Hitcher, The (United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

1986's The Hitcher is not representative of a classic of the 1980s horror boom, so the decision by Michael Bay and company to re-make it is merely unnecessary, not sacrilegious. 20 years later, the original stands up well; there is no need to re-imagine it for today's generation. Nevertheless, for reasons understood only in Hollywood and having to do with a "$" sign, there seems to be a movement to re-create every horror title made in the '70s and '80s. And, while it may be odd to refer to The Hitcher as possessing a "soul," that's precisely what's lost in the 2007 edition. This is a mechanical gore-fest that offers preposterous stunts in place of escalating tension and waxwork mannequins in place of marginally interesting characters.

Grace (Sophia Bush) and Jim (Zachary Knighton) are driving through New Mexico on Spring Break, intending to introduce Jim to Grace's friends. One rainy night, they take pity on a stranger whose car has broken down and agree to drive him 15 miles to a motel. The word "MISTAKE" couldn't be brighter than the neon of the "Vacancy" sign. The name he gives is John Ryder (Sean Bean) and there's something unnerving about him from the outset. Would you let this guy in your car, even if he is wearing a wedding ring? When he pulls a knife and forces Jim to say, "I want to die," the couple knows they're in trouble. They get out of the jam by forcibly ejecting John from the car, but that's not the last they see of him as he makes a game of putting dead bodies in their wake while closing in on them with inhuman persistence and violent intentions. At first, the police suspect Grace and Jim of being serial killers until an intelligent police lieutenant (Neal McDonough) intuits that someone else is involved.

Poor Sean Bean. The actor, who possesses range and ability, is relegated by the screenplay into aping Rutger Hauer. While Hauer isn't the most accomplished actor to have graced the silver screen, he has a sinister intensity that Bean can't match. Compared to Hauer, his Ryder is weak and watered-down and, because he is not allowed to do anything interesting with the role, there are no nuances or layers. In the original, a twisted relationship developed between Ryder and his victim (played by C. Thomas Howell). Here, there's no connection between Ryder and Grace or Jim. Those two are personality deprived. They're half-wits who end up in the way of a butcher. It's hard to root for people who exhibit such impressive displays of stupidity and ineptitude. For once, it would be nice to see one of these unstoppable forces of nature come up against a Jack Bauer.

Tension was one of the key ingredients that propelled the 1986 version of The Hitcher. The movie may best be remembered for its gore, but it was suffused with a mounting sense of dread as the title character evolved from dangerous psychopath into mythical, unstoppable killer. There was a psychological edge to the proceedings in which one could almost view the Ryder/Jim relationship as a twisted, bloody riff on Pygmalion. In the 2007 re-make, the film abandons dread for instantaneous gory gratification. Once Ryder reveals himself, it's one horrific set piece after another. There's no snowball effect and the characters are too weakly drawn and (especially in the case of Jim and Grace) acted for there to be any psychological dimension to their interaction. The ending of the first movie was unsettling; the conclusion of this one is unsatisfying.

Slasher movies were all the rage in 1986. The Hitcher set itself apart by unmasking the killer. In many ways, Ryder wasn't that different from Michael Myers or Jason. His soul was evil and his motives inscrutable. But, by giving him recognizable features, the film added another layer to the dread normally associated with the genre. Perhaps because it has been done repeatedly since then, that aspect is also missing from the new The Hitcher. Ryder is relentless but not menacing. There's a sense of inevitability to his actions until they stray into the realm of camp (taking out about five cop cars and a helicopter stretches credulity even in this sort of movie).

It's less disappointing to see the re-make of a second tier horror movie done badly than it is when Hollywood botches a classic. Nevertheless, the filmmakers abandon their responsibility to develop something that displays understanding - if not respect - for the source material. Rarely has it been more obvious than with The Hitcher that a movie was made to generate a quick cash windfall. The formula is satisfied: a creepy trailer, lots of blood, attractive leads, and an indomitable murderer. The Hitcher typifies what horror has become in the 2000s - an exercise in "boo!" moments, fake blood, and plastic characters. The lesson imparted by the 1986 movie was to avoid hitchhikers. The lesson imparted by the 2007 version is to avoid The Hitcher.

Hitcher, The (United States, 2007)

Run Time: 1:25
U.S. Release Date: 2007-01-19
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1