The opening shot of "The Hitcher" speaks louder for what is to follow than words ever could. A cute bunny rabbit resides amidst a tranquil, idyllic New Mexico landscape. It scurries out near a desolate road, scratches itself with its hind leg, and proceeds to cross. And then BLAM! A passing car plows into the whiskered animal, leaving its guts sprawled out across the asphalt. The scene is nasty, tasteless and serves no purpose except to let the audience know that the filmmakers aren't going to be playing nice for the next 83 minutes. Hardcore thrillers are one thing, but the cinematic bloodbath that is "The Hitcher" also has a truly cruel streak and disturbing disregard for life that puts a damper on what otherwise could have been a lean, taut and well-made B-movie.
The story proper begins with college sweethearts Jim Halsey (Zachary Knighton) and Grace Andrews (Sophia Bush) hitting the open road, on their way to celebrate spring break with Grace's hometown girlfriends. When they almost hit a mysterious man stranded by his car in the middle of a rainstorm, they get spooked and drive off. After they meet the motorist again, named John Ryder (Sean Bean), the guilt-ridden Jim agrees to give him a lift to a nearby town. A helpful gesture turns into a really bad mistake, however, as soon as John pulls a knife on the young couple. They manage to kick him out of the car, but it is far from the end of their troubles. No matter where they go, Jim and Grace are stalked by the psychopath, embroiled in a cat-and-mouse chase that eventually leaves them framed for multiple murders and wanted by the authorities.
"The Hitcher" is based on a 1986 cult classic of the same name, and pretty much follows that picture scene for scene with only cursory alterations. The difference is both in the treatment of the premise and the decision to multiply lone protagonist Jim Halsey (played in the earlier picture by C. Thomas Howell) into a couple. Having two heroes go through the ringer that the elusive John Ryder puts them through cuts down on the claustrophobia of the situation because at all times they are able to turn to and confide in each other. Mostly gone from this version is the fascinating subtextual relationship between Jim and John, suggestively sexual in nature, that almost turned the film into a twisted love story. There is perhaps a bit of this carried over between John and Grace, but their scenes together are too brief to make the same impression on the viewer.
Whereas the original was brutal when need be but also occasionally restrained, 2007's "The Hitcher" goes for blood, guts, and countless deaths that include animals, police officers, innocent children, parents, and various other unfortunate passersby. In addition to the aforementioned ill-fated rabbit and another gruesome moment where a character is tied between two trucks, a scene involving a murdered family of Christians is the nadir in ugliness, showing the gory remains of a little boy next to his bloodied-up stuffed animal and a kid's storybook about heaven. It is all so very exploitative, reveling in its grungy ultra-violence and faux-hipness, that the film stops being fun in a horror movie sort of way and becomes downright sick and mean-spirited. Screenwriters Jake Wade Wall (2006's "When a Stranger Calls
") and Eric Bernt (2000's "Romeo Must Die"), adapting from the first picture's script by Eric Red, certainly don't pull any punches, but they also cross a fine line between uncompromising and irresponsibility.
As Grace and Jim, Sophia Bush (2006's "John Tucker Must Die
") and Zachary Knighton (in his feature debut) adequately fill their roles, but are miscast. Looking strikingly like Anna Fariscome to think of it, Faris would have done wonders with the partBush is only convincing in her heightened emotions half the time and has trouble selling a handful of her lines, some of which are admittedly clunkers ("I have a gun!" she clumsily announces as she makes her way into a darkened room where the killer is). Considering this is his first major acting gig, Knighton displays promise, but nothing special to differentiate him from his peers. And as villain John Ryder, Sean Bean (2006's "Silent Hill
") relishes his irredeemably evil character and makes a great bad guy. He is no Rutger Hauer, who unforgettably portrayed John in the original, but is solid all the same.
"The Hitcher" was helmed by music-video director Dave Meyers, and he has pulled off a technically impressive and tight-paced horror film. The accompanying soundtrack, featuring a rattling score by Steve Jablonsky (2006's "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning
") and choice song cuts by Nine Inch Nails and The All-American Rejects, among others, compliments the action. The cinematography by James Hawkinson, doing all he can to bring atmosphere to the lonely stretches of highway, is gorgeous. And the wise decision was made not to overexplain John Ryder's past; he is a monstrous and sad human being, and that is all that the viewer needs to know about him.
At the core of "The Hitcher," though, is a motion picture remake that is redundant and suspiciously unfeeling, an amped-up empty shell of its former self. There is no denying that the movie can get your adrenaline flowing in quick spurtsthere are at least three fabulous jump scaresbut it lacks empathy for its central characters and is missing a point behind its nonstop carnage. When the exploding brain matter and spurting blood clears, all that is left to observe is that 1986's "The Hitcher" did it better the first time around.