In The Desert Of Seth

By G. B. Marian

The Hitcher (1986)

The original 1986 poster for The Hitcher

It might sound crazy, but Seth-Typhon is in this movie. No, I don’t mean literally; He never physically appears with His funny rectangular ears or His mane of ferociously blood red hair. But His spirit is there, pulsating in the lawless desert landscape and reverberating in the rugged determination of its unwitting protagonist. Like many other films before it, The Hitcher is a rather simple and old-fashioned tale of “good versus evil”; and yet it accomplishes something no other film of its kind has ever achieved. I think many horror films can be interpreted as modern re-tellings of the ancient combat myths (e.g., Marduk vs. Tiamat, Yahweh vs. Leviathan, etc.). As a Typhonian, I naturally tend to view these films in terms of the combat between Seth and Apophis. But while I would have to agree that this can be quite a stretch in some cases (e.g., where exactly is Big Red to be found in something like Entrails of a Virgin?), The Hitcher may very well be the most Typhonian film I’ve ever seen.

The story of the film centers on young Jim Halsey, a young kid who’s delivering a car from Chicago to San Diego. While driving through a Texas desert (which is actually a Californian desert, as anyone who’s ever lived in Texas can discern), Jim spots a hitchhiker (played by Rutger Hauer) standing in the rain. Jim gives the man – who introduces himself as “John Ryder” – a lift, only to discover that he’s a psychopathic killer. “Ryder” takes Jim hostage and threatens to kill him, telling him that he wants the boy to “stop” him. Miraculously, Jim manages to push this guy out of his car and leaves him in the dust…but that’s only the first 10 minutes of the film. Jim soon finds himself running into “Ryder” again and again as the madman butchers people all across the desert. To make the situation even worse, “Ryder” makes it look as if Jim is the one committing all these murders, and the boy soon finds himself pursued by an entire lynch mob of crooked state troopers. As matters continue to spiral out of control, Jim and “Ryder” appear to develop some inexplicable link with each other that’s difficult to describe. As a result of this link, Jim realizes it’s entirely up to him – and no one else but him – to stop “Ryder” from ever harming anyone again.

I’m easily frightened by a lot of things;  I’m not sure about aliens, for instance, because I worry that creatures like Giger’s Alien or the Thing might actually be real somewhere on some distant planet. But nothing’s quite so frightening as a human being right here on Earth who’s absolutely batshit crazy and who just likes killing people for fun. “John Ryder” has absolutely no reason or motivation for doing what he does; he simply commits his atrocities as if it were some kind of “occupation.” (And I put his name in air quotes because I’m not entirely convinced that “John Ryder” is actually his real name.) What’s more, “Ryder” seems tired of this “occupation” at the beginning of the film. Meeting Jim Halsey – who becomes the first person to have outsmarted “Ryder” in any way for quite a long time – gives “Ryder” just what he needs: a new and more interesting kind of game to play. As poor Jim finds himself sucked into this game against his will, he begins to understand “Ryder” in a way that no other character in the film can.

This link that develops between “Ryder” and Jim is mysterious and very hard to explain, but it’s one of the most important elements of the film for me personally. In a way, it’s almost like “Ryder” is “grooming” Jim and teaching him to become a hardened killer like himself. There’s even a slight touch of the paranormal – just a touch – when “Ryder” seems to hear Jim saying his name even though they’re in two separate rooms and Jim’s only whispering. (That scene in particular always gives me some serious chills, let me tell you!) Some film critics have postulated that “Ryder” has some kind of homosexual interest in Jim (and that The Hitcher is therefore a “homophobic” film), but I personally don’t see any evidence to support this. Besides, as someone who prays to a non-heteronormative God (who’s been known to have a very fluidic sexual orientation), I wouldn’t like this film at all if I felt there was truly anything “homophobic” about it.

Rutger Hauer as “John Ryder”

But my absolute favorite thing about this film is Jim Halsey, who is portrayed here by C. Thomas Howell. In my opinion, Jim resembles what Seth might have been like when He faced Apophis for the very first time. Young and naïve, this innocent and powerless boy ventures forth into an unknown land, a scorched desert wilderness where even the few vestiges of law-enforcement that exist are both confused and useless. He meets “Ryder,” who is Apophis itself in human form: a nameless husk of a creature that wants only to annihilate all life (including its own). As the story progresses, Jim learns the hard lessons of the desert that prepare him to do what no one else in the story can do. He eventually succeeds in apprehending his nemesis and in clearing his name (just as Seth is eventually reconciled with Horus, the God of civilization). But during the film’s final act, the legal system proves that it just can’t handle a monster like “Ryder,” and Jim has to make a choice. He can either walk away from it all and resume his life as a normal law-abiding citizen, or he can pursue this agent of Apophis and banish it back to the whirlpool of ghosts and shadows from whence it came. If he chooses the latter option, Jim must break the law and ruin any chance of ever being accepted by society again. He must become a self-willed outlaw who represents a higher level of justice that none of the policemen in the film can even touch.

Furthermore, Jim understands “Ryder” in the exact same way that Seth understands Apophis, and it’s this understanding that most qualifies Jim and Seth to fight. This knowledge is also what separates both heroes from the civilized world, causing Typhon and Jim Halsey to be misunderstood by civilization as “criminals.” To complete the symmetry, neither hero is even remotely concerned about reputations; Typhon and Halsey simply do what needs to be done to stop the evil, regardless of what others may think. This detachment from the sensibilities of civilized life enables both to rescue civilization from even greater threats. It’s also this interest in saving civilization that prevents both heroes from simply replacing the monsters that are fought. That neither hero is spiritually corrupted by the unlawful things they must do is the ultimate victory.

Despite its grueling terror and gritty ultraviolence, The Hitcher is actually a very beautiful film. I’m a sucker for movies that take place out in the desert, but this one is especially good because of its awe-inspiring photography. I also enjoy it for the fact that it’s a “slow and quiet” film. I get tired of today’s thrillers, which are so often noisy and excessively fast-paced (to the point of confusing me and stressing me out too much). Even with all its screams, explosions and gunfire, The Hitcher still takes its time to develop its story, and it never insults its audience by over-explaining its own symbolism (like Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies do). It also has plenty of moments when important things happen while none of the characters speak. Even its music (by Mark Isham) is soft, slow and ambient, which is something I miss about older films. (I’m one of those people who pays extra special attention to film scores, and I get tired of how so many films that are made today have nearly identical-sounding bombastic music. As Isham demonstrates here, sometimes an eerie drone effect is all you need to establish an atmosphere of menace and suspense.)

The Hitcher was directed by Robert Harmon and was written by Eric Red (who would later pen another desert-themed horror film, 1987’s Near Dark, which is my all-time favorite vampire flick). It was followed by a 2003 sequel, The Hitcher II: I’ve Been Waiting, in which C. Thomas Howell portrays an adult Jim Halsey. The original film was later remade in 2007 by Michael Bay and his production company, Platinum Dunes (as were many other classic horror films, including The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and A Nightmare on Elm Street). I have seen neither the sequel nor the remake, nor do I have much interest in seeing them. As far as I’m concerned, the original Hitcher is absolutely perfect the way it is, and it works best as a standalone film (with no continuations of any kind).

C. Thomas Howell as “Jim Halsey”

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