This, in my opinion, is one of the great horror movies of the 80s. The 1980s were a big time in the horror film industry. There were new things being done all the time and the industry was moving at a very fast pace. We had just gotten through the huge slasher film craze of the 70s and early 80s and this was a nice change of pace. Sure, the greats will always remain the greats like An American Werewolf in London, The Shining, A Nightmare on Elm St., The Fly, The Lost Boys, just to name a few.
But, instead of spacing the horror activity out into specific scenes like they do with Nightmare on Elm St., the suspense and action are practically constant throughout this whole film, keeping you completely on the edge of your seat.
What we have here is the classic tale of no good deed goes unpunished. In this story it’s a poor unsuspecting dope picking up a crazy-ass hitchhiker while driving across the country.
C. Thomas Howell plays Jim Halsey, a young man who is driving a car from Chicago to San Diego as a part of a delivery service for vehicles. It’s called a “drive away”. By the time he sees the hitchhiker, he has been on the road for hours and has already dozed off at the wheel. So, he decides to pick up this man, thinking he can help him stay awake. (Side note: Jim picks up this hitcher somewhere in the West Texas desert…how the HELL did he get all the way into West Texas like that if he’s going to San Diego from Chicago? I’ve made a drive that is a few hundred miles short of that and it was basically the same route if you are going through Texas. I mean, to be that deep into Texas he had to have gone too far south out of his way. I don’t know why he didn’t just cut through the panhandle, which is where the really skinny part of Oklahoma meets Texas and crosses into New Mexico. Going through West Texas is just adding miles and time for no reason. Okay, that’s my rant on that. Sorry. Back to the good stuff.)
Our hitchhiker’s name is John Ryder (Rutger Hauer). He’s obviously not playing with a full deck of cards from the minute we meet him. He’s not in the car very long before Jim decides the free ride is over. But Ryder, he has other plans.
Not only does he refuse to get out of the car but, he tells Jim he’s going to kill him, just like he did to the owners of a car they just recently passed. Ryder holds a knife to Jim’s throat and tries to force him to say “I want to die.” Jim can’t seem to make himself say that, knowing that if he does, his life is almost certainly over. Just as Ryder is guiding him through the declaration, Jim seizes his moment and pushes Ryder out of the car.
Confident that the worst is behind him, Jim starts to relax. As he makes his drive he sees a couple of small children playing in the backseat of a station wagon. He is playing around with them, making faces and signals at them when Ryder pops his head up from out of the backseat.
Jim loses his cool and quickly speeds up to try to warn the family. He is able to get beside them but, the warning isn’t able to be fully heard or understood at that speed. He later finds the station wagon, soaked in blood, the whole family dead.
Jim goes to an abandoned gas station looking for a phone to call for help. He encounters Ryder there but, Ryder doesn’t kill him. He gives Jim his own keys that he had swiped from Jim’s car and leaves. Jim goes on to another gas station hoping for a phone as the last one didn’t work and again, he runs into Ryder. This time Ryder burns down the station and nearly runs Jim over with a truck. Jim escapes to seek refuge in a roadside diner out in the middle of nowhere.
There he meets a waitress, Nash (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and calls for help. While he is waiting, she makes him a burger and fries. He's zoned out, thinking about everything that has happened, when instead of a french fry, he almost eats a severed finger...of course put there by Ryder. But, he is nowhere to be seen.
The police come out and arrest Jim as a suspect in the gas station explosion. As they are searching him they find Ryder’s knife in his pocket covered in blood. Jim swears it’s not his but, the cops arrest him anyway.
At the station Jim tries everything he can to convince the police that they have the wrong man. Unfortunately, Ryder had stolen Jim’s wallet at some point and now Jim has no identification to prove who he is. Even though the police doubt that he is the real killer, they still lock him up, at least until they can verify who he is.
While he is in lockup he falls asleep on a cot, wiped out from exhaustion. During his slumber he tosses and turns in his cell. He wakes to find his cell door open and he simply walks out of the jail. As he goes through the office we are the desks are he sees multiple bodies, the dead police officers sprawled across the room.
