-- actress Sophia Bush describing The Hitcher
A friend of mine was trying to remember the title of "a really old gangster movie" the other day and thought I might be able to help her out. Couldn't give me anything to go on, and the names of actors I lobbed out like James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson didn't ring any bells. She eventually figured it out on her own, though, and that "really old gangster movie"...? Goodfellas. I guess people like her are why I'm sitting here reviewing The Hitcher, a remake of a cult classic that's barely twenty years old and still holds up pretty damn well today.
Jim (Zachary Knighton) and Grace (Sophia Bush) are a lovey-dovey college couple heading out west for Spring Break, and on their way to Lake Havasu, they nearly hit some nutjob standing in the middle of the road during a particularly nasty downpour. Jim wants to see if the guy's alright, but since Grace has probably already seen the original 1986 flick, she nags her boyfriend into just moving along. They bump into John Ryder (Sean Bean) again a few miles down the road after he's dropped off by a trucker. John seems like a nice enough guy, he didn't butcher the driver in the big rig, and Jim feels kind of guilty about blowing him off earlier. With no one around to tow John's car in to be fixed until the morning, Jim offers to give him a lift to a motel the next town over. While Grace bobs her head to an iPod in the back, John starts in with the menacing chatter, quickly followed by hair pulling, a threatened eye-gouging, and a knife to the throat. Yeah, so that's a helluva "told you so" from the girlfriend. Jim manages to kick Ryder out of the speeding muscle car, and the visibly shaken couple tries to put as many miles between them and the psychopath as possible.
...but that's only around seventeen minutes in, so they're clearly gonna see a lot more of Mr. Ryder. Not only does he catch up with Grace and Jim the next day, but he dupes them into wrecking their Olds 442, butchers a Bible-thumping family in a station wagon, and manipulates the cops into thinking that these innocent looking college kids are on a killing spree. The body count continues to pile up, and...yeah, you already know how this whole thing works.
Writers Jake Wade Hall and Eric Bernt have left long stretches of Eric Red's screenplay for the 1986 flick intact. The core of the story hasn't changed, and if you've seen the original, you'll recognize most of the key setpieces, the most memorably gruesome shots, and even fist-sized chunks of dialogue. The biggest change is that the remake shoehorns in a love story, tossing out C. Thomas Howell to make room for a cutesy college couple torn out of a J. Crew catalog. What else has been changed? Well, there's no finger in the french fries. You get to see a character tied between two big rigs get ripped in half this time around. Um, I don't remember Rutger Hauer tooling around in a Bandit-era Trans-Am and gunning down a helicopter with a couple of shots from a pistol. Anything clever, tense, or vaguely suspenseful has been sapped away. Basically, it's The Hitcher you know and love, only shitty. It's the Kidz Bop school of filmmaking.
Running through everything the remake of The Hitcher botches doesn't read like a review so much as an agonizingly long list. Mistake number one...? Hiring someone who thought it'd be a winning idea to set one of the bigger action setpieces with police cruisers upending and flipping around left and right to Nine Inch Nail's "Closer". You know what gets the adrenaline pumping...? No score. No eleven year old licensed alt-rock. Just the sounds of screeching tires and crunching metal. Insert a jackassy comment about a first-time feature film director who cut his teeth making Britney Spears videos here.
The casting was a huge part of what made the original take on The Hitcher work so well. When I see Rutger Hauer on-screen, I'm genuinely convinced that he's deranged enough to kill me. I
So much of the suspense of the original is owed to pitting this almost supernatural destructive force against a meek, vulnerable kid in the middle of nowhere. By replacing C. Thomas Howell with a pair of clean-scrubbed WB types and putting too much emphasis on the police lieutenant spearheading the investigation, the remake loses that sense of hopeless isolation. Everyone's just...bland and devoid of any personality, and as drop-dead gorgeous as Sophia Bush is, she's too naggy to really root for as a heroine. Ogling her for seventy minutes and change is the only reason to really recommend the movie...that, and the hysterically over-the-top Sarah Connor bullshit she whips out in the last couple minutes that really has to be seen to be believed. There's no trace of suspense or any sort of psychological angle remaining -- it's all pyrotechnics and jump scares so calculated that you can count down to 'em half the time.
So, to sum it up in ten words: movies like this are why people bitch about horror remakes.
