April 07, 1986 12:00 PM

C. Thomas (Red Dawn) Howell, driving alone through the desert, dozes off but awakens just in time to avoid an 18-wheeler. He might just as well have stayed asleep rather than go through the ordeal that ensues. Howell picks up the title character, Rutger (Blade Runner) Hauer, and soon Hauer has a knife near Howell’s eye and is asking such trivia questions as, “Do you have any idea how much blood jumps out of a guy’s throat when you cut his neck?” With his intense eyes and rugged physique, Hauer is convincing as the roadside psychotic who has a thing for dismembering motorists. But he isn’t interested in killing Howell; as a matter of fact he wants Howell to stop him. “Why?” Howell asks. “You’ll figure it out,” Hauer tells him. But he never really does. Nor does the audience. Perhaps it’s all just to showcase John (Witness) Seale’s striking desert photography, which is as gorgeous as the story is gruesome. Or maybe it’s to set up such spectacular state-of-the-art stunts as the two police cars that do simultaneous pirouettes through the air and then somersault down the highway. The Hitcher is a respectable double debut for writer Eric Red and director Robert Harmon. But the story is repetitive. And when Hauer uses the sexy Jennifer Jason Leigh as a trailer hitch, things are stretched a little too far. (R)

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