Jim Halsey, a young man delivering a car from Chicago to San Diego, spots a man hitchhiking in the West Texas desert and gives him a ride. The hitcher, John Ryder, is brooding and evasive; when Jim passes a stranded car, however, Ryder forces his leg down on the accelerator. Ryder calmly states he murdered the driver and intends to do the same to Jim. Terrified, Jim asks what Ryder wants. He replies, "I want you to stop me." Ryder strokes Jim's face with a knife while telling him to say, "I want to die." When Jim realizes that Ryder never put on his seat belt and the car's passenger door is ajar, he shoves him out of the door.
Relieved, Jim continues on his journey. When he sees Ryder in the back of a family car, Jim tries to warn them but becomes involved in an accident. He later comes across the family's blood-soaked car and vomits. At a nearby abandoned gas station, Ryder corners Jim but simply tosses him the keys he took from Jim's car. After Ryder leaves with a trucker, Jim encounters him again at another gas station, where the trucks nearly runs him down as it crashes into the pumps. As Jim flees, Ryder ignites the spilled gas and causes the station to explode.
At a roadside diner, Jim meets Nash, a waitress, and calls the police. As Jim relaxes, he finds a severed finger in his food and realizes Ryder is present. The police arrive and, after finding Ryder's knife in Jim's pocket, arrest him. Though the police doubt his guilt, they lock him up overnight as protocol. When Jim wakes, he finds the cell door is unlocked, and all the officers are dead. Jim panics, takes a pistol, and flees. At a gas station, he sees two officers, takes them hostage, and speaks to Captain Esteridge on the radio. As Esteridge convinces Jim to surrender, Ryder pulls up alongside them and kills the two officers.
The patrol car crashes, and Ryder disappears again. After briefly considering suicide, Jim reaches a cafe, where Ryder suddenly confronts him. After pointing out Jim's pistol is unloaded, Ryder leaves him several bullets and departs. Jim boards a bus, where he meets Nash and attempts to explain his situation. After a police car pulls over the bus, Jim surrenders, and the furious officers accuse him of killing their colleagues. As the officers goad Jim into a fight, Nash appears with Jim's pistol, disarms the officers, and flees with Jim in their patrol car. As the police chase after them, their car crashes, and Ryder shoots down a helicopter, causing the police cars to also crash.
Jim and Nash abandon the patrol car and hike to a motel. While Jim is in the shower, Ryder abducts Nash. While Jim searches for her, Captain Esteridge takes him to two trucks with Nash tied between them. Ryder is at the wheel of one truck and threatens to tear Nash apart. Esteridge tells Jim that his men cannot shoot Ryder as his foot will slip off the clutch, which would cause the truck to roll and kill Nash. Jim enters the cab with Ryder, who gives him a pistol and tells him to shoot, but Jim is unable. Ryder, disappointed, releases the clutch, killing Nash.
Ryder is taken into custody. Esteridge gives Jim a ride, but, having no confidence in the police, Jim suddenly takes the officer's pistol and vehicle to chase down Ryder's prison bus. As Jim catches up, Ryder arms himself with a shotgun, kills the deputies, and leaps through Jim's windshield as the bus crashes. Jim slams on his brakes, sending Ryder through the windshield and onto the road in front of Jim's stalled vehicle. As Ryder shoots at him, Jim frantically restarts the car. Ryder challenges Jim to run him over, which he does. As Jim leaves his car to observe Ryder's lifeless corpse, Ryder suddenly jumps up, and Jim shoots him. As the sun sets, Jim realizes his ordeal is finally over.Rutger Hauer as John Ryder
C. Thomas Howell as Jim Halsey
Jennifer Jason Leigh as Nash
Jeffrey DeMunn as Captain Esteridge
John M. Jackson as Sergeant Starr
Billy Green Bush as Trooper Donner
Jack Thibeau as Trooper Prestone
Armin Shimerman as Interrogation Sergeant
Gene Davis as Trooper Dodge
Jon Van Ness as Trooper Hapscomb
Henry Darrow as Trooper Hancock
Tony Epper as Trooper Conners
When writer Eric Red was 20 years old, he made a short film entitled "Gunman's Blues" in the hopes of getting the opportunity to direct a feature-length film. When no offers came, he moved from New York City to Austin, Texas, taking a drive-away car cross-country. While driving from one city to another, he got the idea for a film from The Doors song "Riders on the Storm". He found that the "elements of the song – a killer on the road in a storm plus the cinematic feel of the music – would make a terrific opening for a film". Red had a lot of time to think about the song and it inspired ideas for the story. During his seven-month stay in Austin, he drove a taxi cab and wrote The Hitcher. In 1983, he sent a letter to several Hollywood producers asking if he could send them a copy of the screenplay for The Hitcher. His 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". Script development executive David Bombyk received a copy of Red's letter and was intrigued by the description of the film. Red sent him a script that was approximately 190 pages in length (one page traditionally equals one minute of screen time).
