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Inside the Unsettling, Homoerotic Terror of ‘The Hitcher’

Director Robert Harmon looks back on his 1986 classic, discussing the ambiguous relationship between its main characters, the brilliance of Rutger Hauer — and why he never thought he was making a horror movie

In our summer-long series, “Highway to MEL,” we’re exploring all the twists and turns of a perfect getaway. Stick with us as we roll through all-American tales of great escapes down endless highways, and prove once and for all that there is nothing more liberating than the open road. Read all the stories here.

In the mid-1990s, Robert Harmon visited David Fincher on the set of The Game. “I’m a huge David Fincher fan,” Harmon tells me. “Seven, to me, is one of the great movies of all time — it’s just crazy-good, first to last.” But when the two directors met, Harmon discovered that the younger filmmaker was just as big a fan of his. “He said, ‘Your movie changed my life.’ It meant a lot to me, especially from somebody you admire so much.” 

For more than 35 years now, Harmon has been pleasantly surprised whenever he learns that someone loves his first feature, The Hitcher, a nasty little horror movie with Hitchcockian vibes that terrorized viewers. The funny thing is that Harmon doesn’t consider himself to be a big horror guy — and, as he confides, “I don’t want to be controversial, but I was never even that much of a Hitchcock fan. His reputation just seemed way greater than his movies seemed to suggest it should be. I know it’s a minority opinion.” 

And yet, this elemental story about a young man who foolishly picks up a hitchhiker in the middle of nowhere, realizing too late that he’s made a terrible mistake, remains a primal cautionary tale — a worst-case scenario of what your mom always warned you about in regards to talking to strangers. But few strangers are as unnerving as John Ryder, the enigmatic loner who torments feckless young Jim Halsey. The film’s power goes beyond its killer hook, however, touching on something bizarre and unspoken between hunter and hunted. At its core, The Hitcher is a film about a codependent relationship, maybe even a twisted love story. It’s about finding something you weren’t expecting out there on the highway, something that’s been waiting for you all along.

The Hitcher was the brainchild of Eric Red, an aspiring writer and filmmaker who had driven from New York to California. He was somewhere in Texas, fighting off exhaustion, when it happened. “I picked up a hitchhiker just to pass the time, to help keep me awake,” he’d later recall. “But the guy just sort of sat there, smelling dirty and staring at me. I started feeling uncomfortable about the whole situation and thought maybe it wasn’t such a good idea picking him up. He had a rough edge. I finally stopped the car a few miles down the road and asked him to get out. He left willingly enough, and that was it.” 

But the brief encounter, mixed with his memory of the Doors’ “Riders on the Storm” — which contained the ominous lines “There’s a killer on the road / His brain is squirmin’ like a toad” — gave him the idea for a screenplay. Inspired by what he’d come up with, Red would later send that script to producers, declaring in an attached note, “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 1980s were a haven for horror films, especially slasher flicks. What had started in the late 1970s, thanks to seminal works like Halloween, had morphed into a cottage industry, giving moviegoers franchises such as Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Cheap to make but potentially lucrative, horror movies preyed on adolescent fears, with the story’s bogeyman going after helpless, naive young people, punishing them for their horniness or lack of life experience. In these films, there was a strong sense that the victims had it coming. 

The Hitcher played into that trend, while tapping into a deeper cultural anxiety. Hitchhiking had, at one point, been seen as an act of freedom, playing into a Kerouac-ian love of the open road and the possibilities out there beyond the horizon. It was a romantic notion, but as historian Jack Reid describes in his book Roadside Americans: The Rise and Fall of Hitchhiking in a Changing Nation, that wide-eyed optimism eventually faded away. “[H]itchhiking was [once] a common form of mobility for students and travelers of all ages,” he writes. “This held true from the Depression era, when those seeking work could find transportation by sticking out a thumb, through to the early 1970s. … Yet by the time Reagan reached the White House, hitchhiking had lost traction. … [I]n the 1980s few Americans saw hitchhikers as heroic. To them, hitchhiking was a taboo form of mobility reserved for desperate and often unsavory individuals.”

