A dark night. A desert highway. No stars. Rain pouring down like blood. A lone young man, fighting to stay awake, in a drive-away red Seville. His name: Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell). Up ahead: a stranger, thumbing a ride. A devil from the bowels of hell. A hitchhiker. (Wait a minute, Ida Lupino made that one.) No . . . “The Hitcher” (citywide).

Halsey stops. The hitcher jumps in. His eyes have a sullen, blue gleam. (It’s Rutger Hauer at his dourest; his allegorical moniker is John Ryder.) He sullenly broods, sullenly mutters, sullenly pulls out a knife. He tells Halsey he’s just cut off the head, arms and legs of his last driver. Now, to keep his hand in, he’s going to kill Halsey.

Unless, of course, Halsey can stop him. Then, he’ll be in real trouble.

Because then, Ryder is going to start playing games. He’s going to run all around the desert for the next day or two, following Halsey wherever he goes: torturing him, wrecking his car, trying to set fire to him, glaring at him sullenly and, finally, killing everybody in sight and having Halsey blamed for it. Then, when the police show up, he’ll kill them before Halsey can explain anything.


In his spare time, just for laughs, Ryder’s going to sneak into a local restaurant john, plant evidence in Halsey’s pants, and drop bloody, amputated fingers into the French fryer. When Halsey finds a nice girl (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Ryder’s going to creep into their room, fondle her in the dark while Halsey showers, and then drag her outside, tie her between a truck cab and trailer, and, with his foot on the gas, dare Halsey and the cops to shoot him.

What’s bugging this guy? And where does he get all his energy? (French-fried fingers?)

Of course, there’s no answer. “The Hitcher” is an existential nightmare--or so, undoubtedly, writer Eric Red and director Robert Harmon would like us to believe. That’s why there are so few phones along the road; why Ryder can shoot helicopters out of the sky with a .357-Magnum from a moving truck, and sleep all night on the highway without getting run over. It’s why Halsey’s consistently brainless behavior doesn’t get him killed after 10 minutes. If you complained that the story makes no sense--and there are barely two consecutive scenes that do--they might tell you that’s the whole point: This is a senseless nightmare. It’s the nightmare of life: irrational, awful, pointless.

Harmon might be able to float that argument; he’s highly talented, and he gives the whole movie a tense rhythm and a paranoid look. His style is streamlined chic-bleak: He and cinematographer John Seale create a killer’s desert that stretches endlessly under an implacable sky, hiding snakes and scum in its sandy wastes.


But what about Red’s script-- which gained a Hollywood reputation as a “great thriller” and a “terrific read”? (Never trust the literary judgment of people who describe a book or script as a “read"; would they call a symphony a “listen”?) Terrific? Only if you don’t translate the dialogue into human speech, or make connections from scene to scene.

It’s a cheap, easy rehash of Spielberg’s “Duel” and “The Hitchhiker” (which Red may not have seen)--along with grabs from “Halloween” (the unstoppable fiend), “Jackson County Jail” (the innocent motorist driven outside the law) and “Straw Dogs” (manhood through blood rites). Nothing is original, though the core of the movie seems to be a quasi-homosexual mentor-pupil assault: Ryder is as fixated on Halsey as Bruno on Guy in Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train.” (Whenever police or toll-takers are around, he goes coy: grabbing Halsey’s crotch, tenderly caressing his hand or batting sullen blue come-hither eyes.)

Beyond that, you can express only disgust at a movie that deals with pain and fear in such an empty, squalid way: which gives us a scene where a woman is ripped apart and focuses not on her suffering, but on the hero’s dickering with the villain. (Apparently, she’s just a poker chip in Ryder’s game; when she dies, we don’t hear any more of her. It’s as if, in a silent cliffhanger, the heroine got sliced up at the sawmill--and then was completely forgotten.)

The logic of the movie doesn’t come from reality or nightmare; it comes from the VCR. Despite Harmon’s sometimes extraordinary staging or the power of advertising, it would seem amazing if a thriller this vacuous scared any but the most naive and susceptible of its intended audience. Perhaps it’ll work on people terrified of loud noises. (There are a lot of loud noises and thumps here, including most of the dialogue.)

In the end, the only thing that does scare you about “The Hitcher” is its emptiness: not the emptiness of a desert road or a fear-soaked night, but a shriveling void in the people who made it. ‘THE HITCHER’

A Tri-Star release of an HBO Pictures-Silver Screen Partners production. Producers David Bombyk, Kip Ohman. Director Robert Harmon. Script Eric Red. Executive producers Edward Feldman, Charles Meeker. Camera John Seale. Edi tor Frank Urioste. Music Mark Isham. With Rutger Hauer, C. Thomas Howell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jeffrey DeMunn.

Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes.

MPAA rating: R (under 17 requires an accompanying parent or adult guardian).