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‘THE HITCHER’ GETS A RIDE TO HOLLYWOOD

Three years ago this month, a hopeful young writer living in Texas mailed a stack of letters to Hollywood producers asking if he might send them his screenplay, “The Hitcher.” The 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.”

The query from the young man who called himself Eric Red found its way into the hands of script development executive David Bombyk: “Generally I write back and say, ‘Thank you. I’m sorry but we’re busy,’ but there was something about the way he described the movie that intrigued me.”

Bombyk received a massive script of about 190 pages (the standard is about 120 pages): “I kept avoiding it, but finally I picked it up. Then, it was just ‘Oh, my God!’ ”

“The Hitcher” follows the exploits of a homicidal hitchhiker in Texas who ceaselessly torments a young driver until he is finally goaded into killing the maniac.

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The original script wasn’t for the queasy: A family was massacred in its station wagon; an eyeball was served inside a hamburger (which was half-eaten before . . .); a young woman was tied between a truck and a pole, then torn in half. Plus: a decapitation and any number of people perishing from rifle blasts, slit throats, car crashes and explosions.

The script went the distance and became a movie that opened nationwide in about 800 theaters Friday (a French-fried finger was substituted for the eyeball; the decapitation and many slashings and shootings were omitted, but the woman was still torn apart).

“The Hitcher” isn’t some cheapie job made by unknowns out in the boonies. It’s the product of Hollywood, with real stars (Rutger Hauer and teen heartthrob C. Thomas Howell) and made by a real company (Home Box Office in association with Silver Screen Partners, a movie investment fund) with real money ($5.8 million) and released by a mainstream company (Tri-Star Pictures).

How do films like this ever get made? What could the people who make these movies possibly be thinking about? Calendar posed these questions to executives and film makers who were familiar with or directly involved in “The Hitcher.”

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As “The Hitcher” wended its way to the screen, it provoked diverse opinions. Some people thought it was horrible. Others were fascinated by the script, mentioning “Duel” (an early Steven Spielberg TV movie) most often as a comparison. The people involved in the production generally claimed to see in it a grand statement--well, at least grander than just trying to make bucks on some murderous movies. They invariably invoked the name of Alfred Hitchcock.

In its original form, David Bombyk acknowledged, “It was not the kind of thing you showed to a studio executive. It was extremely brutal and extremely gory.”

But Bombyk and personal manager Kip Ohman, who later became co-producers of “The Hitcher,” saw more in the screenplay just another “slasher” movie. “There was something very powerful and exciting,” Bombyk maintained. “There was a level of challenge, intensity and poetry.”

“Slasher” or “gore” movies tend to rely on blood and gruesome effects, rather than on plot. The grisly effects are graphically depicted. In “Hitcher,” most of the gruesomeness, such as the ripping apart of the woman, takes place off-camera. That, the film makers said, made the film more “Hitchcockian” in implied shock value than “Cronenbergian” (as in director David Cronenberg’s “Scanners,” in which heads blow up).

From Bombyk’s viewpoint, “Hitcher” represented an American fable: “Eric (the writer) chose these brilliant mythic elements to have this boy traveling across Texas, the great American frontier, and having the hitchhiker emerge out of the landscape--he’s a primal element with no context and you can’t explain him. What does he mean? Why is he doing this?

“In reality, there’s a universe out there that contains danger and evil and tragedy and I think ‘The Hitcher’ is about the process of coming to the reckoning of all this. How do you deal with the enigma of this life you are living? You can’t figure it out, but you’ve still got to do it.”

Ohman described the original script as being “a bloody, wet film, but there was something mythic and poetic about it. I saw it as a suspense Hitchcockian-type thriller.”

Maryanne T. Ziegler, then head of development for producer Robert Chartoff, didn’t share such enthusiasm when she read the script: “This is an exploitation movie which Bob (Chartoff) has never done nor has any intention of ever doing,” she wrote in a letter to Eric Red. “This blood, guts and gore-filled subject has an audience somewhere but certainly not here. . . . I would like to see future work if the subject matter is something that relates to real life and real characters.”

