Robert Harmon's 1986 film "The Hitcher" wasn't a groundbreaking suspense creation, but carved out a name for itself on the cult film circuit because it plunged head-first into nastiness. Eric Red's screenplay didn't budge when it came time to dish out death; coldly serving up some rather vivid horror set-pieces that are easily spotted as the genesis behind the 2007 remake.
On their way to a spring break destination, couple Grace (Sophia Bush, TV's "One Tree Hill") and Jim (Zachary Knighton, "The Prince & Me") hit the road in high spirits. Things turn ugly quickly when the two meet up with John Ryder (Sean Bean, "Lord of the Rings"), a stranded motorist who is looking for a ride. While Jim welcomes Ryder into their car, Grace is more skeptical, and her fears are proven true when Ryder unleashes his murderous wrath on the couple.
"Hitcher" is the latest production from Michael Bay's Platinum Dunes remake factory, the team behind the recent takes on "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and "The Amityville Horror." Both of the aforementioned films were disgraceful in their desperation for wildly overcalculated cinematographic lunges and brain-dead direction. Unbelievably, "Hitcher 2.0" doesn't stab to the same tune, even with many similar technical ingredients in the bubbling pot.
Director Dave Meyers is a music-video maestro without any big screen experience. While that traditionally is enough to burn down the theater in protest, Meyers appears to appreciate the basic fundamentals of genre filmmaking, and lets his "Hitcher" out to play, instead of suffocating the whole thing in hip visuals and flash-cut edit rhythms. Save for one moronic attempt at a body-mounted camera on Knighton, Meyers keeps the visual artifice at a bare minimum, even cooling the genre's recent reliance on boo-scares to power the thrill engine. It's an unexpectedly tame directorial effort, and I can't believe this squeaked by under Michael "edits within the edits" Bay's watch.
The fact that this "Hitcher" is a little more patient with itself doesn't exactly mean the film has elevated in class. Red's screenplay credit still stands here since Bay and his team haven't changed much in the 21 years since the original film. The blistering pace is retained quite wonderfully for the remake. Meyers keeps the momentum whirring at just the right level of restlessness, doling out the chills swiftly, but effectively. Again, this is not an artistic piece of direction, but a confident one.
The new "Hitcher" respects what propelled the first film: that clammy feeling of hopelessness and survival as unstoppable evil is stalking you, and there's zero explanation why. Meyers is wise to not to fiddle much with the original's framework, instead coasting on the reason the 1986 picture is still spoken of highly today: its dread.
The biggest alteration is found in the lead character...or characters I should write. What was once a skittish C. Thomas Howell is now Bush and Knighton. The change actually pierces the tension, since the two actors spend most of their time explaining the obvious to each other ("He's after us!") instead of the letting the anxiety guide the scenes.
While she can't pull off the shotgun look, Bush otherwise makes for the fine heroine, showing an effective range of fear and frustration. She's actually more masculine than Ponyboy ever was, and carries the role well, even when she's weighed down by the Abercrombie blankness of Knighton.
I had more problems with Sean Bean as the titular troublemaker. The actor sure looks the part with his wicked grin, an "I rape" batch of two-day-old facial hair growth, and a kitten purr for his choice lines. The trouble with Bean has always been his lack of screen presence, and this exterminates any chance for Ryder to be a figure of sadomasochistic fury. Especially coming after Rutger Hauer's flamboyant take on the role, Bean just can't rely on Ryder's evil deeds (one doozy retained in all its glory from the original film) to do all the talking for him.
In the world of needless, useless, lunkheaded remake horror cinema, "The Hitcher" actually pieces together quite nicely. Those who worship at the altar of Hauer might feel the drowning sensation of déjà vu, but the less perceptive should find themselves on a decent ride of murder, youthful buffoonery, and a more polished interpretation of the golden twilight of exploitation filmmaking.
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