Horror movies are a great way to explore the feelings of anxiety and fear that are inescapable by-products of living in the insane fucking reality we all inhabit. Sometimes the fear represented is an intangible part of our subconscious and other times it is based upon violent and terrifying experiences from the real world. In the case of The Hitcher films, the fear is based upon the anxiety derived from bringing a total stranger into your car, or getting into theirs. In reality, numerous people on both sides of this interaction have met with deadly ends, so the effectiveness of these films is reliant in large part on how authentically they can represent that legitimate danger. A lot has changed in the twenty-one years between these movies but some dangers never lose their relevance, regardless of how many technical advances we make.
The original follows Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell) who is driving through the American southwest to deliver a car to a client in California. When he sees a man (John Ryder, played by the exquisitely creepy Rutger Hauer) broken down in the rain, he is kind enough to offer him a ride, but almost instantly regrets his decision when it becomes clear that Ryder is a murderous psychopath. After literally kicking Ryder out of the car, Jim soon finds himself embroiled in a fight for survival with the crazed man on the sparely populated desert highway.
The remake features the same basic conceit, with the primary difference being that college-age couple, Jim and Grace (Zachary Knighton and Sophia Bush), are instead driving through New Mexico on their way to spring break in California. Their relationship also effectively functions as a replacement for Jim’s (sort of) love interest from the first film, Nash (Jennifer Jason Leigh).
The first question when comparing an original to the remake is, naturally, “how well does the original itself work as a film?” In this case, the concept it’s working with is unusual and interesting, as well as being grounded in a legitimate real world fear. The acting is overall very solid and Hauer really shines in this chilling portrayal of a subtly crazed sociopath. The film also does a good job of holding the audiences attention with a series of plot points that keep the tension up. So, overall a solid film, but in this case, it was also one that left significant room for improvement in certain areas.
The primary one would have to be the fact that many of the major plot points rely on very coincidental events that are taken for granted and never really explained, especially towards the end. In addition, the movie is grounded in a reality-based world, yet Ryder seems to possess near supernatural ability when it comes to always being exactly where he needs to be or, say, shooting down a helicopter with a hand gun from a moving car (!). Some minor spoilers going forward here, but I also have to say that the movie goes to great lengths to tease a larger connection and sense of purpose between the characters but ultimately fails to pay it off in a satisfying way.
The quality of the film is also chipped away by a series of unanswered questions that pile up throughout. How exactly did that finger get in his fries and why didn’t he tell the cops about it? If Jim’s the one that called the police from the diner why would they immediately assume he’s the killer? If you’re on the run and ditch a stolen cop car, wouldn’t the first thing the police do be to check the nearby motels? And so on and so forth.
Now, even though I do my best to watch movies with an open mind, I think I can speak for most horror fans when I say I have a bit of inherent bias when watching a remake, that it will simply be a lazily written cash-grab that pales in comparison to the original. Indeed, when the remake started with an attractive young couple that looked straight out of central casting, road-tripping their way to spring break while the shittiest possible song played in the background, I thought I had this film’s number. But as soon as that unpleasantness was over, the remake began to do what remakes so rarely do and present a more compelling, realistic version of the original story that actually polished up the mistakes. While it’s certainly true that over-explaining is a sign of poor filmmaking, the remake actually strikes the right balance by going into more detail with scenes that needed it and incorporating more realistic and logical solutions to various problems the characters face. I also like that the characters initially make the sensible choice to not pick him up but through a series of reasonable events end up in a situation where it actually makes sense to offer him a ride.
I also want to be clear that the original is sorely lacking in blood and, overall, fits much more comfortably in the thriller category rather than horror. The remake rectifies that issue and also adopts a tone that pushes it away from the action-thriller feeling of the original firmly into the category of horror-thriller. This is especially true of a key scene towards the end that was begging for gore in the original which the remake fully delivered on.
In a way, I feel like it was a missed opportunity to not have C. Thomas Howell take up the role of Ryder in the remake. It would have set the film up as more of a sequel with very dark implications and we could all just pretend that the straight-to-video The Hitcher 2 never existed. However, Sean Bean is just so fucking good in the role that I couldn’t possibly advocate for it going to anyone else. In fact, as good as Hauer was, I feel that Bean was able to really convey a clearer sense of motivation and understanding of the character that greatly benefited the overall product.
Ultimately, this is what a remake should be, a film that stays true to the concept of the original while polishing up the rougher edges. It’s also a good reminder that you can’t really judge a film until you see it and preconceived notions are often wrong.