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(The response has its own irony, of course: Her employer co-produced “Rockys” I through IV.)

Bombyk ultimately brought “The Hitcher” screenplay--revised and pared down--to his boss, producer Ed Feldman, and Feldman’s partner, former O’Melveny & Myers attorney Charles Meeker. Feldman’s eclectic past film projects include “Save the Tiger,” “Hot Dog . . . the Movie,” “Six Pack,” “Witness” (up for a best-picture Oscar this year), “Explorers” and, most recently, “Hamburger . . . the Motion Picture,” high among the worst-reviewed films of this year.

Feldman read the script and liked it, but saw the potential problems: “We didn’t want to do ‘Nightmare on Elm Street 3.’ The material was a step up from that.”

“It was a terrific and horrific movie,” Meeker maintained. “The question was, how could we manage to translate it to the screen without making a slasher movie?”

Feldman said that he doesn’t like slasher movies: “I personally don’t like to go to them,” he said. “I’d much rather try to make a horror film with style and artistic value.”

Feldman and Meeker decided to act as executive producers for “Hitcher.” Why did Feldman want to make it? “Because it had artistic integrity.”

Then, it wasn’t purely out of the profit motive? “Well, I’m in the business to make money. But I also could make pornographic movies for money and I don’t choose to do that.”

The men knew that the project would be a tough sell to studios, but they had a plan. Bombyk explained, “The challenge was to take something like this movie, which is part of the genre and to elevate it in terms of the way it’s cast, filmed and paced, so what you get back is a suspense film, not just one where you get your throat slit every 10 minutes.”

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In bygone days, movies in the suspense/horror/gore genres were low-budget mainstays for small independent film makers--until Hitchcock shocked mainstream Hollywood in 1960 when Mama hacked up Janet Leigh in the shower at the Bates Motel.

Since “Psycho,” studios have found that releasing one or two such movies a year can significantly sweeten their coffers, although the official reasoning is always “because there is an audience out there for it.”

So it has been with the seemingly endless “Psychos” (Universal Pictures will release “Psycho 3" in July) and “Fridays the 13th” (Paramount Pictures followed the original with four sequels, the fifth is coming in August).

(Not incidentally, in the past, Paramount executives have been noticeably and repeatedly reluctant to discuss their “Friday” films, as if they wished they would go away--except for the profits.)

But even Paramount and Universal passed on “Hitcher,” Bombyk and Ohman recalled late one afternoon as they sat in Simply Paul’s restaurant, gazing across the street at Universal’s legendary Black Tower, the nickname for MCA’s executive building.

“I can’t even remember who we showed it to over there,” Ohman said, laughing. “When you’re rejected 25 times or more, you tend not to want to remember.”

Eighteen months before, the two had worried mainly about getting the script in good enough shape to let Feldman and Meeker simply have a first look at it.

“I was almost afraid of people’s reactions,” Bombyk confessed. “I looked at it again and thought, ‘I can’t show this to somebody and expect them to understand what I’m talking about, because they’re going to view this as an exploitation film, but I know that it’s more than that.’ ”

Although he wasn’t tied to the project, Bombyk continued to work with Red via numerous long distance phone calls to Texas. Finally, the writer moved to Los Angeles.

“A secretary who had read ‘The Hitcher’ came into my office saying, ‘My God, Eric Red is coming in?’ She didn’t know what to expect and neither did I. I mean, we figured he’d arrive with a Soldier of Fortune magazine under his arm.”

But Bombyk said that Red turned out to be personable and charming and agreed to work with Ohman on the script until it was ready to be shown to executives.

Eric Red’s apartment in Santa Monica is as sparsely furnished as the dialogue in his script. A French poster advertising “Duel” hangs on the wall, next to one for “The Hitcher.” On top of his TV sit several videocassettes--"Straw Dogs,” “Taxi Driver,” “Dirty Harry” and “Duel.” They are among his favorite films.

“I really like horror movies,” he said. “I think they have real energy.”

