The original The Hitcher (1986) would probably have faded away unnoticed into the land of forgotten horror movies (Monster Dog, anyone?), if not for one thing: Siskel & Ebert reviewed it on their TV show (and we're talking the real guys, not the impostor that's on now). They gave it two thumbs down, to be sure, but on top of that, they were physically repulsed and morally incensed, outraged at the sick sensibility that would make such a piece of filth. Their strong response, naturally, triggered an interest in the film and it became a cult classic. (S&E should have known better; they did the same thing to Meir Zarchi's I Spit on Your Grave eight years earlier.)
Now I know how they felt, because the new remake of The Hitcher left me feeling just as angry, although not on any moral grounds. It left me angry because it's easily the dumbest movie I've seen since The Da Vinci Code. We're not talking a misfire or a disappointment; we're talking droolingly, numbingly stupid.
The plot has two college students bound for Spring Break shenanigans. It makes sense that easy-on-the-eyes Grace Andrews (Sophia Bush) would be dating a guy that drove a muscle car, but implausibly, the shaggy Jim Halsey (Zachary Knighton) is a super nice guy who lets family station wagons pass him on the lonely desert highways. (Why wouldn't this guy be doing 95 out there? Sammy Hagar would not approve.)
In any case, we get one of those scenes in which the lovers cruise through the pouring rain at night, and they talk and the guy gazes over at his lady love for such a long time that you wonder: who's driving the car? During this moment -- predictably -- they nearly hit someone standing in the road. Jim wants to help, but Grace urges him to drive away. At the next rest stop Grace takes so long in the bathroom (a running joke -- ha ha) that the guy catches up to them. Guilty, they give him a ride this time, he tries to kill them, and they boot him out of the car. He winds up with Grace's cell phone, but the script forgets all about this potentially scary element.
The guy calls himself John Ryder (Sean Bean) and is, of course, a psycho killer. He kills everyone, cops especially, without a second thought. But for some reason, he keeps not killing Grace and Jim and keeps following them so that he can not kill them some more. As for Grace and Jim, they blow just about every opportunity to get away or apprehend the baddie. At one point, they're escaping in a stolen cop car. They have a radio upon which they can report the actions of the killer, and they completely fail to do so. They also tend to poke too close to open doorways without actually looking behind them.
Of course, they're not the only stupid ones in this movie. At one point a guard stares blankly at our bound bad guy -- from three feet away -- as he slowly wriggles out of his shackles. "Hey -- quit movin'" the victim says, just one moment before it's too late. Apparently director Dave Meyers couldn't figure out how else to provide the "scares" this movie requires other than to make everyone stupid enough to blunder into them. He uses the old "jump/shock" trick several times, but sets these up so obviously that he may as well be directing a romantic comedy. (Meyers, of course, comes from music videos, mainly for the insipid band Creed.) Even more offensively, Meyers pays tribute to the master, Alfred Hitchcock, by showing a clip of The Birds (1963) on a TV set. This movie doesn't deserve a Hitchcock reference.
The real question is: why are we here? What's supposed to be scary about The Hitcher? The answer lies in Steven Spielberg's superb made-for-TV movie Duel (1971), in which a henpecked traveling salesman (Dennis Weaver) offends a mysterious trucker and tries to get away from him throughout the rest of the movie. The key to that film is that Spielberg never shows the truck driver's face; he relies on that strange psychological terror we get while in traffic. We see a car coming up behind us, but we can only imagine what its driver is like. Is this a challenge? Or are they completely oblivious? In The Hitcher, Meyers shows a close-up of a gleeful Sean Bean repeatedly crashing into the back of the hero's car. We see it all, and the reality doesn't register as anything emotionally true.
However, probably the worst thing about The Hitcher is the statistic that opens the movie: 42,000 people die on highways each year. That's tragic, but why is it mentioned here? Could Meyers really be hoping that his movie will help save lives? If so, it explains where all the stupidity is coming from.