At first glance, The Hitcher looks exactly like the kind of movie that Cannon Films would have released in the 1980’s. On one hand, The Hitcher seems to take some cues from Steven Spielberg’s early ‘road trip’ thriller, Duel. Screenwriter Eric Red (Bad Moon) was apparently influenced by The Doors’ song, Riders on the Storm. But it’s a grimy, sleazy looking ‘road trip’ action-horror film that is less Spielberg, more low-budget ’80’s sleaze.
Upon its release on February 21, 1986, critics were divided. Audiences gave it a lukewarm reception at the box office. However, on VHS, The Hitcher found new life and it has since acquired cult status over the years. ‘Road Trip’ thrillers, like Joy Ride, share DNA in common. The early 2000’s even saw some nostalgia for The Hitcher. A belated sequel with C. Thomas Howell hit the straight-to-video market in 2003 followed by a 2007 remake. For this Re-Animated column, I’ll re-visit The Hitcher and examine it in contrast to the Michael Bay-produced do-over. Can Sean Bean measure up to Rutger Hauer’s chilling John Ryder?
The Hitcher is an Implausible Guilty-Pleasure
The Hitcher is a guilty-pleasure thriller that operates on three levels of increasing implausibility. Briefly, Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell) is delivering a car from Chicago and San Diego. On a lonely stretch of desert highway, a tired Jim decides to pick up a hitchhiker. Bad idea. Unfortunately, the ‘hitcher’, John Ryder, is a psychopathic serial killer, intent on making Jim’s life a living hell. With such a simple premise, The Hitcher is at its best when it’s focused on the small-scale interactions between Jim and Ryder. Those opening minutes in the car, as an increasingly strange Ryder calmly threatens Jim, are genuinely chilling. Any time the movie slows down and keeps the story tuned in to its main characters it’s a tense, if not slightly implausible, ride.
… The Hitcher loses some of that tension as it becomes less grounded. Ryder’s almost omnipresent ability to find and haunt Jim stretches credibility.
Over the course of The Hitcher, the movie broadens its scope and hits its next level of implausibility. As Ryder stalks Jim Halsey across desert highways, he leaves a grisly trail of bodies that police pin on Jim. On one hand, these scenes deliver some of the movie’s more shocking violence. Nash’s truck stop death was an unexpected twist. It also illustrates that what you don’t see can be more disturbing than what is on screen. Nonetheless, The Hitcher loses some of that tension as it becomes less grounded. Ryder’s almost omnipresent ability to find and haunt Jim stretches credibility. At its most over-the-top, The Hitcher occasionally devolves into car chases and explosions. Not surprisingly, these moments are the least effective bits in the movie. One can’t help but feel that they belong in a different movie. Fortunately, Jim’s desert showdown with Ryder restores the haunting character dynamic..
Rutger Hauer’s ‘John Ryder’ An Unheralded Film Villain
There’s no questioning Rutger Hauer’s villain bona fides. From Blade Runner to the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie, Hauer has proven to be an accomplished antagonist. Yet for some reason, Hauer’s terrific turn as John Ryder hasn’t garnered as much attention. For a pulpy exploitation movie, John Ryder is daunting big screen villain. To some extent, Eric Red’s screenplay deserves credit. That is, The Hitcher casts Ryder as a force of nature not unlike Halloween’s Michael Myers. We’re not given much insight into Ryder’s motivations or psyche. He seems to want to die, and wants Jim to be the one who kills him. But we’re never told why? Hauer then effectively embodies the character with some superbly subtle ticks. It’s a restrained performance that always threatens to explode at any given second.
The Hitcher Is the Backseat Driver of Remakes
Director Dave Myers is known more for his music video work than major feature movies. It shows in The Hitcher remake. And it’s a poor fit. Michael Bay and his Platinum Dunes studio released The Hitcher in 2007 amidst an assembly-line of horror movie remakes. Truth be told, The Hitcher falls somewhere in the middle of the 2000’s remake wave. As compared to remakes of 80’s staples like The Stepfather and Prom Night, The Hitcher doesn’t feel quite as watered down. On the contrary, the remake leans more towards 2000’s ‘Torture Porn‘ movies with its violence. Nevertheless, The Hitcher remake never approaches Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead or Platinum Dunes’ Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake.
Younger fans unfamiliar with the 1986 original will find the remake a forgettable and generic thriller.
Simply put, The Hitcher remake can’t avoid feeling completely unnecessary. For fans of the original movie, the remake follows the 1986 story too closely. The few plot tweaks in the remake are superficial or undermine what made the original work. For instance, this time around John Ryder stalks a couple thereby defusing the dynamic that made the tension in the original work. There’s some gender-role reversal, which is fine, but it doesn’t justify the remake’s existence. Younger fans unfamiliar with the 1986 original will find the remake a forgettable and generic thriller. Specifically, the remake’s competent and glossy production values strip away much of what made the 1986 movie work.
Please Hollywood, Stop Killing Sean Bean
First, let me start by saying I like Sean Bean. He’s a fantastic actor who has built an impressive body of work. But he’s miscast in The Hitcher. As a conflicted antagonist, Bean can undoubtedly bring the goods. But as an embodiment of evil lurking on America’s desolate desert highways, Bean doesn’t quite click. However, I would suggest that much of the problem is less Bean and more script changes to the character. While the 1986 movie hints that Ryder wants to die, the remake more openly embraces this aspect of the character. Much of Ryder’s mystique as a villain is discarded. Like the rest of the movie, the result is a distinctly generic feeling.
Avoid Picking Up The Hitcher Remake
In 2019, I’m not sure the dangers of hitchhiking carries the same prospect of dread it did a few decades ago. But for fans of ‘down and dirty’ 80’s horror and thrillers, The Hitcher is a guilty pleasure that’s retained much of its original charm. Along with Rutger Hauer’s chilling performance, the movie has an unnerving score and boasts some impressive cinematography. In contrast, the 2007 movie feels more unnecessary than most remakes. Thought its competently filmed with music video production values, it offers nothing more than generic thrills. After over 30 years, there’s still only one ‘hitcher’ worth picking up.