The Hitcher (Intrepid/Rogue Pictures, R)

hitcherThe new Hitcher immediately grabs your attention by opening with a jackrabbit getting splattered on the highway, a signal that the filmmakers want to mess with you. They do, too, once the expected setup occurs.

 

In the horror genre, a category of film I profess an abiding fondness for, the paucity of original ideas is truly discouraging. With rare exceptions, the majority of horror offerings on the big screen over the past decade have been sequels, remakes of Japanese films, or variations on tried and true formulas. Given this reality, one has to judge a horror film on its own terms, i.e., how well does it accomplish what it sets out to do, regardless of the lowered expectations already in place?

I mention this because there is no particular reason to walk into a screening of The Hitcher with high hopes. The film is a remake of an '80s not-quite-classic about a deranged hitchhiker and his hapless prey; Rutger Hauer and C. Thomas Howell were better actors than they probably needed to be in that movie, and it was moderately entertaining (plus, it featured Jennifer Jason Leigh getting dispatched creatively). Why, then, did we need a remake? Send your queries to the suits in Hollywood, but meanwhile, let's give this rather no-nonsense update its due.

The new Hitcher immediately grabs your attention by opening with a jackrabbit getting splattered on the highway, a signal that the filmmakers want to mess with you. They do, too, once the expected setup occurs, featuring a spring break-bound teen named Jim Halsey (Zachary Knighton) and his comely girlfriend Grace (Sophia Bush), who are leisurely traversing the desert of New Mexico in Jim's aging Oldsmobile. The young collegiates at first decline to give a ride to the tall, stranded stranger they encounter on the rainy highway one night. "Nobody stops for strangers," Grace wisely observes. But the sinister John Ryder (Sean Bean, famous for playing Boromir in Lord of the Rings) naturally turns up later at the same pit stop as the youngsters, and in a real lapse of good judgment, Jimbo agrees to let the stranger ride along to the next town. Bad move! Naturally, all hell breaks loose, once Ryder starts asking overly personal questions about Grace and, uh, pulling a knife from his pocket. Hence, the cat-and-mouse game is on, and to quote the ad campaign for another recent horror franchise, "Oh yes…there will be blood." A surprising amount of it, actually.

As in the original, the youngsters are initially suspected in the burgeoning body count—which includes several police officers—so they find themselves on the run not just from the crazed Ryder, but seemingly half the police force of New Mexico. Only Lieutenant Esteridge (Neal McDonough) has a clue that another party may be involved, but in showdown after showdown, Ryder seems to gain the upper hand. It's mostly formulaic stuff, and yet The Hitcher turns out to be surprisingly watchable.

One thing the film does right is taking a refreshingly minimalistic approach to the acting. The young leads truly do seem like they're in a game of survival, and their actions generally make sense. There are few dumb choices, and no scenery chomping. Ms. Bush is a fetching young ingenue, and is given way more to do than the typical doomed female victims in this sort of picture. Bean, clearly wanting to add an ace baddie to his resume, is nicely inscrutable, and while not quite as charismatic as Hauer in the earlier film, he, too, avoids going overboard (odd, I know, in a picture with lots of 'splosions, shootin's, and stuff). He looks very much like the sort of quiet, menacingly unpredictable nutjob we often see in the papers and on TV.

One other thing the film earns points for is twisting a few key plot elements around from the original. The infamous scene with the truck and chains is here, but not the way you're expecting, and the climactic showdown is a pleasantly no-nonsense, rousing one that earns its cheers. We aren't talking about high art with The Hitcher (are we ever if producer Michael Bay is involved?), and director Dave Meyers probably could have found a better project than screenwriter Eric Red's sadistic script to devote his considerable talents to. Nevertheless, The Hitcher is an above-average horror flick—a tightly paced, adrenaline-charged 83 minutes of well-managed mayhem. It should make a killing among its target audience. | Kevin Renick

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