This movie was remade a while back. FUCK THE REMAKE. Do not try and argue otherwise with me.
This movie is yet another horror sleeper hit. I first saw it on cable TV when I was a kid, and its really bleak and atmospheric and also has some class act plot twists throughout. Not only that but it is both well cast and well written with a more than capable cast. What's perhaps most surprising to me is that it was produced by HBO who I forgot made theatrical items. Think of it as a more action packed version of Spielberg's first movie Duel with more characters and some really ace high speed car wrecks and brutal murders. While on the subject of murders, its worthwhile to note that throughout the 98 minutes of the film we never actually see any of the murders take place, only their aftermath. In one cases you don't see the murder at all, just a blood drip, which leaves it up to your own horrific imagination- kudos to you director Robert Harmon! I'll get back to the atmosphere later as I should really talk a little about the plot first.
The film revolves around a young man named Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell) who is driving through the desert (Arizona desert maybe? I don't recall) from Chicago to San Diego on a drive away (for those in foreign countries, this is a way of having a car delivered from elsewhere to you by having someone who is moving somewhere get paid to drive the car to you rather than having it shipped at great expense) who makes the mistake of picking up a lone hitchhiker (Rutger Hauer) in the middle of a heavy rain storm. Almost immediately the hitcher tells Jim he is going to kill him. What follows is 98 minutes of tension, isolation, police misunderstanding, and terror. The titular scene in the film involves Jennifer Jason Leigh and a semi truck. I won't say anything more about that.
I have very little experience with deserts. I know they are the following: hot, enormous, and isolating. This is like the exact opposite of my review of Rituals from a couple weeks ago, but instead of a claustrophobic and equally isolating forest we have an oppressive barren desert to reckon with. Rutger Hauer is still in his immediate post Blade Runner badass prime and is a superb murderous creep. C. Thomas Howell is practically exploding with terror, frustration, and grief (I believe this is his best movie by and large) almost the entire film. Jennifer Jason Leigh's part is small but she does a very natural character that in no way detracts from the proceedings and if anything proves to make things slightly more tense.
The hitcher (named John Ryder of all tacky things) is one brutal motherfucker. He kills a number of cops, a family, and who the hell knows how many people before the film began? I'm not sure if this could be considered a slasher movie or not- in fact I'm not sure what to call it. Its definitely a thriller/suspense flick and a damn good one to boot. I want to get into the nitty gritty of the movie, really I do, but I want you to see it for yourself and be as surprised as I was at some of the goings on. Go and do yourself a favor and rent/buy/borrow this and watch it in a dark room by yourself. Just make sure you've done all of your highway driving for the evening first okay?