Friday, July 4, 2008

Independence Day Rejects - The Hitcher & The Return of the Living Dead

Growing up in the 80s, word of mouth was crucial. VCRs were a luxury item so much that you could rent the thing for a weekend. HBO was the cock of the block and we all congregated to the lucky bastard who had it to see the 2 minute Mike Tyson fight. It was around this time, say 1986, that movies like The Hitcher started popping up. HBO is all over this movie starting from the opening credits. This is not a bad thing. Straight to cable these days is still a highly superior thing than straight to video. Whether or not C. Thomas Howell should have ever gotten a legitimate movie career off the ground is a different debate.

God bless Rutger Hauer. The guy makes everything better -- he's like movie bacon. There are people out there that think Blade Runner is a boring movie. If Rutger Hauer didn't blast his forehead through that wall... I hesitate to think... Today I'm exposing about The Hitcher, staring C. Thomas Howell. The Hitcher is the perfect movie to illustrate the power of Rutger Hauer.

C. Thomas holds this movie together with a tenuous string between the scenes where Rutger Hauer brings the whole thing up to greatness. That's not a very pull-quote ready sentence but it's the truth. Hell, C. Thomas looks about 16 in this movie and he doesn't completely fuck it up so I guess he deserves some credit. He's playing a guy who is attempting to drive a car from Chicago to San Diego. He starts falling asleep at the wheel in Texas and decides to pick up a hitchhiker.

Enter Rutger Hauer (official website!?) who completely makes this endeavor worthwhile but makes C. Thomas' life a living hell by killing everyone around him and making it look like he's the killer. Once he enters the car you cannot help but be hypnotized by him. Watching this movie I completely understood Anne Rice's old claim that she always envisioned Rutger as Lestat. Not that I haven't appreciated Rutger whenever he shows up -- in fact I demand his brilliance to show up more often. I don't think anyone has given him the kind of scene he has when he first gets picked up by Howell or when he meets him later on in a diner when C. Thomas is losing his shit and Rutger laughs at his patheticness.

One of the problems with the movie is C. Thomas Howell's pathetic ridiculousness. Granted, it plays a little bit better now than it did when I was a teenager when you just wanted this guy to get his shit together and start kicking some ass rather than crying about it and rubbing sand in his hair. But it is one of those movies that relies on those crazy twists of fates to be pulled of by a C. Thomas kind of guy. The Hitcher gets a few extra points because it tries to give him an arc where he slowly turns from normal guy who repeatedly calls a drive-away company to get his pathetic ass to California into a unrepentant vigilante. C. Thomas almost pulls it off. It certainly helps when Jennifer Jason Leigh is around. But unfortunately that isn't very often.

Also unfortunate is that Rutger Hauer isn't in every other scene but when he does show up it's go time and he's bringing his A game. Even in fleeting moments when he shows up to shoot down a helicopter while driving a pick-up on a desert side road. Yes, he smiles and lights a cigarette afterward like we didn't already know. Rutger and Jennifer only have one scene together when C. Thomas and her are hiding out from the cops in a truck stop and Rutger curls up next to her while C. Thomas is in the shower. Brilliantly creepy and damn if it doesn't make me want to watch Flesh + Blood again.

The Hitcher made me think about The Last Seduction which made me think about Hard Eight which made me think about the whole "Indie/Hollywood" thing. It really is a bunch of bullshit. Once cable came around, that was it.

Equally brilliant, if not more so, and sitting in the adacent spot on the DVR queue, is the original The Return of Living Dead. A movie that immediately puts itself in the debt of Romero's movies and takes off to build an entire new genre of its own -- the knowing, ironic, comedic horror film. Yes, now this genre is pretty much dead along with j-horror remakes but keep in mind in 1985 The Return of the Living Dead was two years ahead of Evil Dead 2.

While it still holds up as a pretty damn funny zombie movie it dates itself in a punishing way that the Evil Dead movies were smart enough to avoid. Most of the zombie food in The Return of the Living Dead are laughably exaggerated punk rockers (being nine in 1985 and tucked away inside a hidden New England suburb I can't speak from knowledge, maybe every other teenager was like one of these characters, who am I to say?) though it tries to use this to its advantage by putting date stamps on scenes and having a disclaimer at the beginning saying that what you are about to see and all the names are true.

It's the non-punk rockers that make this movie sing. Burt, Frank and Ernie. Arguing about how bringing upon the zombie apocalypse is going to affect business is always going to be funny and these guys sell it brilliantly. The greatest scenes in the movie deal with these guys trying to cope best with the whole zombie situation and treating it in the most matter-of-fact way that really makes the comedy sing. How do you deal with a bag full of zombie? and dealing with the practical aspects of a mortician's crematorium are both dealt with with the utmost severity.

It's a movie that has its obvious icons while you're watching it - characters that you can see right away standing next to any of the Rocky Horror characters, and being a big fan of Rocky Horror in high school I think Return of the Living Dead is easily a better movie and if it were released in the 70's would've had just as big a following. As it stands Return did have a big following, enough to spawn countless sequels both legitimate and not and enough imitators to spawn an enormous graveyard full of unwatched cut out bin vhs tapes. How romantically tactile those old-fashioned old days were. Anyway, the movie sits with you like a good meal afterward. You've been fully nourished with some authentic cinematic history.


Padraic said...

My heart skipped a beat on seeing those old HBO logos. Hearing that song as the lights of the city and stars became the "HBO" was always a magical moment, as moving as when the lights go down in the theater.

Sean said...

Yeah, I gotta get working on getting RFC moved to a location where we can post mp3s -- I really wish I could've added that old school HBO theme to the post.