After all these years, “The Hitcher” (the original, not the godforsaken 2007 remake) has lost none of its suspenseful power, and it continues to terrify new generations of horror movie fans. In addition, it also marked a memorable point in the careers of the actors cast in it. Rutger Hauer created one of his most devilish villains ever with John Ryder, C. Thomas Howell gave one of his very best performances as Jim Halsey, and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s performance as Nash proved to be a real stretch for the actress (that pun was most definitely intended).
When the screenwriter of “The Hitcher,” Eric Red, arrived to do a Q&A at the Silent Movie Theatre in Los Angeles on October 9, 2011 where Cinefamily was showing the film, he gave the small but very attentive audience a lot of great stories involving the actors involved in the production, and he had plenty of unforgettable things to say about Hauer.
The audience was very surprised to hear Sam Elliott was originally cast as John Ryder before Hauer came along. Apparently, Elliott’s audition was so terrifying, one of the movie’s producers refused to stay inside the casting office whenever Elliott was around. Somewhere along the line, however, Elliott got cold feet and ended up dropping out of the production.
But even after hearing that, it is still hard to think of another actor who could have played this truly frightening character as memorably as Hauer. As Ryder, Red said Hauer “evoked the character to such a degree” and was always “unpredictable” in what he did. Red described his screenplay as being “sparse” and said it was more about looks than it was about dialogue as there wasn’t much of the latter. Hauer, however, brought so many ideas to the role which were not on the page. During this particularly screening, some of us actually noticed how Ryder was actually wearing a wedding ring. To this, Red simply said, “That’s Hauer!”
Oddly enough, the evening’s funniest story involved the scene where Leigh’s character of Nash was tied between a truck, and Halsey has to keep Ryder from stepping on the gas and ripping her apart. It turns out Hauer did not want to shoot this scene and would not even come out of his trailer when everything was ready to start shooting. The filmmakers talked to him regarding his concerns, and Hauer told them the following:
“I don’t want to shoot the scene because the audience will end up figuring out that my character is the bad guy.”
Hmm … Dismembering the driver who picked up Ryder before Halsey did, murdering a whole family and sticking a human finger in a pile of French fries was not enough to indicate Ryder was the bad guy? How scary it is to learn of this!
When it came to casting Halsey, the filmmakers did not have any particular actors in mind. Red said they all went with Howell as they remembered him from “The Outsiders” and described him as having “the right look.” Ryder is described as being a “father figure” to Halsey, and he wants Halsey to kill him. Howell convincingly portrays his character, who goes from a terrified young man in over his head to one who gains control and becomes almost as cold-blooded as Ryder.
With “The Hitcher,” Red was aiming to create a movie where the audience got an inescapable feeling of claustrophobia in wide open spaces. He said it does not only have to happen in a tiny room or an elevator. Even with the infinite expanse of land on display, no one can escape their pursuers. But the movie also benefits from its memorable performances from a cast who bring more to their characters than what was on the page. Without Hauer, Howell and Leigh, “The Hitcher” would never have been half as effective as what we ended up seeing onscreen.