The recent assembly-line remaking of recognisable horror titles continues with The Hitcher, a dreary updating of the 1986 Rutger Hauer serial-killer hitchhiker thriller, which disregards character empathy in the pursuit of perfunctory scares.
Produced by (among others) Michael Bay, this new version of The Hitcher opened in the US this weekend, earning only an estimated $8m, despite being the frame's sole new wide release. While the film (which expands to overseas markets throughout the spring) would love to match the success of two other horror remakes overseen by Bay - 2003's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and 2005's The Amityville Horror, which both saw returns of over $100m worldwide - a less-familiar title property and a lack of bankable stars probably guarantee that The Hitcher will do most of its terrorising in home theatres.
College couple Grace (Bush) and Jim (Knighton) depart for a seemingly relaxing spring-break car trip across the deserts of the American Southwest when they encounter John Ryder (Sean Bean) by the side of the road. Agreeing to give him a lift to the next town, they quickly realize that John is a murderous psychopath. The young lovers barely escape, but John won't let them go so easily, hunting them across the barren landscape.
As with the original, this new version of The Hitcher mines horror from a scenario our mothers warned us about - offering a ride to a stranger in the middle of nowhere - and follows that set-up to its darkest possible conclusion. Adding to the anxiety, the serial killer's homicidal impulses are never explained: He is simply an enigmatic villain without conscience or humanity.
The thought of a merciless predator invading and destroying our happy lives is an unnerving one - indeed, like other recent horror movies, The Hitcher reflects (or, perhaps, exploits) our post-9/11 unease. But in the hands of first-time feature director Dave Meyers, this societal fear becomes an excuse for slick, soulless film-making. Meyers' background in music videos comes through loud and clear as the production flaunts the typically hyper high-sheen look that Bay championed more than a decade ago, without his occasionally inspired outrageousness. The Hitcher marvels at the prettiness of its individual shots but couldn't care less about the emotional underpinnings of Grace and Jim's battle for survival.
Staying relatively faithful to the original's plot construction, screenwriters Jake Wade Wall and Eric Bernt do try to shake up the gender dynamics by making Grace the heroic figure. (In director Robert Harmon's 1986 version, the Jim and John characters engaged in a mano a mano struggle, with the love interest noticeably playing second fiddle.) Though Grace is meant to evolve from a sweet, submissive girlfriend into a butt-kicking, self-reliant woman, the script's meagre endorsement of female empowerment is laughable: her personal transformation consists of grabbing a shotgun and spitting out tough-guy dialogue during an over-the-top final showdown.
Betraying their lack of acting experience, both young performers come across as terribly shallow, unsympathetic dullards - it's hard to believe their characters would have the mental fortitude to outmaneuver a killing machine like John Ryder. To be fair, though, the fault is not fully theirs; the script requires Jim in particular to make consistently stupid decisions in order to set up the film's series of horror sequences. Conversely, veteran actor Sean Bean possesses enough onscreen presence to instill John Ryder with menace despite an underwritten part.
Of course, most genre fans won't care about characterisation or acting; for many of them, the appeal lies entirely in the effectiveness and quantity of the scares. But even here, The Hitcher is insufficient. Nearly every fright scene plays out the same: a slow buildup of dread that hints at something horrible about to happen, which then leads to a terrifying or disgusting reveal, usually punctuated by a jarring musical cue on the soundtrack. Granted, this formula can work well when utilized creatively, but Meyers shows no shreds of originality, and so the repetition becomes grueling.
Beyond a cynical money-making venture to recycle a cult property for a new generation, this remake seems to exist mostly to serve as an elongated demo reel for Meyers to prove his mettle as a feature director. From the evidence here, he would be well advised to stick with music videos and high-end commercials where the storytelling requirements will prove far less taxing on his minimal talents.
Focus Features International
Jake Wade Wall
based on the film written by Eric Red