That shifting attitude toward hitching — mixed with fear and loathing directed at those who would engage in such an activity — put fuel in The Hitcher’s narrative tank. We don’t know this as the film begins, but Jim (C. Thomas Howell, who’d been in 1980s teen-centric movies like The Outsiders and Red Dawn) is on his way to San Diego, driving through the night, rain pouring down, when he sees a solitary man standing by the side of the road. Feeling bad for the guy and deciding he needs the company, Jim offers him a ride. (“My mother told me never to do this,” he tells John with a friendly smile.) And for the next 90 minutes, John (Rutger Hauer) toys with this kid, clearly enjoying having the upper hand. Early on, he pulls a knife on Jim, demanding, “I want you to stop me.” Freaked out, Jim is able to get John out of the car, but not unlike the Terminator, John just keeps coming, following Jim — sometimes inexplicably — wherever he goes. John is like a curse Jim has inherited: By stopping to give him a lift, he now will never be rid of him.

Harmon’s path to The Hitcher was not a straight line. He was already in his early 30s when the script came his way, supporting himself as a photographer. But movies were his passion. “I’ve always wanted to make films,” he tells me. “Even when I was making a living as a still photographer, which I did for quite a long time, I was just biding my time. First thing I did when I moved out [to Los Angeles] from Boston was to start putting myself out there as a cinematographer. I had no experience, so I did student films to start with. I was always working my way towards this.” 

Born in 1953, growing up “outside of Manhattan,” he was one of those guys who never got over the thrill of being at the theater as a kid, the curtain opening and a movie playing on that big screen. “It may be the reason, among about 4,000 others, that 2001 remains, to this day, my favorite film of all time,” he says. “It wasn’t just the scale of the original Ziegfeld screening — it’s because it’s a real movie. It’s essentially nonverbal, which is very unusual for a commercial, Hollywood-style [movie].” Before seeing Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi masterwork, Harmon had been tempted to apply to architecture school. “I saw 2001, I took the application, and I threw it in the garbage,” he tells me. “I never even sent it.”

When Harmon came out to L.A., “I had literally never directed anything,” serving as a cinematographer in order to see how people made films. Eventually, he was ready to direct his own: the 1983 short China Lake, which starred Charles Napier as a bad cop wreaking havoc across the California desert while on vacation. The short, which is currently available on YouTube, sans some of the original music, very much feels like an unintentional dry run for The Hitcher. Like his feature debut, China Lake probed the psychology of a disturbed individual, the action set against a vast, arid landscape that was both inviting and unsettling. “It was an insurance policy,” he says of making China Lake. “It was a kind of ‘If this whole directing thing doesn’t work out — if I’m going to spend every cent I have for X number of years on this — I better have some use for it so at least I can put it on my [cinematographer] reel.’”

He hustled to ensure China Lake opened doors for him. While writing the script, he saw Napier at a screening at L.A.’s venerable arthouse theater the Nuart, deciding that he had to play the cop. An attempt to get the script to Napier’s agent went nowhere, but then, through a friend, Harmon obtained Napier’s number and cold-called him, telling the character actor, a veteran of Jonathan Demme’s films, that he’d written the dark role with him in mind. “The reaction was very unlike anything I would’ve expected,” Harmon recalls. “He read it, loved it and fired his agent for not having ever even shown it to him.” 

Short films tend to do only so much for a burgeoning director, but in the case of China Lake, it was enough to get him noticed. As Harmon remembers, “[Napier] dragged Jonathan Demme to a screening over at Warner Bros. It was great. It was really fun.” China Lake only played one festival — the prestigious Telluride Film Festival, in Colorado — but the response helped stoke interest. “We’d hardly shown it to anybody, and I was stunned by the reaction. The audience was, by my recollection, exactly bifurcated. People were on their feet, clapping and whistling — and other people were screaming and yelling. I very clearly remember a voice from the back of the theater: ‘Who admitted this piece of shit to the festival?’”