He mentioned an ancient low-grade screamer called “Grave of the Vampire,” with “one of the best scenes I’ve ever seen in a horror film. The mother, who has been raped in a grave by a vampire, sits in a room with her little baby. She puts the child’s face to her breast, but it won’t take the milk. So she takes a razor blade and slices open her chest and the child drinks. It’s beautiful. I liked that.”

With preferences like that, it comes as no surprise that his favorite scene in “Hitcher” is when the woman, Nash, is ripped in two: “It’s a highly tense scene, it’s very exciting when you do something like that.”

Although he remembered working with Ohman on script changes, he maintained that his original script was no bloodier than the final draft. “There was never really any graphic violence--it was all off-screen.”

Red (he doesn’t use his given name) said he was born in Pittsburgh and raised in Philadelphia and New York City. When he was 20, he made a small film, “Gunman’s Blues,” in hopes that it would get him a directing job. It was the story of an aging hit man and a tough street punk who clash in a New York bar. But when no directing offers followed, he moved West. During a seven-month stay in Austin, Tex., he wrote “The Hitcher.”

Ohman and Red spent the next six months reworking the screenplay, deleting much of the violence that Ohman thought “repetitive.”

During that time, Red also attended the American Film Institute, where he made another small film, “Trigger,” about a young man who puts explosives in toy frogs and gives them away as gifts. Later in the film, he puts an explosive in a hamburger, which explodes after it is given to an older man.

At length, “Hitcher” looked to be in good shape and, Ohman recalled, “I gave it back to David (Bombyk) on a Thursday and I also gave it to David Madden (then a 20th Century Fox production executive). On Monday morning Madden called and said, ‘Fox wants to make this movie and David called and said, ‘The script is terrific, we’ve gotta do something.’ ”

As Feldman recalled, “There was queasiness at Fox about the subject matter, but even though Fox thought that it was a very extreme kind of picture, they felt that the writing and dynamics of it were so unique and interesting that that it was worth a shot, but as a negative pick-up.”

(In this case, a studio gives a film maker a letter-of-intent to distribute a film, which then enables the film maker to get financing. Once the film is completed, the studio reimburses the film maker for the budget.)

The next move, the producers decided, was to find a relatively unknown (i.e., inexpensive) director.

Two years ago this month, Robert Harmon heard from his William Morris agent, Peter Turner, that a script of “some quality” might be coming his way.

Harmon, a still photographer-turned-cameraman, had acquired his agent by making a half-hour featurette called “China Lake.” The stark, beautifully photographed short film about an L.A. cop on vacation in the High Sierra desert who gets his kicks from stalking unsuspecting motorists on deserted roads and running them down with his cycle or locking them in their trunks--and leaving them to perish in the desert heat.

(Times critic Sheila Benson had seen the film and declared it “morally indefensible . . . but technically impeccable.”)

“I remember the night I first read ‘The Hitcher’ very well,” Harmon said in an interview. “Peter sent it over, but I didn’t get home until about midnight and it was waiting on my doorstep.

“I thought, ‘Big deal, another script; I’ll read it tomorrow.’ ”

But Harmon changed his mind after listening to his answering machine and finding a series of messages from Turner: “The first one said, ‘I hope you got the script. I’ll probably give it a read tonight. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.’ The second one said, ‘I’m on Page 30' and something like, ‘This is unbelievable!’

“Then he left another one saying simply and cryptically, ‘I can’t believe how much fun you’re going to have making this movie.’ ”

Harmon immediately sat down and read the script. He called Turner early the next morning: “All I said to him was, ‘Where do I sign?’ ”

Harmon met with the producers in February, 1984, to discuss his impression of the script. “It (the script) was much more violent than it is now,” Harmon recalled. “Even the exact actions that remained in the script were described in much bloodier and gorier detail. I thought it was generally effective for the read, but would frighten certain studio executives away.”

The producers were impressed with Harmon. Ohman found him “very positive. It wasn’t some guy saying, ‘I really love the idea of the boy picking up a maniac killer--and boy , we’re gonna have blood everywhere!’ He envisioned this as a real Hitchcockian thriller.”

