The Hitcher (Robert Harmon / U.S., 1986):

Eric Red's screenplay, with its several hints of Borges, has The Doors as inspiration ("If ya give this man a ride / Sweet memory will die"); director Robert Harmon keys it up to Hitchcock, opening with the ride to the Bates Motel and heading to North by Northwest before clearing the table and unleashing his own hound from hell. The El Paso desert, at dusk and abruptly rain-soaked -- C. Thomas Howell drives by on his way to California, Rutger Hauer materializes by the side of the road in the downpour, minutes later the hitcher has a knife to the driver's neck, starting to seep into him. The monster is ejected only to turn up again, waving from the station wagon passing Howell in the road then rear-ending him with a pickup truck; Hauer's aim is giving the hero a rough trip through Shitsville, so the horrific trail of corpses is promptly blamed on Howell. Harmon understands the plot's oneiric dread (Howell's horrors commence as he nearly nods off mid-drive, a hitchhiker might "help me stay awake") and pares down his vistas so that there's only asphalt, battered earth, and sky; the gas stations, silos, diners become grand abstractions around which the actors scuttle and glide, the car chases are refined beyond acuity, capped by a police helicopter downed by the killer's handgun. An uncanny frisson, plus a road of endless curves: One traces a steady progression through deadpan trauma until the devil's grin gets revealed in a labyrinth of trucks, with the doomed heroine (Jennifer Jason Leigh) tied to motorized behemoths and Hauer at the wheel; another offers a loaded text where incipient homo-anxiety is manifested as doppelganger alarm, spit is the only kind of fluid allowed to be exchanged, and consummation is reached through a bullet. Comparisons with Blue Velvet that same year are telling, the ways Ebert declared both "sick" even more so. With Jeffrey DeMunn, John M. Jackson, Billy Green Bush, Jack Thibeau, and Armin Shimerman.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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