The original script was not for the faint of heart. An entire family was slaughtered in their station wagon, an eyeball was discovered inside of a hamburger, a woman was tied to a truck and a pole and then torn in half, a graphic sex scene between two teenagers, a decapitation as well as several slashings, shootings and car crashes. In its original form, Bombyk found the script to be "extremely brutal and extremely gory", but he and personal manager Kip Ohman (who later became co-producers of the film) also saw in it "a level of challenge, intensity and poetry". Bombyk and Ohman were worried about getting it into good enough shape to show their boss, producer Ed Feldman, and his partner, Charles Meeker, and prove to them that it was more than an exploitation film. Bombyk worked with Red via several long distance phone calls to Texas and eventually the writer moved to Los Angeles. Red agreed to work with Ohman on the script until it was ready to be shown to Feldman and Meeker. They liked the script but wondered, "how could we manage to translate it to the screen without making a slasher movie?" Meeker said.
Feldman and Meeker decided to come on board as executive producers. Ohman and Red spent six months reworking the script, removing most of what Ohman felt was repetitive violence. Once they got it in good enough shape, Ohman gave it back to Bombyk and also to David Madden, a production executive for 20th Century Fox. Within a few days, Madden called back and told them the script was "terrific". However, the studio was not comfortable with the subject matter but felt that the writing was unique and interesting enough to give the filmmakers a letter-of-intent to distribute the film. This would allow them to get financing and then once filming was completed, the studio would reimburse them for the budget.
The film's producers then went looking for an inexpensive director. Still photographer-turned-cameraman Robert Harmon was given a copy of the script by his agent but thought it was just another script – that is, until he listened to a series of messages left by his agent on his answering machine encouraging him to read Red's script. Harmon read it and early the next morning called his agent and told him that he wanted to do it. In February 1984, Harmon met with the producers to talk about the script. He recalled, "even the exact actions that remained in the script were described in much bloodier and gorier detail". The producers were impressed with him and the fact that he also envisioned the film as a Hitchcockian thriller. However, Harmon objected to the eyeball in the hamburger scene and never planned to show the girl getting ripped in half.
In early drafts of the script, John Ryder had been described as skeletal in nature and so actors like David Bowie, Sting, Sam Shepard, Harry Dean Stanton, and Terence Stamp were mentioned. Harmon was set on casting Stamp and even carried around his picture to pitch meetings. Stamp received a copy of the script but he turned down the role. Sam Elliott was offered the role but an agreement could not be reached on his salary. Singer mentioned Dutch actor Rutger Hauer. While in L.A. for a short visit, Hauer read the script. Even though he was looking for non-villainous roles, the script "really got ahold of me ... I thought, 'If I do one more villain, I should do this.' I couldn't refuse it". The one reservation Hauer had was with the scene where the girl is torn apart and Feldman told him, "you are the bad guy and you'll be the baddest bad guy there ever was!" Red mentioned to Hauer that he had Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards in mind when he wrote the part of Ryder. Furthermore, Red felt that the character should have an electronic voice box.
For the role of Jim Halsey, the producers mentioned Matthew Modine, Tom Cruise, and Emilio Estevez. They agreed on C. Thomas Howell and liked his look. At the time, he was being more selective with the roles he took and heard that the script was a generic thriller. Harmon personally gave Howell a copy of the script. He could not put it down and "couldn't believe the things that happened to my character in the first 12 pages. I knew I wanted to do it". He also wanted to work with Hauer. Unbeknownst to Hauer, Howell found him "frightening, intimidating, and that he was in a constant state of fear, almost as if he really was John Ryder and I really was Jim Halsey".
Jennifer Jason Leigh agreed to do the film because she wanted to work with Hauer again (they co-starred in Flesh + Blood) and loved the character of Nash because "there was a real person there".
In addition, veteran character actors Billy Green Bush (known for playing ill-fated police officers in Electra Glide in Blue and Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday), Gene Davis (known for playing the naked psychopathic killer Warren Stacy in 10 to Midnight), Armin Shimerman (who would later be the voice of General Skarr in The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy), and Emmy-winner Henry Darrow, have supporting roles as police officers who pursue Jim Halsey.