Harmon smiles: “The answer to her question was her husband, who was on the board of admissions of the festival.”

Soon, he’d signed with a top-flight agent at William Morris, which was fielding offers for his first feature. There was just one problem. “I didn’t like any of the scripts,” he says. “I didn’t [think] it would do me any good to make those scripts. Then at a certain point, I said to myself, ‘Who do I think I am? I’ve wanted to [be a filmmaker] for my entire life. I can’t keep saying no.’ And then I read The Hitcher.”

Red’s spec script hadn’t gotten much positive feedback in Hollywood, but David Bombyk, a development executive, was blown away by it. Speaking to the Los Angeles Times in 1986, he recalled that the screenplay was 190 pages, far longer than the traditional script. “I kept avoiding it,” he said, “but finally I picked it up. Then, it was just ‘Oh, my God!’”

The story’s violence and gore may have shocked Bombyk, who later would serve as a producer on the film, but Harmon was a little more muted when the screenplay came his way. “I thought, ‘Okay, I have all kinds of issues with this and with that,’ but I felt I could do something with it,” he tells me. “And it also had the thing I loved most in movies” — including his all-time favorite, 2001 — “which is, it was essentially nonverbal.” Many of the scripts Harmon had turned down after China Lake were, as he put it, “Much more slasher-y,” and even he acknowledges that Red’s screenplay made China Lake seem like “Hitcher Junior in a lot of ways.” Plus, Harmon felt pressure to finally commit to a project.

“Probably a good 50 percent of making me say yes was I’d said no too many times,” he admits. “I really thought, ‘I’d just like to do something.’ Not that it was a sacrifice, because I really did like the script — with some minor exceptions that we changed. And I liked the fact that it wasn’t run-of-the-mill. Eric Red is unique: Like him, hate him, his thing is a thing that you don’t find that often. It’s very singular and it’s very him. I think that’s rare.”

One thing he was clear about, though: The Hitcher wasn’t a horror movie. “I’m not the most objective person about that movie, but I don’t think of it as a horror movie,” he says. “I just don’t. We never did.” So what did he think he was making? “I was never conscious [of that],” he replies. “I didn’t have a target.”

Harmon had his heart set on Terence Stamp to play John, going so far as to have a picture of the Billy Budd actor in his wallet to show casting people who he had in mind. “But Terence turned it down,” Harmon recalls. “He said to me — and I thought it was actor bullshit, it may have been — ‘I don’t want to put myself through what it’ll take to do a good job on this part.’ But the sweetest thing in the world, I ran into him at some party years later, and he said, ‘That was one of my biggest, most sincere regrets, not having taken that part.’ Whether he meant it or not, it meant a lot to me. But still, how lucky could I have been to get Rutger?”

Hauer, who died in 2019 at the age of 75, was a Dutch actor who’d worked with the likes of countryman Paul Verhoeven before starting to make his mark in American films in the early 1980s, his big breakthrough coming in Blade Runner as Roy Batty, the serene, menacing leader of the Replicants, the future society’s enslaved robots who don’t want to be terminated. “It was just a miracle,” Harmon says about landing the in-demand actor just as he was getting hot. But he hoped Hauer could bring something to the character that wasn’t there on the page. “The script that I read, John Ryder was just a monster,” says Harmon. “He was just evil, just a force of awfulness. And that seemed less interesting than it could be.”

In a 2012 interview, Hauer noted, “Out of all the films I did, I never quite understood why I liked it so much. The Hitcher for me was another dance, like Blade Runner. It felt like a haunting dust bowl in the desert. The games played were like a tap dance on a drum. I sort of created a little bit of a vague backstory for myself; there should be some sort of mad, strange magic to this guy who always shows up in weird places; he’s a real ghost I think. You can only do that with film — in a book it’s harder, in film you can be a phantom.”