Harmon concurred. “It remained our approach for the entire rest of the production that the film was going to be suspenseful, exciting and classy. We were trying to develop the character’s psychology to be one that was interesting and mysterious.”

Despite Harmon’s enthusiasm for the project, at least one friend and business associate attempted early on to dissuade him from doing “The Hitcher.”

Producer Jim Jax remembered when Harmon brought him the script. “I thought it was a very, very violent piece and (regarding the ripping scene) it was grotesquely so.” Jax (currently exec producer on “Raising Arizona,” the latest from “Blood Simple” brothers Joel and Ethan Coen), added, “I was sure he’d do a great job, but that, finally, it was just going to be a slasher kind of film. I told him he could end up being considered another David Cronenberg.

“I just thought the movie had a vicious streak in it and would not be able to transcend the horror genre as, for example, ‘The Terminator’ did.”

Harmon disagreed with his friend (“I didn’t think he quite got the script”) and proceeded, although he wanted changes.

The director said he objected immediately to the eyeball in the hamburger. “Although I have a black sense of humor, I didn’t see any way to make a disembodied eyeball in a hamburger the least bit funny.”

Harmon found the finger substitution--at least the way he would film it--"slightly funny, because the audience slowly discovers its presence (as Howell munches on French fries).

And as far as the girl getting ripped in half: “I never planned to show it on screen.”

Fox finally rejected the project. Explained David Madden, now a production V.P. at Paramount, “It was more or less over money. This was perceived as a straight-out horror movie; a different version of ‘When a Stranger Calls’ or ‘Friday the 13th.’ A studio shouldn’t spend more than $3.5- or $4-million picking up these movies. It is the one genre where you can scout around and pick it up.”

Madden found “Hitcher” to be “a great roller-coaster ride. I immediately got excited. It brought ‘Duel’ to mind (Spielberg’s TV movie about driver Dennis Weaver terrorized by an unseen driver of a giant, sinister truck). It had an allegorical quality that elevated it above the typical slasher movie.”

Although Madden said that the deal never went far enough for executives to consider how to handle the more gruesome elements, he suggested that “I would have argued to soften the movie. There were some people at the studio who thought it was pretty gross.”

Feldman and Meeker optioned it themselves, paying Red $25,000. Still, there was no studio willing to pay for the film.

“The script had gotten a lot of celebrity around town. No matter where you sent it to, they’d say it was great,” Feldman said, “but they never wanted to make the deal. I’m sure some of the young executives saw the future in it and responded to it, but when it got into regular committee, they passed on it.”

Universal passed. Paramount and Warner Bros., Columbia, Orion and New World, too, recalled the producers. Hope was ignited, however, when producer Lawrence Gordon came in as president of production at Fox. The producers brought the script back to the studio.

Carol Baum, who worked as a production vice president at Fox during Gordon’s tenure, remembered the studio’s second look at the script: “I loved the script,” Baum explained by phone from her office at Sandollar Productions (Dolly Parton and manager Sandy Gallin’s production company). “It was, viscerally, one of the best scripts I had ever read; it grabbed you and made your blood rush. I thought it would be perfect for Larry, but he passed.”

Baum--who added that she would have tried to remove the ripping-apart scene--was taken to task for her support of the project at a dinner party one evening. “I can’t remember who was there--it was an industry-type dinner and somebody made a comment about the script. When I defended it, that person berated me for liking such a violent exploitation film.”

At Paramount, production V.P. David Kirkpatrick recalled, “Jeff Katzenberg (then president of production, now at Disney) and myself both read the script and liked it. It had sort of a raw energy, a combination between ‘Duel’ and a slasher picture. But Michael Eisner (Paramount’s ex-president and now Disney’s chairman) felt we shouldn’t make that kind of picture.”

Eisner, Kirkpatrick explained, “felt that we already had that kind of movie in our ‘Friday the 13th’ series and didn’t want that diminished.”

(Eisner said through his secretary that he “didn’t recall” the project.)

At still other studios, the problem was director Bob Harmon.

