The Hitcher (1986) is the second 80’s horror movie I’ve seen this year that has either aged very well, or I’ve liked more now than I remember liking the first time I saw it. The first was Fright Night (1985). Unlike Fright Night (2011) though, the remake, The Hitcher (2007), is as good as the original. It tweaks the plot ever so slightly in ways that update the story, while, at the same time, enhance it.
In both movies, a young person (or persons) driving across the country ignores common sense and gives a ride to a relentless psychopath. While engaging in a bloody game of cat and mouse, the hero(es) is mistaken for the psychopath and the local police escalate the action, ending in a brutally downbeat outcome.
In The Hitcher (1986), Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell) drives a car from Chicago to California. Acknowledging it’s a bad idea, but struggling to stay awake, he stops to pick up hitchhiker John Ryder (Rutger Hauer), who wastes no time announcing his evil intentions. In The Hitcher (2007), Halsey (Zachary Knighton) drives his girlfriend, Grace (Sophia Bush) through New Mexico on the way to their spring break destination. The means by which they pick up Ryder (Sean Bean) is more elaborate, perhaps justifying why someone would do so in this day and age.
The addition of a partner for Halsey isn’t exactly new. It’s just that in the original, he doesn’t gain a sidekick until later in the movie, when he meets Nash (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in a roadside diner. I like that he has someone with him from the beginning in the remake; she provides an opposing viewpoint and acts as the flipside of his conscience. On the other hand, we lose the plot device of him acquiring someone along the way who believes he is innocent.
Although the same major developments occur in both movies, The Hitcher (2007) is more believable. Little details are revealed along the way that explain how and why Ryder always seems to turn up at the most inopportune time. Then again, it may just be a slicker production, moving along at a faster pace, so that the plot holes don’t seem so deep.
Both movies are good little thrillers, emphasizing the action over the horror. They are solid additions to the “thriller road movie” subgenre that includes Steven Spielberg’s Duel (the granddaddy of them all), Joy Ride (written by J.J. Abrams) and Breakdown (with Kurt Russell; if you haven’t seen it, it’s a real treat). They don’t bring anything new to the table, but are perfectly enjoyable.
Re-watching The Hitcher (1986), I’m reminded that C. Thomas Howell was indeed an appealing teen idol. His character is more of a loose cannon than Zachary Knighton’s in The Hitcher (2007). When his Jim Halsey kicks Ryder out of the car the first time, he gives a cocky “woo-hoo”, thinking he’s come out on top. When Knighton’s does the same thing, he’s merely scared out of his mind. In fact, Ryder’s description of Halsey in front of Grace later in the movie describes him pretty well: “wussy boyfriend”.
The differences between the characterizations of John Ryder are a little more subtle. Rutger Hauer plays the perfect psychopath. He smiles a lot and seems to be enjoying the havoc he wreaks. Sean Bean doesn’t seem to be having as much fun. No smiles from him, but he does scary well. We don’t know where either one of them come from, but there’s a fun hint about his origins in the remake. All in all, I’d probably be more afraid of running into Hauer on a dark highway.
You’d think the proliferation of mobile devices would prevent movies like this remake from lasting more than five minutes long. I mean, in The Hitcher (1986), the hero is unable to call for help until he can find a pay phone. That’s understandable and adds suspense. But the heroes in The Hitcher (2007) should be able to dial 911 at any time. The screenwriters solve that plot inconvenience first by having them drive through an area with no service, then by having their cell phone fly out the car door as they’re speeding along.
The Hitcher (2007) is another in the family of Platinum Dunes horror remakes (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Amityville Horror before, Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street after). I’d rank it with the best of them rather than the worst. It’s existence doesn’t feel like a blatant attempt to make money, especially since The Hitcher (1986) isn’t a classic on the level of the other movies listed. They’re both good, they’re both entertaining, they both offer reasons to watch.