That level of unreality was something Harmon was pushing as well. “The idea that we eventually did was, this Rutger Hauer character wants to commit suicide, doesn’t have courage to do it himself and wants help,” Harmon explains. “He’s desperately looking for someone who’s up to the challenge. It’s in a lot of the dialogue we changed, and it’s in his performance. It seemed like an interesting thing: This guy is doing all this terrible stuff, but it’s really because he’s desperately depressed. I used to say to everybody who’d listen when we were shooting the movie, ‘The way this has to feel is, if Tommy Howell hadn’t driven down that road, Rutger wouldn’t have been on that road.’ He’s there for him — their [relationship] became sort of weirdly codependent.”

At one point, Matthew Modine, fresh off the romantic drama Vision Quest and about to dive into Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, was going to play Jim. Harmon admits that he didn’t necessarily have a particular actor in mind like he had for John, but Howell “was great, he was a delight.” As for Howell, it was a chance to graduate from the types of roles he’d been doing up to that point. “I was rolling from gig to gig as a kid,” Howell recalled last year. “I didn’t give a shit. I felt like it was never going to end, I was never going to grow up, and I was going to play this kid role forever. Well, I did The Hitcher, and it changed everything.”

It didn’t take much work for Howell to convey Jim’s fear of John. As Howell put it in that same interview, “I’ll never forget how everybody else on set was petrified of him,” remembering how “Rutger ate alone in his trailer every single day. Nobody would talk to him apart from perhaps the director if his back was against the wall and he had to give him a direction.” The one time Hauer did invite Howell to have lunch with him, Howell meekly tried to engage his co-star. “Everybody’s been talking about Blade Runner and his other movies, and how nobody plays the villain better than him, but I just looked at him, and with my squeaky, petrified voice, I was like, ‘So, Rutger, everybody says you’re an amazing bad guy, so why do you play bad guys so well?’ What felt like an eternity went by as he just finished that final drag on that cigarette, and he hissed at me in that guts deep whisper, ‘I don’t play bad guys,’ and didn’t say another frickin’ word. I didn’t know what to do. I think I inhaled the rest of my food and started to back out of the trailer. That rattled around my head for a long, long time.”

Harmon, who stayed friends with Hauer for the rest of his life, says, “[If] he was just sitting here listening, [he’d] be slightly intimidating. His hands are like the size of catcher’s mitts. He’s really big, and he just commands space. He doesn’t have to do anything. I don’t know whether he works on that, or if that’s just one of those things.”

For those who haven’t seen The Hitcher in a while — or who have never seen it — the film’s cat-and-mouse game deviates from the classic slasher narrative in certain ways. Traditionally, the hero is trying to stay a step ahead of the killer, hoping to get others to believe that he’s being targeted. But Harmon’s film isn’t so much about John trying to kill Jim — rather, it’s as if John wants to teach him something. Framing Jim for murder, which puts him on the run from the police, and pulling bizarre pranks — such as secretly putting one of his other victims’ fingers among Jim’s fries — John hovers around the periphery of the young man’s life, driving him to the brink of insanity rather than simply hunting him down. Jim doesn’t know what he’s done to deserve this harassment, but for John there’s almost something personal about his antagonism. The fact that he won’t quite reveal his motives makes it all the more upsetting.

When I press Harmon on The Hitcher’s themes, he’s reluctant to spell things out, although he makes the film sound, in some ways, like an unconventional coming-of-age saga. “Not to explain it all, because I don’t think that’s ever a good idea, but on some unconscious level, the Tommy Howell character knows that he needs help in his maturation process. He’s not turning into the man he wants to be. He’s so naive — so almost childlike — when he stops and [picks up John]. And as a result of meeting Rutger, this maturation process that would have taken another 10 years is compressed into four days — like a diamond [which is a] piece of coal under pressure.” 

After being told that there’s almost something paternal about the way John seems to be doling out tough love to poor Jim, Harmon responds, “That was a key piece of direction that I know I bonded with Rutger [over]: ‘Treat him like your son, with love.’” 