“There were at least two studios who said they would consider making ‘The Hitcher’ if we replaced Bob,” Feldman recalled. “We had no contractual agreement with him, but I have instincts that say that if you believe in a group, once you get a director on a picture, don’t be so quick to abandon him. Our initial instincts were to hire him because he had the vision for the picture. We were sticking with him.”

Harmon was out pitching the script as well. “I had sort of a speech which said, ‘This is a terrific script; however, it is real easy to misread because its so visceral in the reading. All I can say is that everybody has their own images and feelings about reading things--but don’t be put off with the violence, just read it.’ ”

Independent producer Donna Dubrow heard about “Hitcher” while in the midst of problems on “Roadshow” (the ill-fated production that would have starred Timothy Hutton and Jack Nicholson had director Martin Ritt not fallen ill). A friend at Fox asked her what she thought about the premise of a kid and an evil hitchhiker.

“I said it sounded like ‘Duel’ with a person,” Dubrow recalled. Later, when she went to work for Silver Screen/HBO she called up Feldman, a former employer, and asked to see the script.

“I thought it was wonderful,” Dubrow said. “I hadn’t seen a psychological thriller like that in years. I sent it out for coverage and the readers agreed.”

The reader’s report stated: “The writer has created a nightmare and it’s the basis of that fear that makes the nightmare so real. . . . It may be received by some as a slasher film with style. With very little dialogue, it requires a very visual director.”

Dubrow submitted the script to her boss, HBO senior V.P. Maurice Singer, who liked it and sent it back to New York to be read by Michael Fuchs, HBO chairman and chief operating officer, whose approval was needed on every Silver Screen/HBO project.

“The screenplay was an absolute page-turner,” Singer agreed. “Had I not seen (Harmon’s short) ‘China Lake,’ I would have said that the script was written well, but could too easily fall into the exploitation category.

“It was going to be a very tough sell to Michael, because at its face value it was not the kind of material to appeal to him.”

Singer was correct. Word came back from New York to forget it.

Dubrow, however, had to go back to New York on other business and decided to visit Fuchs, whom she had never met.

“As we were chit-chatting, he said, ‘So, you really like that picture “The Hitcher”? I don’t know; it sounds so gory.’

“I said, ‘You’re not looking at it right. This is not a cut-'em-up, chop-'em-up, put-'em-in-the-trunk. If you look at Harmon’s short movie, you’ll see how he gets into your deepest fears, just like Hitchcock.”

Fuchs merely nodded his head and the meeting ended.

When Dubrow returned to L.A., she said that Singer had news: “He said, ‘I don’t know what you said to Michael, but he called me and we’re gonna make the movie.’ ”

Fuchs said in an interview that he, in fact, was not keen on the script when he first read it. “But everyone (Singer and Dubrow) felt very strongly that it could be a different, offbeat out-of-the-ordinary type movie.”

But Fuchs’ OK came with a dictum--the girl would not be torn apart and the violence would have to be reduced.

For the next few months, dialogues between Silver Screen executives and the film makers centered around two scenes--the eyeball in the hamburger and the ripping apart of Nash, the young woman.

“I changed it to a finger in one of the innumerable drafts we went through and that seemed to meet with approval,” Harmon said dryly. “I didn’t have to run through a whole group of body parts; we just needed some motivation to send Halsey running hysterically out the door and coughing so that he would look suspicious to the cops.”

The ripping apart of Nash was not as easily solved. Everyone at HBO/Silver Screen except Dubrow remained adamant about changing the scene.

“We got into huge arguments,” she recalled. “Maurice (presumably speaking for Fuchs) would say, ‘The girl can’t die.’

“I said, ‘What is our story, then? What if Janet Leigh hadn’t died (in “Psycho”)? If she stays alive, I don’t want to see that movie, because there won’t be a movie.”

Dubrow added, “Then we would talk about her dying differently. I said, ‘Maurice, give us some ideas. Put her up on a cross, wrap her around a tire.’ They were preposterous thoughts, but they were trying to make her death not horrible, when--by the nature of the script--it had to be.”

