Young Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell) is driving across America, making some money by delivering a car from Chicago to San Diego. Now he has reached Texas, and driver fatigue is beginning to set in as his eyelids droop - suddenly there's a truck bearing down on him and he is shocked awake. Not wishing to end up a car crash victim, Halsey stops and picks up a man hitchhiking in the pouring rain, thinking the company will revive him. The mysterious stranger calls himself John Ryder (Rutger Hauer) and refuses to tell Halsey where he's going; in fact he starts to make the driver feel uncomfortable, putting his hand on his knee to speed up the car, and when Halsey asks him to get out Ryder pulls a knife on him. Halsey has just entered his own personal nightmare as it becomes clear the hitcher means to kill him...
Written by Eric Red, The Hitcher gained a small but loyal following back in the eighties, partly down to home video, but mainly due to its professionally handled ruthlessness of execution. The desert landscape is reminiscent of the eerie scenes in such films as It Came From Outer Space, but Halsey's close encounter is with someone all too human and completely obsessed with him. At first you could be mistaken for thinking this is a film about homosexual unease as Ryder seductively taunts the driver and holds a knife at his crotch when they are stopped by road repairs: the workman who chats to them certainly thinks they're gay when he notices where Ryder's hand has settled. Yet the hitcher's motives are more complicated than simple sexual ones, even prompting a coming of age for the protagonist.
When Ryder reveals that the last guy who picked him up is now bereft of his legs, arms and head, Halsey fears this may be the end for him, but luckily Ryder has left the passenger door slightly ajar and just as he's about to cut Jim up, he is pushed out of the moving vehicle. Halsey is delighted and relieved, or at least he is until later on when he is overtaken by a family in their car which happens to have a hitchhiker in the back seat - that's right, it's Ryder again, and Halsey panics, trying to alert the family to the danger they are in. Unfortunately he is so engrossed that he almost gets killed by a bus which knocks him off the road and lets Ryder go free.
The plot grows ever more preposterous, which in less sober hands may have led to a general level of hysteria, but everyone manages to keep their cool except, understandably, Howell. The hitcher turns into a well-nigh supernatural force of evil always showing up when least expected and at exactly the right time, or the wrong time from Halsey's point of view. This is a great role for Hauer and he seizes every opportunity to be slyly amusing, with an almost playful quality to his psycho, and dominating the proceedings even though he is offscreen for long stretches of the narrative simply because you don't know when he will appear next, or what he will do. After nearly killing Halsey at a gas station (which is blown up, of course) we know he's capable of anything.
As the bodies mount up, the police hurry around and point the finger of blame at Halsey, cranking up the tension by making him more paranoid. He wins an ally in the shape of Nash (Jennifer Jason Leigh), an intelligent waitress stuck working at the family diner who is the only one to believe that he's innocent, especially after Halsey finds a severed finger in his French fries in another fine example of the black comedy that runs through the film. But the hitcher is not afraid to kill off anyone, as Halsey discovers when he wakes up in a police cell after being arrested and wonders why it's gone strangely quiet. Ryder wants one thing, to be stopped, and Halsey is the boy to do it for him, which leads to an oddly disappointing ending which even opts for the "he's dead - oh no he isn't" trick. After the invention of what goes before, a nice twist wouldn't have gone amiss, although there's a decided directness to the finale. Music by Mark Isham.