By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Now, five years later, after an expensive and grueling civil action that saw many of these initial assumptions called into question, an excoriating decision by a Texas bankruptcy judge and a million-dollar civil judgment against him, not to mention questions about the parallels between art and reality, this mammoth legal juggernaut is finally coming to an end. Red has continued to demand a jury trial, even as his fifth appeal was denied by the California Supreme Court last September 21. (He is currently appealing the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.) Meanwhile, plaintiffs’ attorneys — among them, family members of the victims — have unsuccessfully lobbied the District Attorney’s Office to reopen the criminal case. With Michael Bay and Focus Features/Universal set to remake his mid-’80s horror opus, The Hitcher, and Red claiming legal malfeasance on the part of his own attorneys, he could walk away from any liability, criminal or civil, and make his long-imagined comeback.
It’s as if the whole thing never happened.
The traffic fatalities on Wilshire were by no means Eric Red’s first brush with controversy. Born Eric Joseph Durdaller in 1961 in Pittsburgh, the adopted home of George Romero and Night of the Living Dead, Red was raised in Philadelphia and later Brooklyn, where he graduated from St. Ann’s High School in 1978. “My father was a metallurgical engineer and photographer and my mother was an actress. They were divorced when I was young,” he says today. After the death of his father in May 1977, he changed his surname to Red and briefly attended Ohio’s Overland College and Manhattan’s New School of Social Research. He made a short film, Gunmen’s Blues, which starred Darwin Joston from John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13. When that failed to get him directing work, Red took a drive-away car cross-country in 1983 to Austin, Texas, the home of Tobe Hooper and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, where, for seven months, he drove a cab, dated a local country singer and hung out with his uncle, the author of 14 self-help books on child and parenting issues.
He also managed to sell his first script, The Hitcher, on the strength of a query letter that read in part, “It 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.”
A powerful, disturbing film well-deserving of its place in the cult pantheon, The Hitcher, released in 1986, is an existential horror movie in which former teen star C. Thomas Howell takes a drive-away car cross-country from Chicago to San Diego (by way of Texas). There, he picks up hitchhiker Rutger Hauer, a psychopath without portfolio who systematically terrorizes him into delivering the suicide that Hauer himself seems incapable of administering.
“Why are you doing this to me?” Howell asks at one point.
“You’re a smart kid,” says Hauer. “Figure it out.”
The film is extremely gory, especially for its time (one of the producers calls it “a bloody, wet film,” in an exhaustive 1986 profile in the L.A. Times), and yet it suggests much more. This is especially true in the money scene, one of those graphic moments that people talk about after they leave the theater — which Red professionally terms “rippers” — in which a young Jennifer Jason Leigh is drawn and quartered by an 18-wheeler, for no apparent reason other than that Janet Leigh (no relation) unexpectedly dies in Psycho.
Red has widely claimed that the film was based on the Doors song “Riders on the Storm”: the ominous thunderstorm at the beginning, the “killer on the road” and the rest of it; the hitcher’s name is “John Ryder.” The film's influence can easily be seen in modern-day mainstream horror fare like Breakdown, Joy Ride and Jeepers Creepers. Historically, it is probably a bridge between the slasher or splatter genre on display in the grindhouses of Times Square in the late ’70s, during Red’s adolescence — The Driller Killer, I Spit on Your Grave, Bloodsucking Freaks — and at least the impulse behind those mainstream horror franchises (Halloween, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street) that continue to serve as cash cows for the studios two decades later.
But perhaps for the same reasons it garnered such cult status, The Hitcher also struck a nerve among critics. No less than Roger Ebert awarded the film zero stars in the Chicago Sun-Times, calling it “diseased,” “corrupt” and “reprehensible.” “What is particularly sick about The Hitcher,” reads Ebert’s review, “is that the killer is not given a viewpoint, a grudge or indeed even a motive.” Leigh’s death “is so grotesquely out of proportion with the main business of this movie that it suggests a deep sickness at the screenplay stage.” Yet in a way, the lack of any back-story or credible motivation makes the film more unnerving, refusing to let the audience off the hook with rationalizations or narrative diversions. The hitcher himself remains a cipher from start to finish: “No prison record, no driver’s license, no birth certificate,” as a policeman describes him. At every turn, no matter where the protagonist flees, the hitcher is already waiting for him — at a gas station, a diner, on the highway, in a motel room. There is a fairy tale quality about him: He can slaughter everyone in a police station without waking Howell’s character, or abduct a woman from Howell’s motel room and truss her to a tractor-trailer rig without disturbing him in the shower. “Is he magic? Is he supernatural?” asks Howell in a documentary on the European DVD.
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