Harmon shook his head wearily when recalling these meetings.

“It was a tough moment in a tough script,” Harmon said, “and we were constantly trying to be vigilant and not emasculate the script. The structure and tone and whole edifice that Eric created wouldn’t have withstood the removal of that scene.”

Harmon remembered a particularly silly idea at the time: “They suggested that she be allowed to be killed, but we would soften the scene by having a funeral.”

He paused, then allowed, “Maybe I was a little too glib about things at that point, but I said that I would be happy to give her a funeral if I could do it with five caskets . . . or one very, very long one.”

Eric Red recalled talking with truck drivers at the truck stop about possibilities. “I asked them, ‘Well, look, if you wanted to kill a girl with a truck, how would you do it? They were suggesting things like ‘Put her in the back of the transom and run a kingpin through her.’ ”

At the 11th hour, Silver Screen executives caved in and allowed the scene to be shot. Aside from flailing hands and truck tires turning, the scene contained no graphic rendering of the rip. It met with executive approval.

According to Fuchs: “They found a way to make a gruesome scene acceptable.”

As those discussions wore on, casting got under way.

The role of John Ryder had changed through various drafts of the script. Early on, the killer had been described as practically skeletal. Along those lines, actors like David Bowie, Sting, Sam Shepard, Harry Dean Stanton and Terence Stamp were mentioned.

Although no one else seemed taken with the idea (especially Red), Harmon was fixated on Stamp. “I used to carry around his picture to pitch meetings,” he said, laughing at the memory. “When the inevitable question of ‘Who do you see in the role?’ came around, I would open my briefcase, take out the picture and say, ‘This man.’ ”

The script was sent to Stamp’s agent, but the actor refused the role. “He said that he worked very hard to get into his roles, and that to get into the mind of that madman would have been completely destructive to his entire personality,” Harmon said.

(The veteran actor is currently starring opposite a chimpanzee in “Link” as a professor in search of the Missing Link.)

Sam Elliot was offered the role, but agreement couldn’t be reached on his salary, the film makers recalled. Finally, Singer mentioned Dutch actor Rutger Hauer (“Soldier of Orange,” “Blade Runner,” “The Osterman Weekend,” “Ladyhawke”): “When I thought of Rutger on screen, I thought of somebody who would appear attractive in a dangerous sort of way.”

Hauer arrived in Los Angeles for a short visit soon after and read the script. “It really got ahold of me,” the actor commented. “Although I was looking for work in other areas (i.e., non-villainous, as he is so often cast), after reading it, I thought, ‘If I do one more villain, I should do this.’ I couldn’t refuse it.”

With Hauer attached to the production, other actors fell into place.

Many young actors read for the role of the terrorized Halsey. For candidates, the producers mentioned Matthew Modine, Tom Cruise and Emilio Estevez (who was said to covet the role). They finally agreed on C. Thomas Howell (“The Outsiders,” “Grandview U.S.A.,” “Red Dawn,” “Tank,” “Secret Admirer”), who, they all agreed, had the perfect look.

To that point, Howell said in an interview, he and manager Keith Addis were uninterested: “At the time, we were being very choosy about the roles I was going to take,” he explained. “I had only heard that it was a thriller and I had no interest in that.”

But after Harmon personally took them a script, things changed. “I couldn’t put it down,” Howell enthused. “I couldn’t believe the things that happened to my character in the first 12 pages. I knew I wanted to do it; I’d never had a chance to work on a character’s development in such a role. The other big reason was because Rutger was attached.”

Addis was cooler: “He was always a little unsure,” Howell maintained, laughing. “It isn’t Keith’s type of movie, but I don’t think its one of those type of movies either.”

Howell didn’t think much of the eyeball sandwich (“They told me it would be changed, but not that it would be the finger. I’ve never been comfortable with that.”) but he had no problem with the tearing of Nash in two.

“Hey!” he semi-joked, “in every single film you’ve seen in the past, the damsel in distress has to be saved, but in this film we let her have it!”

Hauer, on the other hand, was never happy with his participation in that scene.

