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Thumbs Down

February 23, 1986|MICHAEL WILMINGTON

The scariest thing about "The Hitcher" is the commentary of the people who made it. We read in the adjoining article that this allegorical thriller about a young man in a drive-away car, chased across Texas desert highways by a psychopathic boogie man, is "great," "brilliant," "a real Hitchcockian thriller," "terrific and horrific."

What script are they talking about?

It can't be this one. The premise is intriguing, but the writing is not even corrupt hack work. It's sub-hack work, a prime example of what Damon Knight once called the "idiot plot," one that moves along only because everyone's an idiot.

You think this is exaggerating? Early on, Jim Halsey--after being assaulted by a stranger who's decapitated his last companions--spots the killer riding with an unsuspecting family. Does Halsey honk, take the license number, call the cops? No. He drives beside the other car, screaming hysterically--and nearly collides with a bus.

Then there's that Grand Guignol tidbit: the eye in the hamburger. It seems like a steal from Bunuel's "Un Chien Andalou" by way of Dwayne Esper's "Maniac," and--even softened to a finger in the French fries--it inspires as much puzzlement as nausea. Whose finger is it? How was it planted inside a locked diner--even by phantom Ubermensch John Ryder? Why doesn't waitress Jennifer Jason Leigh gripe later about the mess all over her counter?

And what about Leigh? Further down the road, Halsey spots her on a bus, pushes her into the toilet (witnessed by no one, not even passengers three seats away), jams a gun against her throat and babbles that he's innocent. Apparently she's impressed by this outburst of sincerity: Minutes later, she pulls a gun on the kill-crazy cops arresting Halsey and helps him hijack their squad car. (How's that for a cool head in a crisis?)

On and on it goes. There's barely a scene that stands up to even the laziest scrutiny. After a while, you suspect that the only appropriate climax is some wild paroxysm of lunacy; after which, Halsey's eyes will snap open and he'll find himself back on the rain-soaked, nocturnal highway of the opening shots--with John Ryder just about to thumb him down again. (No such luck: The ending is a cliche, but a bloodier, dumber one.)

Brilliant? Terrific? Horrific?

Give me a break. This is a genuinely lousy script--and a movie that improves on it only marginally. It's a shallow, laughable (if strikingly staged and photographed) mess.

And also a deeply offensive one. Offensive because it makes something boring and ridiculous out of a portrayal of human fear, suffering and pain.

A great thriller, a truly "Hitchcockian" one--even one that's simply effective--sharpens your senses and reactions. This one dulls them. When you see the scene where the woman is torn apart, your response is outrage--both because the scene has no justification beyond shock (except in some creepy subtext which makes Ryder a quasi-homosexual assailant on Halsey's manhood) and also because the movie makers don't seem to give a damn about her. (Afterwards, no one even mentions her.) Her death is just a cheap kick, one last reason for Halsey to get mad and get even.

So, why did this tawdry film get made? You'd like to think that the people who did this are all putting us on. You'd like to think that because the alternative--that they really were impressed--is too scary to contemplate.

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