Face-Off: The Hitcher vs. Near Dark

Yesterday, Scream Factory released a special edition Blu-ray of Eric Red's werewolf movie BAD MOON, celebrating the film's twentieth anniversary. Among the bonus features on that release is an audio commentary with Red and star Michael Paré that was moderated by Arrow in the Head founder John Fallon. If you'd like to pick up a copy, the BAD MOON Blu is available for purchase on Amazon.

With that release dropping this week, I wanted to further celebrate the career of Eric Red and take a look back at the first two features he worked on as a screenwriter, movies that share a lot of similarities while also being quite different from each other: Robert Harmon's THE HITCHER (1986) and Kathryn Bigelow's NEAR DARK (1987).

C. Thomas Howell delivers a great performance as Jim Halsey, a young man who's driving from Chicago to San Diego when he makes the terrible decision to pick up a hitchhiker while passing through the lonely Texas desert. (Obviously he was taking the long way.) The hitcher is a homicidal maniac, but rather than kill Jim outright like most of his victims, he toys with the kid, putting him through hell. Jim makes the journey from being utterly terrified to considering suicide as a way out of the situation and then ultimately finding a warrior strength within himself.
Adrian Pasdar's Caleb Colton is first introduced to us as a bored Oklahoma country boy, but his life changes drastically when he spots an attractive girl during a night out in his small town. She turns out to be a vampire and turns him into a night-dwelling bloodsucker. Caleb isn't much for the vampire way of life, though, refusing to kill people so he can survive. He also remains dedicated to keeping his father and little sister safe, choosing them over his new vampire "family". Caleb is sick and overwhelmed for most of his scenes, but he's a good guy.
While on the run from both the hitcher and the police, who think he's the one who's doing the killing, Jim befriends a nice young waitress named Nash (Jennifer Jason Leigh). For a while, Nash is Jim's only ally, the only person who trusts him, and she's such a believer in doing what's right that she's even willing to face the wrath of the authorities to make sure Jim is treated properly. It's not Leigh's biggest role, but she makes a strong impression and makes Nash a very likeable character.
The girl who starts all of Caleb's troubles is also the girl who steals his heart, Jenny Wright as Mae. She's an odd one, and is still fascinated by her heightened senses and the idea of immortality. She has a very intriguing presence, and the way she goes on about things like the night being deafening and being able to do anything they want until the end of time is endearing. She comes to care so deeply for Caleb that she's willing to turn against the other vampires for him, and even give up her immortality.
Rutger Hauer plays John Ryder, the killer hitchhiker who displays almost supernatural prescience and capability. Hauer has starred in a lot of great films and played a lot of amazing characters, so it's saying something that Ryder is one of his best and most memorable. He's both captivating and repellent, and the scenes where he's threatening Jim and toying with him face-to-face are chilling. There is a depth to this character - he has fun wreaking havoc, but he also wants to be stopped, he wants to die. He just needs to find someone who can stop him.
ALIENS alumni Lance Henriksen, Jenette Goldstein, and Bill Paxton are joined by child actor Joshua Miller as a group of vampires who have clearly been drifting and killing with each other for a long time. Henriksen is leader Jesse, Goldstein his lady love Diamondback, Paxton the group's demented wild card Severen, and Miller is Homer, a man who has been stuck being a child for many decades - and he still falls for Caleb's little sister. What a creep. This is a bloodthirsty bunch you would never want to be near, creepy and intensely threatening.
Ryder kills a whole lot of people, but Robert Harmon tended to keep the violence off the screen, instead having Jim come across gruesome sights after murders have been committed. He finds blood dripping from vehicles, a finger in a plate of fries, a dog licking the blood off a corpse. One of the movie's most popular moments involves a horrific act of violence concerning a character who has been strung up between a truck and a trailer. We don't see the gory details, but the way Harmon implies what happens is more than enough to make the viewer cringe.
If blood weren't spilled, all of these vampires would be feeling as sick as Caleb. The most popular scene in the movie involves the vampires invading a small bar they call "Shitkicker Heaven" and methodically picking off everyone inside, slitting a throat to drain the blood into a beer mug, doing the traditional neck bite, slashing another throat with spurs, gunning a man down. The vamps also take a lot of damage themselves - gut shot, road rash, sun burn, all brought to the screen with the use of some incredible and often disgusting special effects.
THE HITCHER delivers big time in this category, featuring vehicular chases, destruction, and spectacular crashes. The highlight is a sequence in which Jim and Nash are being chased by multiple police cars, a police chopper firing on them from the sky, then Ryder comes speeding up in a pickup truck to crash (literally) the party.
NEAR DARK isn't too shabby in the action department itself, featuring plenty of gunfire, fights, and some vehicular explosions. My favorite sequence involves the vampires having a shootout with police who have surrounded their motel room, the bullet holes in the walls allowing dangerous sunlight to come streaming through.
It was a close battle, but THE HITCHER edges out NEAR DARK in the end. While I would count NEAR DARK as one of my favorite vampire movies, THE HITCHER would rank higher as one of my favorite movies, period. Although outnumbered by bloodsuckers, John Ryder still impresses me more than the vampire clan, and I find THE HITCHER to be a more satisfying viewing experience overall.

Do you agree with the outcome of this Face-Off, or would you have given the win to NEAR DARK? Let us know your thoughts on these movies by leaving a comment below. I'd also be interested in hearing what your favorite Eric Red movie is. And will you be buying the BAD MOON Blu-ray? (Or have you already bought it?)

If you'd like to send in a suggestion for a future Face-Off article, you can email me at [email protected].



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