Fox ultimately rejected the project over the budget and saw it as a "straight-out horror movie". Madden also admitted that he would have "argued to soften the movie. There were some people at the studio who thought it was pretty gross". Feldman and Meeker optioned the film themselves, paying Red $25,000. Major studios like Universal Pictures and Warner Bros. passed on it, as did smaller ones like Orion Pictures and New World Pictures. Many executives liked the script but balked at the girl being ripped apart scene. At least two studios were willing to consider making it but only if Harmon was replaced. However, the film's producers had faith in their director and stuck by Harmon.
Independent producer Donna Dubrow heard about The Hitcher while working on another film and to her it sounded like "Duel with a person". When she went to work for Silver Screen Partners/Home Box Office, she contacted Feldman, a former employer, and asked for a copy of the script. She submitted it to her boss, HBO senior vice-president Maurice Singer. He liked it and sent it back to New York to be read by Michael Fuchs, HBO chairman and chief operating officer. They needed Fuchs' approval to get the film made. It would not be easy to convince him because it was not the kind of material that he liked and he did not want to make it. However, Dubrow had to go back to New York on other business and met with Fuchs. She mentioned The Hitcher script and pitched the Hitchcockian thriller angle. When she returned to L.A., Singer told her that Fuchs agreed to make the film but with the stipulation that the girl would not be torn apart and the violence would be reduced. The film's budget was set at $5.8 million.
Over the next few months, the filmmakers negotiated two key scenes in the script: the girl getting ripped apart and the eyeball in the hamburger. For the latter scene, Harmon just changed the body part to a finger. As for the former, everyone at HBO/Silver Screen, except Dubrow, wanted it changed. Fuchs did not want the girl to die and Dubrow argued that this would change the story significantly. There were arguments about how the girl should die and Dubrow remembers, "they were trying to make her death not horrible, when – by the nature of the script – it had to be". The studio even suggested softening her death by having a funeral. The filmmakers refused to back down and Silver Screen executives finally relented at the last minute.
Contractually, TriStar Pictures was obligated to distribute any film by HBO/Silver Screen. TriStar representatives saw an early screening and studio president David Matalon said, "It's the best film that we have for 1986". The Hitcher opened in 800 theaters on February 21, 1986, and made $2.1 million during its opening weekend, going on to gross $5.8 million in North America. The film screened on March 20, 2015 at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, for its 29th year anniversary, in Yonkers, New York, presented by Fangoria magazine's Michael Gingold.
The review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes gave the film a 61% approval rating based on 33 reviews. Roger Ebert awarded it no stars and wrote, "But on its own terms, this movie is diseased and corrupt. I would have admired it more if it had found the courage to acknowledge the real relationship it was portraying between Howell and Rutger, but no: It prefers to disguise itself as a violent thriller, and on that level it is reprehensible". In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, "Mr. Harmon, making his feature debut, displays a much surer hand for action than for character, though even some of the action footage here looks meaninglessly overblown". In his review for the Washington Post, Paul Attanasio wrote, "The script (by Eric Red) is laconic in a dull way, much Cain but hardly able. And Harmon and his cinematographer, John Seale, have shot the movie in such brown murk, you can hardly make anything out. By the end, you're willing to forgive Ryder his worst if someone would just change the light bulb". In his review for the Globe and Mail, Jay Scott described the film as a "slasher movie about gay panic, a nasty piece of homophobic angst for the age of AIDS". A rare positive review came from Newsweek magazine's Jack Kroll who called it, "an odyssey of horror and suspense that's as tightly wound as a garrote and as beautifully designed as a guillotine". Leonard Maltin awarded the film a score of 2 1/2 out of a possible 4 stars, criticizing the film's violence as being "genuinely grisly and unappealing" while also stating that the film wasn't without interest.
One of the film's producers said that the film's commercial failure was because of a lack of violence and that Nash's death should have been shown: "There's other gore in the movie, other killings, but this is the main one. It's the motivation for the hero. You can't show all the killings we showed and then not show the main one. It's cheating the audience". Hauer said critics misunderstood the film. According to him, it is an allegory in which Ryder represents evil.
The film spawned a sequel in 2003, with Howell reprising his role as Jim Halsey in The Hitcher II: I've Been Waiting.
A remake, produced by Michael Bay and directed by Dave Meyers, was released on January 19, 2007, which starred Sean Bean as John Ryder, Zachary Knighton as Jim Halsey, and Neal McDonough as Esteridge. The remake added a female protagonist named Grace Andrews, who was portrayed by Sophia Bush. In the film, Andrews survives, while Halsey suffers Nash's fate. The movie was released to generally negative reviews.