Indeed, there’s a weird occasional tenderness that Hauer brings to the role — in particular when the two men are in a diner, Jim pointing a gun under the table at John, who knows it’s not loaded. John seems to be encouraging the frightened young man, like a proud papa teaching his skittish boy how to ride a bike. “Why are you doing this to me?” Jim asks, near tears. John calmly puts pennies on Jim’s eyes, cradling the young man’s face in his hands. “You’re a smart kid,” John says, “you’ll figure it out.”

Of course, that tenderness was perceived in some quarters to be homoerotic — or, perhaps, homophobic, just one more example of a horror movie that queer-codes its villain. Harmon has heard the objection, but he doesn’t agree. Asked if he noted a homoerotic quality in the tense rapport between John and Jim, he says, “Sure, but only in the movie — it was not in the script. That was something that just evolved — it was never a part of a plan. But I think Rutger has a kind of almost gender-neutral kind of thing. As I said, he has very large hands — big guy, certainly masculine — but there’s something ethereal about him. His presence and Tommy Howell’s flailing around trying to find himself — I don’t know, one thing led to another, and suddenly there we were.”

Whether you wanted to read The Hitcher as a father/son story or something more erotically charged, there was no denying that the two characters felt connected, as if their destines had become intertwined when their paths crossed out on that highway. Jim wants to get away from John, but if John is simply trying to kill the young man, he passes up several opportunities to do it. (He has no such problem offing others along the way, including cops and innocent passersby.) That tension of Jim not knowing what John wants from him — why this crazed hitchhiker won’t just kill him — gives the film an existential dread that was unique among slasher/horror films of the time. And it posed a troubling question: If your seemingly all-powerful nemesis isn’t out to murder you, is there actually something even scarier about the fact that he won’t let you go?

At one point during our conversation, Harmon recalls working with Hauer on set and it dawning on him how the actor viewed John. “He’s been playing him like he’s God,” Harmon remembers thinking. “Almost regal. It was something beautiful and strong, and that was very interesting to me.” And just like God, John could be anywhere in The Hitcher, sometimes able to do things that, logistically, he wouldn’t have been able to be present for. (For instance, how did he get that severed finger into Jim’s fries?) But Harmon liked the script’s logic-defying elements. 

“I never felt we had to ‘fix’ that,” he says, “because I think for those who are open to that kind of ambiguity, it helps to understand that this isn’t 100 percent real.” And by the way, in Red’s original screenplay, Jim finds an eyeball, not a finger, in his food. “This is indicative of the change in the tone between the original script and the movie,” Harmon says. “Not only was there an eye in there — I don’t remember exactly how it was described — but he must have bitten [into the burger] and thought, ‘Hmm, that’s weird, what is that?’ And he pulls the top of the bun off, and there’s an eyeball and a note that says, ‘I have my eye on you.’ [And I thought] ‘That’s got to go.’ I thought it was unforgivably wink-wink. It just was totally wrong to me.”

If The Hitcher is about the saga of these two men, locked in this odd death dance, the closest the film comes to introducing a significant third character is with Nash, the friendly waitress who makes that hamburger and fries for Jim, unaware of the human appendage inside it. She was played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, who’d had her breakout a few years earlier with Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Like many of the people involved in The Hitcher, she was someone Harmon landed on just before she got huge. His cinematographer was John Seale, who hadn’t yet received his Oscar nomination for 1985’s Witness, his first of five. (He won for The English Patient.) The music was written by Mark Isham, who was starting his composing career. (He’d later be nominated for A River Runs Through It and worked on the score for the Best Picture-winning Crash.) 

Asked about getting such huge names for his first film, Harmon says the secret was simple: “They weren’t John Seale and Mark Isham at the time.” And that was also true of Leigh, who came in to read for the part like any other actress. “She might have been the third person we read,” says Harmon. “And then, we just stopped reading it — she was so fucking great. We all agreed: ‘As long as we can make the deal with her, let’s not waste our time seeing anybody else.’”

