Director : Dave Meyers
Screenplay : Eric Red and Jake Wade Wall and Eric Bernt (based on a 1986 by Eric Red)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2007
Stars : Sean Bean (John Ryder), Sophia Bush (Grace Andrews), Zachary Knighton (Jim Halsey), Neal McDonough (Lieutenant Esteridge), Kyle Davis (Buford's Store Clerk), Skip O'Brien (Harlan Bremmer, Sr.), Travis Schuldt (Harlan Bremmer, Jr.), Danny Bolero (Officer Edwards), Jeffrey Hutchinson (Young Father)
Having largely exhausted the most well known titles from the 1970s, producers are now setting their sights on the Reagan era for horror properties to remake. Waiting in the wings are remakes of Friday the 13th (1980) and The Evil Dead (1982), but first out of the gate is The Hitcher, whose 1986 original starred Rutger Hauer and C. Thomas Howell as respective stalker and stalked. While The Hitcher is not among the best known or most admired of '80s horror movies, it does have a strong cult following and also benefits from the way it derives its thrills from both the horror and action genres. Plus, its cautionary message about not picking up hitchhikers--especially hulking men in long coats standing motionless in the pouring rain--hasn't aged a bit in the ensuing 21 years since its release. It appears that our culture's underlying fear of strangers never gets old.
Working with two other scribes, screenwriter Eric Red (Near Dark) has updated his original screenplay only slightly, keeping the general tone and approach to the story the same, as well as its most memorable moments (the standout being a nasty scenario in which a character is tied between two semi trucks, one of which is threatening to lurch forward and rip the character in half). However, the lonely, dim-witted protagonist has been changed into a happy, dim-witted college couple, Jim (Zachary Knighton) and Grace (Sophia Bush), who are on a cross-country drive through Texas and New Mexico for Spring Break to see her friends.
One night, they make the mistake of agreeing to give a hitchhiker (Sean Bean) a 15-mile ride to a nearby town where he can stay for the night. The hitcher, who calls himself John Ryder (clever, I know), at first appears menacing, and then seems to be just an ordinary guy stranded in a bad situation, but then makes it abundantly clear that he is, in fact, a raving psychopath who stalks and is hellbent on stalking and torment Jim and Grace over the next 24 hours. Ryder is not interested in killing them outright; instead, he kills everyone else (including a happy vacationing family and an entire station full of New Mexico police officers) and makes it appear as if the college coeds did it. Thus, they are constantly running not only from Ryder's menace, but from the law, as well. This works to isolate them completely, ensuring that no one can effectively come to their aid. In this respect, the film's open desert landscapes work perfectly, igniting a sense of claustrophobia in which the empty space becomes disheartening and oppressive (Wes Craven and Alexandre Aja used the same approach in 1977's The Hills Have Eyes and its 2006 remake, respectively).
As with the original, one of the strengths of The Hitcher is that it doesn't try to offer an explanations for its villain. John Ryder is sadistic, cruel, cunning, and relentless, but there is no awkward exposition about or rationale for his evil. At one point, a police investigator (Neal McDonough) asks him why he did it, and he replies simply, "Why not?" One could consider this simplistic villain a result of narrative laziness--essentially a case of the writer being unable to come up with a good scenario to explain such a sick character. On the other hand, Ryder's patent villainy works in potentially chilling ways, suggesting that such evil defies logical explanation and exists in a realm all its own.
Unfortunately, The Hitcher rarely generates the kind of bone-rattling suspense and skin-crawling chills that it intends to. The film's opening shot, which depicts a cute'n'fuzzy jackrabbit making its way across an empty stretch of highway only to get turned in pulpy roadkill, is a bad omen of things to come, partially because it's so silly in its transparent foreshadowing and partly because the rabbit is so badly computer-animated that it looks like it wandered in from a kids' movie playing in the theater next door.
Part of the film's problem lies with first-time feature director Dave Meyers, who hammers it almost to death with his admittedly impressive music video pedigree by scoring every major sequence with thundering rock and pop music that drains them of their vitality and intensity. A lengthy car chase scored to Nine Inch Nails' "Closer" in which Ryder is ramming Jim and Grace's car from behind and sending various state troopers' vehicles spinning through the air has a certain sick charm to it, but the use of Trent Reznor's throaty lyrics and dark techno beats ultimately makes the sequence play like a widescreen music video, rather than a heart-pounding near-death experience. Between the music and the action movie overkill, you forget that there are any characters worth worrying about.
The other problem is that Sean Bean is no Rutger Hauer. Bean can play evil and has done so in the past, but he lacks Hauer's velvety sadism and sense of complete control that makes the hitcher character so memorable. The way Hauer portrayed him, John Ryder was virtually supernatural, gliding from place to place and causing events with the sick glee of a malicious god. Bean's hitcher does the same thing, but the character seems too grounded, so that rather than being overwhelmed by his omnipresence, we are driven to ask earthly and distracting questions like, "How could he do that?"
Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick
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All images copyright ©2007 Rogue Pictures