In yet another sign of the poverty of invention among makers of horror films nowadays, here’s still one more remake, this time of one of the best psychological thrillers of the 1980s. The original version of “The Hitcher” was directed by Robert Harmon, but it was really the brainchild of Eric Red, whose script about a maniacal wanderer (Rutger Hauer) who torments a callow young man (C. Thomas Howell) driving through the southwest worked as a gripping shocker, but also conveyed the disturbing suggestion that the demonic villain was actually the hallucinatory projection of the kid’s disturbed personality. The picture created a sense of existential dread that—like that of Steven Spielberg’s telefilm “Duel”—struck a chord with everyone whose foot ever touched a gas pedal, but went beyond that to intimate that what we were really seeing was a haunting, almost surrealistic portrait of schizophrenia from the perspective of the psychotic himself.
Why anybody should have thought such a perfect little B movie barely two decades old should have required remaking is beyond comprehension (except for the obvious monetary possibilities, of course). But what’s abundantly clear is that they’ve done a very poor job of it. The new “Hitcher” not only dispenses with the first film’s intriguing psychological subtext, it doesn’t even get the surface thriller elements right. And it compounds the faux pas by inserting at an important moment an extended excerpt from “The Birds.” It’s not a good idea to remind viewers of how a real master like Hitchcock worked when you’re doing so mediocre a job yourself. “The Hitcher” is bigger, louder and far bloodier than the original, but devoid of all the delicious ambiguity that made it so fascinating.
The refashioned (and much simplified) script—which gives first credit to Red but seems actually to have been written by the same fellow responsible for the dreary recent version of “When a Stranger Calls,” Jake Wade Wall, along with Eric Bernt (“Virtuosity”)—makes its initial mistake by turning Red’s solitary driver into a couple (Sophia Bush and Zachary Knighton), just like the awful direct-to-video sequel “The Hitcher II: I’ve Been Waiting” did back in 2003. That immediately turns the picture into something much more ordinary and conventional than the original—something more like “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and its innumerable imitators. To be sure, Howell’s Jim Halsey eventually acquired a companion, the waitress Nash (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who became his somewhat nervous helper, but it was an ad hoc relationship that ironically increased his isolation—and didn’t last long.
And the new picture doesn’t just change Halsey into a pair of college lovebirds out on a spring break adventure: it effectively makes the female the dominant partner of the two, most clearly demonstrated by the fact that the grisly punishment meted out to Nash in the first movie is here transferred to the guy. (I’m not spoiling anything here: the scene is included in all of the zillion commercials that have been airing on every cable channel in existence for the last two months.) That’s just another way in which this “Hitcher” follows the pattern of so many “Chainsaw” copies; when you see the heroine, in her short shorts, brandishing a pump-action rifle while striding forward in slow-mo at the close, it feels like a parody of horror-movie cliché.
This “Hitcher” compounds its mistakes by being more literal and “realistic”—explaining what the first film left elliptical and thereby dissipating its air of moody fatalism, and lopping off its more outrageous turns in favor of a more straightforward madman-on-the-loose formula. To its credit (or perhaps simply as a result of a lack of imagination), the new flick does repeat not just that famous truck scene (though unfortunately making it gorier and far more extended) but some of the other set-pieces from the 1986 version; but though the explosions and car crashes are more elaborate this time around, they’re not necessarily better. And while Sean Bean is a reasonable choice to play the enigmatic boogeyman John Ryder (as he calls himself—something else that’s unfortunately “explained” here), he lacks the panache of Hauer, whose combination of loopy menace remains unmatched. (It’s not entirely Bean’s fault, since the picture gives him much less to do.) As for Bush and Knighton, they’re a nondescript pair; and Neal McDonough is left to do little more than glare and spit out dialogue as the cop on their trail.
The new “Hitcher” is competently made from a technical standpoint, but Dave Meyer’s direction doesn’t capture the grimly suspenseful mood Harmon brought to the material, relying too often on sudden jolts accompanied, as always, by loud whacks on the soundtrack. Nor do James Hawkinson’s sometimes glaring cinematography or Steve Jablonsky’s score contribute to the effect nearly as well as those elements did in the first movie. (The pop tunes that show up from time to time are especially irritating.)
Indeed, the only real virtue the remake possesses is that, at barely eighty minutes, it’s shorter than its predecessor. But it feels a lot longer. At least we’re lucky that these clumsy retreads don’t affect the availability of the originals. The creepy, genuinely unsettling 1986 “Hitcher” is still well worth picking up; this misbegotten clone can be passed by quickly, and without a second thought.