Nash becomes a potential love interest for Jim, but in keeping with The Hitcher’s playing around with genre tropes, nothing really comes of it. After all, not that long after she meets him, Nash meets a grisly, and memorable, end. Even those who have never seen the movie know what becomes of Nash. In his scathing no-stars review, Roger Ebert focused on that moment: “[T]he Leigh character’s death — she is tied hand and foot between two giant trucks and pulled in two — is so grotesquely out of proportion with the main business of this movie that it suggests a deep sickness at the screenplay stage.” 

The scene had appeared in the original script. As Red later recalled, “I asked [truck drivers], ‘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.’” Technically, Ebert was incorrect — Nash is actually tied between a truck and its trailer, with John sitting in the cab behind the wheel — but, still, the image of a screaming, gagged Jennifer Jason Leigh begging for her life was a disturbing one. In the film, however, it was just the latest step in John’s plan to test Jim, egging the kid on to shoot him, which Jim won’t do because then the truck will lurch forward, ripping Nash in two. The scene amplified the idea that John just wanted Jim to end his life, but for Hauer it was more complicated, which Harmon discovered when they were about to start filming the sequence.

“[Executive producer] Ed Feldman comes to me and he says, ‘We got a problem,’” Harmon tells me. “I said, ‘Really? What’s the problem?’ He said, ‘Rutger won’t come out of the trailer. He doesn’t want to do the scene.’ I thought this was like a joke, because you hear about actors. That scene had not been touched from maybe the first draft — it had never been changed, there was never any discussion about it. So this came out of the blue.” 

Harmon went to see Hauer, who “was almost near tears. He said, ‘I’m really sorry, I don’t mean to cause this production trouble, I know it’s costing time. But I just can’t play the scene the way it’s written. I don’t know what took me so long to realize this, but if I play the scene as written, the audience will think I’m the bad guy.’ I almost laughed, but I didn’t. A light bulb went off [in] my head: ‘That’s why he’s been so unbelievably great [in the movie].’” As he’d told Howell during that uncomfortable lunch, Hauer never thought of John as a villain. 

Funny enough, in later interviews, Hauer would sometimes take credit for the grisly scene. “I mean, you know, they’ve been doing this for 400 years, but they did it with one or four horsepowers,” he once said. “They’d pull people apart. The Indians did it. In the Middle Ages and other countries they were doing that sort of stuff. And I thought, it might be nice to do it with a tractor trailer, that’ll just up the stakes a bit. And Robert liked that. The scene was originally, she was standing against a wall and the pickup truck was pinning her against the wall, and the final thing was that he would drive her against the wall. But that was weak. So I came up with the tractor-trailer. The tying. Cirque de Soleil.”

But according to Harmon, Hauer only agreed to do the scene if they included new dialogue that Hauer himself had written. “Luckily, I recognized immediately what he had done — and what he had done was ruin the scene.” Harmon can’t recall specifically what the new lines were, “but it was so wrong, I do remember that. But all the changes were right at the tops of the ends of the existing dialogue, so we shot the scene with all these godawful lines in there, and then we cut them out, so it [remained] the scene as Eric had written it. And I never heard a word about it from [Hauer]: ‘I can’t believe you [cut my lines]!’ Never mentioned it again.”

The scene was so traumatizing that some might forget that we never actually see Nash get dismembered. “I do remember very clearly there was no discussion about it,” Harmon says. “Nobody wanted to [show] it, including me. It just seemed gratuitous, even then.” Naturally, in the 2007 remake, the filmmakers show the dismemberment. 

Making a feature film had long been Harmon’s dream, but that didn’t make the actual process any easier. “It was a rollercoaster,” he tells me, “and then it was really a rollercoaster to shoot it. I put a lot of pressure on myself, because it was very obvious to me that if I blow this, that’s that — I’ll never get another chance. Sometimes [the shoot] was fantastic and sometimes it was hellish for me, but mostly I put it on myself.”

