Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell) is doing a driveaway (when you drive someone else's car somewhere for them, like perhaps across the country when someone moves, etc.) when he sees a hitchhiker along the side of the road. Like any idiot would, he picks up the man (Rutger Hauer in one of his most menacing roles) who introduces himself as John Ryder.
"I want you to stop me."
A bit of luck has Jim being able to quite literally kick Ryder from the car and onto the highway, and after a brief glimmer of satisfaction, Jim drives by a family in a station wagon and sees Ryder in the back seat with two young children. He tries to warn the family by driving along side but ends up having an accident that throws the car off the highway. Soon after, he sees the car abandoned on the side of the road, with visible blood seeping out the doors and windows.
No part of the movie is without tension. For example, Jim stops at a diner to eat and meets the very cute Nash (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who convinces him to call the police. But alas, when he is served finger fries instead of french fries, he realizes Ryder is still after him. Then, poor Jim is framed as the serial killer and when he wakes up in jail, all the officers have been murdered. After leaving the station he is forced to confront the thought that Ryder is never going to stop until someone kills him, which is seemingly what Ryder wants - he enjoys the game and feels he's found a worthy adversary in Jim.
There is no way I'd spoil the ending for anyone who hasn't already seen this excellent 80's thriller. Suffice it to say that psychotic stalker Ryder has basically challenged Jim to kill him, and is going to try everything in his power to convince him to do so, adding to the cat and mouse effect that the film does so well.
It should be noted that I have never, not even once, picked up a hitchhiker. I have this movie to thank.
MORE ROAD TRIP HORROR: Because I couldn't possibly highlight all the road horror that is out there, here are some more films that deserve a mention...
A man searches for his lost love who comes up missing after a stop at a roadside gas station/store. I've reviewed this stellar film already and you can check it out HERE. And forget the remake, please.
Sequel to the far-superior Joyride, two couples on a cross country trip have their own run-in with Rusty Nail. A few more words about it HERE.
The definitive road-horror film, this Spielberg-directed film from the Richard Matheson story is a grueling trip of terror. Dennis Weaver stars as a man terrorized by a menacing trucker on a long stretch of highway.
Three friends driving in the back woods of Wisconsin are stalked and terrorized by a black cadillac hell bent on harm. Apparently this is based on a real event in the writer/director's past.
A family on vacation is traveling through the desert and are sabotaged by a family of disfigured cannibals looking for their next meal. A decent remake came in 2006.
A man (Ray Wise) driving his family to a Christmas dinner at the in-laws takes a short cut that turns out to be an ill-advised, supernatural-laden excursion that pretty much ruins the holiday.
In a complete departure from the Vincent Price classic, a group of friends take a road trip to a college football game and get sidetracked by a tour of a ghost town highlighted by the titular house of wax. You can find my blurb about this one HERE.
This (pretty awful) sequel finds a young man and a few friends heading out on the highway to track down his brother and his bro's missing girlfriend. I've reviewed this one HERE.
While not traveling by car, this film is still a road trip at heart, as two friends are backpacking across Europe and have the misfortune of being attacked by a werewolf on the moors of England. One of my favorite films, reviewed HERE.
A couple's vacation to the Grand Canyon goes belly-up when a ride on horses through the vast park finds them with the tour guide from hell, rattlesnake problems, and worse yet: wolf problems. Morphing into a true "survival" film in the last act, I've already discussed this film HERE.
One of the better sequels finds a group of female tourists traversing Europe and ending up in the same factory of horrors that found the first Hostel group sold off to the highest bidder for the most gruesome of ends.
Equal parts Breakdown and Joy Ride, this British film is a cat and mouse thriller that doesn't really bring anything new to the table but it still worth a look.
For the first part of this classic, it is truly a road movie, it can't be denied. Marion Crane senselessly rips off a boat-load of money from her employer and takes to the road, stopping at an out-of-the-way roadside motel where she meets both Norman Bates...and his mother. I've written about Psycho countless times, for many sites including my own. But HERE's a review if you really need to read one.
What do you get when you have a group of friends terrorized while driving along a desolate stretch of highway? Every other road film we've discussed already. The difference? The maniacal killer is wearing a rabbit costume. Yup.