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'The Hitcher' Gets A Ride To Hollywood

This is the second in a series, "The Cutting Edge," tracing two Hollywood films that deal in large measure with provocative themes of sex and violence.

February 23, 1986|DEBORAH CAULFIELD

Three years ago this month, a hopeful young writer living in Texas mailed a stack of letters to Hollywood producers asking if he might send them his screenplay, "The Hitcher." The letter concluded: "It (the story) grabs you by the guts and does not let up and it does not let go. When you read it, you will not sleep for a week. When the movie is made, the country will not sleep for a week."

The query from the young man who called himself Eric Red found its way into the hands of script development executive David Bombyk: "Generally I write back and say, 'Thank you. I'm sorry but we're busy,' but there was something about the way he described the movie that intrigued me."

Bombyk received a massive script of about 190 pages (the standard is about 120 pages): "I kept avoiding it, but finally I picked it up. Then, it was just 'Oh, my God!' "

"The Hitcher" follows the exploits of a homicidal hitchhiker in Texas who ceaselessly torments a young driver until he is finally goaded into killing the maniac.

The original script wasn't for the queasy: A family was massacred in its station wagon; an eyeball was served inside a hamburger (which was half-eaten before . . .); a young woman was tied between a truck and a pole, then torn in half. Plus: a decapitation and any number of people perishing from rifle blasts, slit throats, car crashes and explosions.

The script went the distance and became a movie that opened nationwide in about 800 theaters Friday (a French-fried finger was substituted for the eyeball; the decapitation and many slashings and shootings were omitted, but the woman was still torn apart).

"The Hitcher" isn't some cheapie job made by unknowns out in the boonies. It's the product of Hollywood, with real stars (Rutger Hauer and teen heartthrob C. Thomas Howell) and made by a real company (Home Box Office in association with Silver Screen Partners, a movie investment fund) with real money ($5.8 million) and released by a mainstream company (Tri-Star Pictures).

How do films like this ever get made? What could the people who make these movies possibly be thinking about? Calendar posed these questions to executives and film makers who were familiar with or directly involved in "The Hitcher."

As "The Hitcher" wended its way to the screen, it provoked diverse opinions. Some people thought it was horrible. Others were fascinated by the script, mentioning "Duel" (an early Steven Spielberg TV movie) most often as a comparison. The people involved in the production generally claimed to see in it a grand statement--well, at least grander than just trying to make bucks on some murderous movies. They invariably invoked the name of Alfred Hitchcock.

In its original form, David Bombyk acknowledged, "It was not the kind of thing you showed to a studio executive. It was extremely brutal and extremely gory."

But Bombyk and personal manager Kip Ohman, who later became co-producers of "The Hitcher," saw more in the screenplay just another "slasher" movie. "There was something very powerful and exciting," Bombyk maintained. "There was a level of challenge, intensity and poetry."

"Slasher" or "gore" movies tend to rely on blood and gruesome effects, rather than on plot. The grisly effects are graphically depicted. In "Hitcher," most of the gruesomeness, such as the ripping apart of the woman, takes place off-camera. That, the film makers said, made the film more "Hitchcockian" in implied shock value than "Cronenbergian" (as in director David Cronenberg's "Scanners," in which heads blow up).

From Bombyk's viewpoint, "Hitcher" represented an American fable: "Eric (the writer) chose these brilliant mythic elements to have this boy traveling across Texas, the great American frontier, and having the hitchhiker emerge out of the landscape--he's a primal element with no context and you can't explain him. What does he mean? Why is he doing this?

"In reality, there's a universe out there that contains danger and evil and tragedy and I think 'The Hitcher' is about the process of coming to the reckoning of all this. How do you deal with the enigma of this life you are living? You can't figure it out, but you've still got to do it."

Ohman described the original script as being "a bloody, wet film, but there was something mythic and poetic about it. I saw it as a suspense Hitchcockian-type thriller."

Maryanne T. Ziegler, then head of development for producer Robert Chartoff, didn't share such enthusiasm when she read the script: "This is an exploitation movie which Bob (Chartoff) has never done nor has any intention of ever doing," she wrote in a letter to Eric Red. "This blood, guts and gore-filled subject has an audience somewhere but certainly not here. . . . I would like to see future work if the subject matter is something that relates to real life and real characters."

(The response has its own irony, of course: Her employer co-produced "Rockys" I through IV.)

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