“I had very, very big difficulty with the fact that the girl gets killed,” he said during a recent visit to Los Angeles. “But somehow, this became really difficult because if you don’t do that (kill the girl), the whole script turns into a different thing.”

Feldman chuckled about Hauer’s difficulty with the scene. “Rutger didn’t want to do it; he thought he’d be the bad guy. I told him, ‘You are the bad guy . . . and you’ll be the baddest bad guy there ever was!’ ”

Surprisingly, Jennifer Jason Leigh (“Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “Flesh and Blood,” “Grandview U.S.A.”) was the least perturbed of all. It was her character who was ripped in two. Leigh’s main reason for doing the film, she said, was to work with Hauer again (they co-starred in “Flesh and Blood”).

“I also loved the character of Nash; there was a real person there,” Leigh said.

As for what happened to her character: “It was necessary to the film.”

She was vaguely amused by the number of alternatives proposed to the truck-pole rip. “It’s as horrifying as one could possibly imagine and I don’t think one example is better than another. At one point, they wanted Nash to die by having the truck collapse on top of her, but that would have been just as bad.”

She added, “The film’s like ‘Friday the 13th,’ but enough characterization that it made it interesting and more psychological. It was very, very tense.”

Tri-Star (owned by Coca-Cola, Time Inc. and assorted smaller investors) had no say in whether or not “Hitcher” was made. Contractually, it is obligated to distribute any movie produced by HBO/Silver Screen.

When Tri-Star executives first heard about the project, “we liked it very much in terms of its potential,” recalled Stephen Randall, executive marketing V.P. for Tri-Star. “I had seen ‘China Lake’ and thought Harmon was a good director choice, but you always wonder how it is going to come out.

“We knew that that scene (when Nash is ripped in two) would become ‘That Scene,’ but we trusted the producers that it would be handled carefully in post-production.”

When Tri-Star executives finally saw an early screening of the film, HBO’s Singer remembered that “David Matalon (Tri-Star president) stood up and said afterwards, ‘It’s the best film that we have for 1986.’ And he really committed himself to seeing that the marketing for the movie was done with vigor.”

Matalon couldn’t recall his exact remarks but confirmed that “I thought it was absolutely striking. I couldn’t believe a first-time director could produce work like that. I immediately rushed back to the office to begin negotiating a deal for him (Harmon) here.”

Marketing-wise, Randall felt that “The Hitcher” had the potential of being a “cross-genre movie.”

“It should appeal to and satisfy a Hitchcock audience who is looking for the classic suspense mode. But it also will satisfy teen-agers who would enjoy films like ‘Friday the 13th.’ ”

Early reviews are mixed. The Hollywood trade papers didn’t think much of it. Said Jane Galbraith in Daily Variety: "(It) is a highly unimaginative slasher film that keeps the tension going with a massacre about every 15 minutes. . . .”

Duane Byrge in the Hollywood Reporter said, “If you’ve seen one film school movie, you’ve seen ‘Hitcher.’ ” He called it “about as involving as a cruise control ride across the desert.”

In Friday’s Calendar review, Michael Wilmington took unkindly to the movie as well. (Note his added comments on Page 18.)

However, Newsweek’s Jack Kroll found it “an odyssey of horror and suspense that’s as tightly wound as a garrote and as beautifully designed as a guillotine.”

The film makers seemed unperturbed by the early pans. “We got lousy reviews on ‘Witness’ too,” Bombyk remarked. Ohman mentioned a recent industry screening where “they were hanging from the rafters. People stayed around for an hour afterwards talking about the film. Everybody loved it.”

Meanwhile, screenwriter Red is at work on several new screenplays. One of them, “Undertow,” which he hopes to direct, tells the story of a drifter who, on a stormy night, is washed into a weapon-filled house in the backwoods of the Appalachians. There he encounters a hulking, unstable mountain man and his beautiful young wife (who hasn’t seen another human being since she married him at 13.) The storm gets worse, tensions mount and all hell breaks loose. But that’s another story. . . .

Calendar intern Marison Mull, a UCLA graduate student, contributed to this article.


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