Video: The Hitcher's slick scope photography greatly benefits from the additional resolution of high definition. The image is crisp and richly detailed, revealing each and every pore on the clean-scrubbed casts' faces as well as the intricate textures of the desert blacktop. Its stylized, sun-baked palette comes through flawlessly, and black levels are deep and inky. Gripe about the movie all you want, but there's no denying how striking the cinematography often is, particularly the way a character in the foreground will be framed in stark contrast against a desolate landscape or a barren sky. There aren't any visible flaws in the source material, and film grain remains tight and unintrusive throughout. I'm more impressed by the quality of Universal's day-and-date releases than any other studio, and The Hitcher is in keeping with the exceptionally high quality of their output to date.
A standard definition version of the 2.39:1 film is provided on the flipside of this combo disc.
Audio: The Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 audio isn't as unrelenting or aggressive as a lot of horror flicks, but it's still a reasonably strong effort. The torrential rain throughout much of the first act keeps the surrounds sopping with atmosphere, and whirling helicopter blades and some of the gunplay also take advantage of the multichannel setup. The sheer amount of action on the road offers up plenty of pans from channel to channel, and the throaty roars of its engines are accompanied by thunderous waves of bass. The movie's overreliance on jump scares also means plenty of booming horror stings in the score. Dialogue is never overwhelmed, rendered cleanly and clearly throughout.
The Hitcher also includes the usual set of dubs and subtitles, although the Spanish subtitle stream is only available on the DVD side of the disc.
Extras: As has been the case for all but one of Universal's day-and-date releases so far this year, The Hitcher sports some HD DVD-exclusive U-Control interactivity. The picture-in-picture footage plays like a sort of video commentary, alternating between behind the scenes footage, talking head interviews, and clunky fake news reports on John Ryder's killing spree. It's less comprehensive than a traditional audio commentary but still manages to cover quite a bit, including The Hitcher's lengthy rehearsal period, trying to flesh out the movie's characters instead of going for thinly-written horror red-shirts ::sarcastic cough::, grisly make-up effects that reference crime scene photos for inspiration while still taking some artistic license, and Sophia Bush's glee in getting burned, beaten, battered, and bruised during filming. Unlike Smokin' Aces, which kept playing the picture-in-picture footage once it was selected, The Hitcher requires viewers to keep mashing the 'OK' button every time the icon appears, and it can be particularly annoying here since so many of the clips come in really quick succession. The picture-in-picture material takes a few minutes to kick in, but it plays pretty steadily from there until a half hour in when it kind of peters out. It's also bogged down by a good bit of the Mutual Admiration Society backpatting that plagues a couple of the other featurettes here. On the upside, not much of the footage is recycled from the other extras on the disc, and Zachary Knighton even gives the whole thing a proper introduction. (Part of me almost feels badly about ripping into the movie because Knighton and Bush come across as such likeable people, but...)
Otherwise, the extras are the same as the DVD side of the disc: not only in standard definition but in non-anamorphic widescreen. The making-of (11 min.) is a lightweight, standard issue promotional piece, and only a couple of brief comments about the cinematography and the New Mexico location shoot are particularly interesting. Another featurette follows KNB as they put together a dummy for the drawn-and-quartered money shot (13 min.), and there's also a ten minute look at the vehicular carnage.
Twenty three minutes of deleted scenes may sound like a lot, but several are really just marginally extended versions of scenes that are already in the movie. There are four very different takes on a scene in the motel -- goes to show how many different choices you can have in the editing booth -- and the first of them is surprisingly effective and would've added some much-needed tension to the film. The alternate ending isn't "too terrifying for theaters!" so much as opting for a slightly prolonged, bloodier final kill.
Last up are four and a half minutes of fake news coverage about the mayhem in the flick. There's a shot of a TV in one of the deleted scenes where I guess some of this would've been dropped in, and the U-Control interactivity drops this footage into the film in context.
Conclusion: Look, I'm not one of those guys who bitches about horror remakes; hell, catch me on the right day and I might even admit to really digging the Texas Chainsaw redux. The Hitcher isn't just an awful remake, though: it's an awful movie, period, and the fact that it's a retread of one of my favorite horror flicks from the '80s just adds insult to injury. The HD DVD looks and sounds nice enough, but its $39.98 MSRP is more horrifying than anything in this tepid, lifeless thriller. Skip It.