Then, while on the run, Jim sneaks himself onto a bus. Just so happens to be the same bus that Nash is on. When the police pull the bus over and demand Jim to exit, he does, stating that he is unarmed and turning himself in. The cop that has him at gunpoint isn’t hearing any of it, because he thinks Jim killed his friends, and actually tries to manipulate Jim into a confrontation so he can shoot him.
This is when Nash gets really involved and uses Jim’s discarded gun (thrown down when he surrendered) to keep the trigger-happy cop and his partner at bay while they escape in the police cruiser.
A chase ensues and they end up crashing. A police helicopter is also hot on their trail and is moments from catching them in a vulnerable position after the wreck when Ryder shoots it down, causing the cops cars to also crash and allowing Nash and Jim to flee on foot.
They run until they come upon a motel, where they think they will finally get some rest. While Nash wants to call her father and tell him she’s okay, Jim tells her she can’t do that. Not until they figure out what to do. So, later while he showers as she pretends to sleep, she calls her father and lets him know she’s alright and what is going on.
Then, Ryder shows up. He abducts Nash from the motel room and holds her hostage in a terrible way. He ties her hands to the front of a semi-truck that is parked outside. He then ties her ankles to the back of the truck he is in, his foot on the clutch, ready to roll out and pull her body clean apart.
The police are there and grab Jim while he is searching for Nash in the parking lot. They tell him to get in the truck and talk to Ryder, to save Nash’s life.
Jim gets in and talks to Ryder only to be unsuccessful and Nash dies.
However, after her death, they are able to immediately arrest John Ryder and take him into custody.
Later, an officer is giving Jim a ride (where to, I’m not really sure) and Jim is trying to explain that they’ll never be able to hold Ryder, that he’ll escape and he’ll kill again. The cop doesn’t believe Jim. No matter. Jim takes matters into his own hands stealing the cops gun and leaving him stranded so Jim can go after Ryder’s prison bus, now on its way to take him to the actual jail.
When he catches up with the bus, everyone is dead and Ryder is armed with a shotgun. He jumps from the bus while Jim is following it and crashes into Jim’s windshield as the bus crashes. Jim hits his brakes to throw Ryder from the car. Doing this makes his car stall and as he nervously and frantically tries to start the car, Ryder taunts him to run him over. Jim obliges just that.
Afterward, Jim gets out to go inspect Ryder’s body. He seems dead. After Jim starts to walk away, Ryder stands up behind him, ready to kill. Jim, armed with a gun of his own again, shoots Ryder several times, killing him and ending the terrible nightmare he’s been living. He walks off alone, traumatized and exhausted beyond belief.
I truly love this movie. I think it’s a classic hitchhiker movie. A simple nice gesture turns into horrific trouble for this young man. Now, he knows he’s not supposed to pick up hitchhikers. He even says that his mom told him never to do this. And yet, he ignores the training and get instinct he has in order to try to keep himself awake while on the road. Why he can’t pull over and sleep is beyond me. He almost seems like he’d be breaking the rules or something if he stops to rest. I mean, pulling over for a couple hours is WAY better than picking up a serial killer hitchhiker.
This film is full of suspense and action. Our killer threatens quietly yet, he is heard loud and clear. The Ryder character also had a stalker type quality to him. He loves the chase he has created between himself and Jim. It’s a cat and mouse game for him. Rutger Hauer does an excellent job at this. His performance is superbly chilling. He delves right into the homicidal, disturbed mind of this hitchhiker, letting it ooze all over the screen as he plays it out on film.
Howell is good in this movie too. He is so young in this film. It was made three years after The Outsiders. Being so young helped him on this film I think. It allowed him to be more vulnerable, resulting in a more authentic victim portrayal.
I would totally recommend this to any horror fan. Though it was made in the 80s, it still has a great quality to it and is sure to be enjoyed by horror fans everywhere.
(P.S. Yes, I know they did a remake of this movie. No, I haven’t seen it yet. I am debating on whether or not I want to give another remake a go.)