Hitcher, The (2007)

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 01/19/07 02:33:10

"Thumbs Down. (Guess I Owe Ebert $.25)"
1 stars (Sucks)

Although perhaps not the unsung masterpiece that some of its cultists like to claim, the 1986 film “The Hitcher” was a better-than-average genre exercise that tried to unnerve viewers with its unsettling psychological underpinnings instead of simply grossing them out with one violent tableau after another. Alas, it appears that in the process of revising “The Hitcher” for 2007 audiences, the good folks at Platinum Dunes (the people behind such other who-asked-for-them? remakes as “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “The Amityville Horror”) decided somewhere along the line that “unsettling psychological underpinnings” have no place in a contemporary horror film and while they have kept the story and the bloodshed more or less intact, they have chosen to remove the very element that made the original so memorable in the first place. Stripped of this aspect, all we are left with is 83 minutes of tedium studded with illogical storytelling, repellent gore and so many ridiculously overscaled car crashes that you might think that someone slipped a reel of Hal Needham’s Greatest Hits onto the platter in the projection booth.

If I recall the original film correctly–and it has been a long time since I last watched–it starred C.Thomas Howell (yes, such things did occur back in the mid-1980's) as a young man who makes the spectacularly unwise decision to pick up a hitchhiker off of a lonely road, a mysterious man named John Ryder (Rutger Hauer) who repaid this act of kindness by trying to kill Howell. Howell kicks him out of the car and drives off but finds himself caught in a bizarre game of cat-and-mouse in which he finds himself being relentlessly stalked by both the killer and police officers who think he is the guy behind Hauer’s rapidly increasing body count. The only one who believes him is friendly waitress Jennifer Jason Leigh and she winds up paying for it in what remains a spectacularly unpleasant scene even by Jennifer Jason Leigh’s standards. Pretty standard stuff, to be sure, but what elevated the film was the deeply disturbing psycho-sexual bond between Hauer and Howell that only intensified as the story progressed without ever blatantly announcing itself to viewers. Today, it might not sound like much but at a time when innovation in horror films meant transforming Jason into some kind of zombie, this was pretty heady stuff.

This time around, our heroes are a pair of college-age dopes–cutie-pie Grace (Sophia Bush) and her dullard boyfriend Jim (Zachary Knighton)–heading off for spring break in Lake Havasu. Other than that, the basic parameters of the story are the same–they give a ride to drifter John Ryder (Sean Bean), escape from his clutches when he goes psycho and find themselves relentlessly pursued by him across the desolate New Mexico highways for unexplained reasons–but the screenplay never even tries to plunge the dark depths of the original, no doubt in an effort to avoid disturbing the teeners in the audience with anything subtle. The problem with this is that by removing all of the psychological quirks of the original, such as the tantalizing suggestion that Hauer was nothing more than a manifestation of Howell’s rampaging id, we are left with a story that makes virtually no sense on any level. Here, we get a tale that is little more than an exceptionally bloody Road Runner cartoon–cars suddenly drop from the cliffs above to scare the characters who just happen to be walking directly underneath and 90-lb college girls suddenly develop the ability to break out of the locked back of a burning prisoner transport van and fire shotguns with pinpoint accuracy and without any recoil problems. (Granted, this is all theoretically more entertaining than spending an extended amount of time in Lake Havasu, but still . . .)

Instead of trying to unsettle viewers, director Dave Meyers goes for the cheapest shock effects possible. Throughout, we are treated to such hackneyed cliches as dream sequences, people suddenly popping out of the side of the frame while the soundtrack goes “WHAM!” and an opening bit in which a cute little bunny rabbit gets splattered for no other reason than to goose viewers. Thoughtfully, he has left in much of the sadism of the original but at a time when new gore-porn atrocities pop up on the screen every couple of weeks, even the key barf-bag moment that has been ported over (featuring someone drawn-and-quartered via semi-trucks) comes off as fairly ho-hum. (Interestingly, the other key shock moment from the original–in which Howell discovered something especially unsavory in his french fries–has not been duplicated here.) To give Meyers credit, he resists the temptation to overly explain the motivations behind his psycho killer–a convention that has become all too common in contemporary horror films–but in a film where everything else is depressingly straightforward, this come across less as a daring narrative gambit (as it was in the original) and more like another example of sloppy storytelling.

The best thing that one can say about “The Hitcher” is that it isn’t quite as relentlessly off-putting and offensive as such recent remakes as “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” or “Black Christmas”–it is far too stupid and silly to provoke such a reaction from anyone other than the overly sensitive types who are most likely not going to be showing up in the first place. Instead, it is just another moronic retread of a perfectly decent film made by people who evidently saw nothing in the original but an exploitable title and starring actors cashing an easy paycheck while their television shows are on hiatus. As far as I can recall, there is exactly one decent scene in the entire film. In it, our heroine essentially decides to check out of her own film by taking a long and relaxing (though strictly PG-13) shower and then settling in to watch Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” on television. Trust me–if you follow her lead and do the same, you will be much happier in the long run.

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