberately implied in the original The Hitcher, to the point where it creeps out the cops to watch the lead characters interact in the interrogation room.
  • For the Evulz: Seems like Ryder's only reason d'etre.
  • Gorn: The remake. The scene of a German Shepherd licking blood off a slit neck in the original may also count.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: What happens to Nash. Subverted but badly done (the body BOUNCES after being cut in half) in the remake. Also, the fate of the family in the station wagon.
  • Half the Man He Used to Be: Nash in the original, Jim in the remake.
  • Happy Ending Override: In the second film both Jim Halsey and Captain Esteridge killed off early on by another crazy hitcher that hunts down the female protagonist (Halsey's girlfriend, even!). To add insult to injury, the man frames her for their deaths.
  • Hate Sink: John Ryder is a murderous, sadistic psychopath and an all-around creep with no redeeming qualities who kills others without any reason or provocation and spends the whole plot trying to ruin Jim's life.
    • The cops who mishandle Jim while arresting him also count as this. They even border on being Corrupt Cops, since they not only refuse to give Jim a chance to talk to his brother on the phone by deliberately hanging up the phone before his brother can even answer it, but they even outright say that "even a fool can tell Jim isn't a killer", heavily implying that they could care less whether Jim is innocent or not and that they just want an excuse to imprison him. However, they are Ambiguously Evil as this depends one viewer's interpretation and they are killed before their alleged and implied corruption are fully confirmed.
    • Jack from the sequel is every bit as depraved and sadistic as John Ryder. Some of his actions are almost more brutal than John's, since Jack is not above scalping his victims.
    • The 2007 remake manages to add a whole other layer of depravity to Ryder by making him a would-be rapist, and a thuggish, foul-mouthed misogynist in addition to a bloodthirsty killer.
  • Hero of Another Story: Trooper Lyle Hancock and his quest for vengeance against the killer of his friends would have been given more depth and emphasis if he was a main character. The fact alone Hancock was played by Zorro at the time from the cartoon The New Adventures of Zorro and live-action television show Zorro and Son also further attest to this.
  • Hero with Bad Publicity: Jim Halsey, thanks to Ryder framing him for the murders. Jim and Grace in the remake as well.
  • Hostile Hitchhiker: John Ryder in both the original and the remake, stalking and manipulating the protagonists after failing to kill them outright.
  • Icy Blue Eyes: Ryder has these, which only emphasizes how inhuman he really is.
  • I Cannot Self-Terminate: Ryder repeatedly gives Jim the opportunity to kill him, goading him to do so.
  • Improbable Aiming Skills: Ryder takes out several squad cars and a frickin' helicopter with no more than a handgun while driving...all to the strains of Nine Inch Nails (in the remake). See also the Car Fu entry above.
  • Inspector Javert: The police pursuing Jim Halsey with Captain Esteridge as an exception.
  • Jerkass: To call Ryder this is putting it very mildly.
  • Kick the Dog: John Ryder is a dog-kicking machine, traveling the roads to murder people, including children, For the Evulz, and deciding to try and corrupt Jim into being just like him on a whim.
  • Lack of Empathy: Ryder never once feels any guilt for any of the murders he commits, or for any of the suffering he inflicts on Jim.
  • Love Interest: Nash in the original, Jim in the remake.
  • Made of Iron: John Ryder in the remake manages to dislocate his thumb with an extremely audible "CRACK", skin his hand in bloody/painful-looking detail to free himself from handcuffs, but still is able to use that hand without any problem.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: John Ryder is portrayed as almost supernaturally dangerous and elusive. The man slaughters roomfuls of armed cops with ease, shoots down a helicopter with a revolver, and seems to vanish and reappear whenever he chooses. Rutger Hauer has even speculated that Ryder is actually a ghost haunting the desert highways.
    • Also, it's difficult to explain the timing of the motel scene if there isn't something supernatural going on. A whole lot of things including the police being fully aware of and involved in a situation Ryder sets up in the time Jim is taking a shower.
  • Meta Twist:
    • For roughly the first half of the movie we only see Ryder from Jim's point of view and a lot of the killings he makes happen to come right out of the blue in front of Jim. The experienced viewer would think that maybe Ryder is some sort of split personality he has and he's really the killer. Nope. We later see other characters specifically see him in person aside from Jim, meaning he actually is real.
  • Misanthrope Supreme: Ryder has shades of this. If the fact he kills anyone who gets in his way wasn't obvious enough.
  • My Car Hates Me: Used in both versions:
    • In the original, Esteridge's Dodge truck stalls out in the climax for no readily apparent reason preventing Jim from escaping for a few suspenseful moments.
    • In the remake, Jim's Oldsmobile stalls out at the beginning at a crucial moment.
  • Nice Guy: Jim starts out as this, though all the torment he goes through quickly changes that.
  • One-Steve Limit: Averted when counting both the original film and its sequel. In the original film, one of the arresting officers, Donner, is addressed by Sergeant Starr as Jack, while in the sequel, the new hitcher's name is Jack too.
  • Pick on Someone Your Own Size:
    • The original film is a textbook example of this. After young teenager Jim Halsey manages to thwart serial killer John Ryder's attempt to add him to one of his list of victims, Ryder becomes completely obsessed with stalking Halsey and killing or being killed by him. Ryder himself looks to be around 40 to 50 years old.
    • The 2007 remake turns this into an intergender example by adding Jim's girlfriend Grace Andrews to the mix. Ryder eventually murders Jim and puts all his focus on Grace.