Harmon shot for about 40 days, not quite sure what the outcome would be. “I had people around me telling me that they thought it was fantastic and it was going to be great, on and on,” he says. “I didn’t trust it ‘cause I didn’t know. I knew it wasn’t a piece of crap, and I liked certain things. I don’t think I ever felt worried ‘cause I guess I knew it was good enough not to be an embarrassment and to be a career-killer before I’d even done anything.” Yet even as the film was being prepped for release, he had to fight against the notion that he’d made a horror movie. “I don’t like the poster,” he tells me, “but they didn’t listen to me. It’s the poster for a horror movie — or much more of a slasher movie.”

The reviews were decidedly mixed when The Hitcher opened on February 21, 1986, but what Harmon most remembers is a particular L.A. Times profile piece that came out soon after the film’s release. “Infamous — for me, anyway,” he says. “We were completely — all of us, all the producers — duped by that reporter.” In the story, writer Deborah Caulfield detailed the gory elements of the original script and the finished product, asking, “How do films like this ever get made? What could the people who make these movies possibly be thinking about?” 

The article provoked disgusted responses from readers, with one woman wondering, “How does a writer — or anybody — even think of such scenes as a woman ripped in two, an eye in a hamburger, et al? What does it say about our society that such an unconscionable film is deemed to have a market?”

“It didn’t really bother me that much,” Harmon says now about the L.A. Times piece. “I was so green at the time, just the attention was welcome.”

The Hitcher wasn’t a commercial success, although it put Harmon on the map in Hollywood. “I started getting offers right away and made some very bad decisions,” he says bluntly. “One was from Joel Silver for Lethal Weapon. And the other was from Sherry Lansing to replace Brian De Palma, who had fallen out of Fatal Attraction. And I turned them both down.”

How come? “Because I was an idiot,” he replies self-deprecatingly. But then he adds, “Just because those movies were wonderful and huge hits doesn’t mean that would’ve happened [if I’d directed them].” He goes on to explain that after making The Hitcher, which he describes as “really difficult for all kinds of reasons, mostly political,” he was leery of being involved in films whose producers were known for being a handful — especially Joel Silver. “Offers were coming in for real movies all over the place,” Harmon recalls. “And [my agent] said, ‘You don’t have to waste your time with that jerk — he’s just impossible, he’ll make your life hell.’ And I thought, ‘All right, there’s a good excuse not to do it.’” 

As for Fatal Attraction, Lansing was paired with producing partner Stanley Jaffe “who had a reputation for being not an easy character. I had lunch with Ed Feldman to talk to him about whether I should do this Fatal Attraction thing. And he said, ‘If you think I gave you a hard time, you won’t survive [working with Stanley].’”

Harmon has no hard feelings about saying no to two massive hits, although he acknowledges the lesson he’d quickly learn: “I didn’t realize that every movie is traumatic. So how I keep doing it is I have to just accept the occasional trauma. My advice [to first-time filmmakers] is you cannot predict how you’ll feel [while you’re making a movie] — and it doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong. There’s things coming at you from every direction — from the floor, from the ceiling, from every compass direction. That’s the way it is, and how you react to that is how you react to it. If you react to it negatively, you have to just find a way to deal with it. It doesn’t mean you’re fucking up — it’s just the nature of the work.”

In the ensuing years, he’d make movies with John Travolta (Eyes of an Angel) and Jean-Claude Van Damme (Nowhere to Run). He directed the 1996 HBO film Gotti, which won Armand Assante an Emmy and earned Harmon directing nominations from both the Emmys and the DGAs. (He garnered a second Emmy nomination for his 2004 television film Ike: Countdown to D-Day, starring his frequent collaborator, Tom Selleck, whom he’s worked with on Blue Bloods and a series of Jesse Stone TV movies.) 

Meanwhile, The Hitcher’s influence and popularity has grown over time, unexpectedly impacting later projects. When Harmon was filming 2000’s The Crossing, a Peabody-winning A&E TV movie starring Jeff Daniels as George Washington, “We were out in the middle of a field, near Ottawa, on the St. Lawrence River. I’m wandering around because we have a big sequence due the next day, and I’m trying to get it blocked out in my head. And some guy walks across this field — this older guy — having heard that the director of The Hitcher was directing the movie. He wanted to know if I was him, and we talked about [The Hitcher]. Literally, nobody around as far as we could see, in the middle of fucking nowhere in Canada.” 

The Hitcher inspired a direct-to-DVD sequel, The Hitcher II: I’ve Been Waiting, which came out in 2003. Howell reprised his role as Jim. Jake Busey played the new hitchhiker. (“That was probably a mistake, to be honest,” Howell said later. “It was mishandled. There was a time when Rutger was involved as well, so I sort of committed with the understanding that that was what was taking place, but then that didn’t happen. It was a bit of a mess. … It probably should’ve never been made. And thankfully, nobody really even knows it exists.”) Then, four years later, Michael Bay’s production company Platinum Dunes, as part of its plan to remake classic horror movies, did a new version of The Hitcher, with Sophia Bush and Zachary Knighton as college students who pick up Sean Bean’s mysterious loner. 

“I don’t know what he wanted. I didn’t have to,” Bean said when he was asked about his character’s ambiguous motivations. “There are a number of possibilities. Maybe he wanted to die and be rid of the evil inside him? Maybe he just didn’t care? Maybe he just wanted to kill who he wanted until he was killed himself? Maybe it’s just a combination of all those things? Or maybe it was just nothing at all.” It was just one way in which the bloodier, less psychologically-resonant remake differed from the 1986 original. Harmon and Hauer didn’t want to explain everything about John — and his strange relationship with Jim — but it was clear they had ideas about it. 

The original film is currently available in its entirety on YouTube and streaming on HBO Max. Ironically, you might be better off watching it on YouTube, where at least it’s presented in the right aspect ratio — the film on HBO Max is a fairly cruddy pan-and-scan version, which annoys Harmon to no end. “You cannot believe how angry I was,” he says. “I don’t know what to do about it. It’s awful, it’s really terrible.” He’s excited about an English company that will be putting out The Hitcher on Blu-ray for the first time. “They got the original negative. They’re doing [a new] transfer — it’s fantastic.” It will take some time, he reckons. “They [still] have to do the color correction. And a restored China Lake is also on there.” 

That’ll be good news for all the Hitcher fans out there, whether it’s David Fincher or that random man who accosted Harmon in the middle of nowhere in Canada, or the thousands of other people who have been obsessed with that strange drifter who decides to insert himself into one unlucky kid’s life. “That experience is one of my favorite experiences in my career,” Howell said in 2013 about The Hitcher, “and it’s also one of my favorite films.” 

The movie’s enigmatic attitude toward its two characters’ relationship carries all the way to the end, when Jim, convinced that he’s killed John by hitting him with his car, walks over to the body, lightly caressing John’s hair with the barrel of his shotgun, displaying the same surprising tenderness John had displayed earlier. To this day, Harmon doesn’t exactly want to assign meaning to that moment. “Make of that what you will,” he tells me. “But there was a very gentle gesture to someone who’d spent the entire movie trying to kill him.”

As for Harmon and Hauer, they stayed connected over the decades, sometimes meeting up if the actor was visiting L.A. “We’d have coffee and go to lunch or dinner,” Harmon tells me. The last time he saw his friend “was probably about a year before he died. He was doing his thing, making these very interesting, mostly European, smaller movies.” Their conversations were very rarely about The Hitcher. “I wouldn’t say we never mentioned it, but it certainly wasn’t centered on that. It was what we’re both doing — and that we had to find something [to work on]. ‘Let’s get back on set together.’”

They never got the chance. During my time with Harmon, he would sometimes talk about Hauer while gesturing at the empty seat next to us. “I’m pointing to that chair,” Harmon commented wistfully, “like he’s here.”

The impulse was poignant, but also fitting. After all, Rutger Hauer always said that John Ryder was a ghost.