  • Police Brutality: Downplayed, but Jim Halsey ends up on the receiving end of this due to being Wrongly Accused, whether it's either being abrasively mishandled while in incarceration, having an interrogator act seemingly coldly towards him despite Jim telling him about himself (though after sending Jim away, this is subverted when he privately expressed to one of the arresting officers, Trooper Jack Donner, that Jim is not a killer which "any fool can see that") or being a target of a vengeful vigilante Rabid Cop with a personal agenda to summarily execute the one responsible for the murders before finally getting shot at during a car chase by officers who are following martial law to shoot-to-kill Jim and Nash rather then just to arrest them alive, forcing them to shoot back in self defense. So does Jim and Grace in the remake.
  • Police Are Useless: At least in the remake. Not only do the cops inflict Police Brutality on the main protagonists like in the original, the police officers act idiotically and unmethodical.
    • While not as bad as their remake counterparts and are way more developed in comparison, Jack Donner and Dodge count as well, arresting Jim for being the killer with little evidence and are excessively brutal with him. It gets to the point that their superior Starr flat out calls them idiots for arresting Jim, though it’s left ambiguous as to whether he would have let Jim be arrested or not.
    • The sequel takes this up to eleven. Jack slaughters cops by the dozens without breaking a sweat, and they don't suspect him even after he's caught at one of the crime scenes with no ID or anything to verify his identity. Sheriff Castillo is the only one who figures out how absurd this is, but Jack blows him away with a shotgun before he can help.
  • Pop Culture Osmosis: The Cruel and Unusual Death mentioned above is what most people know about the original.
  • Rabid Cop: The Inspector Javert policemen who are after Jim Halsey, especially the abrasive Donner and Dodge (the latter being described in the script as a redneck rookie to Donner's seasoned senior officer) and the corruptly vengeful Hancock. Also see Police Brutality above.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Captain Esteridge, who is probably the nicest cop in the film in contrast to the Inspector Javert Rabid Cops, even when Jim's got a gun on him.
  • Revised Ending: The film originally ended with Jim Halsey shooting John Ryder as Ryder lay prone on the highway. However, to avoid an X rating, the filmmakers shot the ending that was ultimately used (with Ryder getting to his feet, showing he is still a threat, and giving Jim at least partial justification for shooting him).
  • Sadist: Ryder gets a kick out of not only killing people, but also terrorizing them and messing with them, all for his own pleasure.
  • Sadistic Choice: Later in the film, Ryder gives Jim the choice of shooting Ryder, or else he will tear his lover interest, Nash, in half with the truck he's driving. Unfortunately, even if Jim shoots Ryder, his foot will come off the break, causing the truck to roll and tear Nash in half anyway, forcing Jim not to kill Ryder, resulting in Ryder killing Nash.
  • Senseless Phagia: There's a scene which features a severed finger in a man's fries. He doesn't notice until he directly looks at it.
  • Slasher Smile: Ryder pulls a very creepy one when he's inside a car with a family in it. Take a good guess what he's going to do to them.
  • The Sociopath: Ryder has nothing resembling empathy or a conscience. As far as he is concerned, he can hurt and maim whoever he wants like it's a game.
  • Soft-Spoken Sadist: Ryder always speaks in a calm and gentle voice, even while he's committing acts of cruelty.
  • Sound-Only Death: The murders in the police station, when you only hear two gunshots.
  • Spiritual Successor: The movie has been compared to Duel, another thriller movie about a man in the dessert being targeted and terrorized by a maniac who is possibly supernatural.
  • The Spook: Ryder is called a ghost because there is nothing that identifies him.
  • Stalker with a Crush: John Ryder. After Jim Halsey manages to thwart his attempt at murdering him, Ryder becomes obsessed with either killing Halsey or being killed by Halsey. He stalks him throughout the entire movie, framing Jim for crimes he committed (but rescuing him when the police are about to kill him) and killing Jim's only female love interest violently. In one very disturbing scene, he holds Jim's hands, and Jim spits in his face. After Jim leaves, he is seen rubbing the spit onto his lips, smiling.
  • Stealth Pun: The film is not called The Hitchhiker, but The Hitcher, which is a Foreshadowing of the film's most famous murder.
  • The Stoic: Despite smiling and laughing in a few scenes, Ryder is very robotic in emotions for the most part, which makes him all the more creepy.
  • Straw Nihilist: It's made more or less clear that Ryder is this.
  • Sudden Sequel Death Syndrome: Jim and Lt. Esteridge in both the sequel and the remake.
  • Took a Level in Jerkass: As the film goes on, Jim goes from a Nice Guy to a cold, callous Jerk with a Heart of Gold.
  • Uncertain Doom: After Jim tricks the the pursuing Rabid Cops/Killer Cops under orders to shoot-to-kill to blow each others tires away, it's unknown if the crash impact only knocked them out unconscious besides likely severe and possibly life-threatening injuries sustained from such a crash.
  • Unflinching Walk: Ryder walking away from the burning transport van in the remake.
  • Vigilante Man:
  • Villainous Rescue: Ryder, who actually saves Jim and Nash's lives (but only so he can try and kill them later) from the vengeful cops.
  • Villainous Valour: Exaggerated to the point that Ryder can take down an helicopter with just one single gun.
  • Vomit Indiscretion Shot: Lots of these in the original.
  • Would Hit a Girl: Ryder doesn't care if his victims are male or female.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Ryder massacres an entire family. Children included.