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Friday, November 20, 2020

Robert Harmon’s ‘The Hitcher’ vs. Dave Meyers’ ‘The Hitcher’ [Revenge of the Remakes]

Welcome to Revenge of the Remakes, where columnist Matt Donato takes us on a journey through the world of horror remakes. We all complain about Hollywood’s lack of originality whenever studios announce new remakes, reboots, and reimaginings, but the reality? Far more positive examples of refurbished classics and updated legacies exist than you’re willing to remember (or admit). The good, the bad, the unnecessary – Matt’s recounting them all.

By the mid-1980s, hitchhiking was already losing popularity. Thanks to thumbs-up thrillers like Robert Harmon’s The Hitcher, both drivers and ride-seekers became less compassionate due to rational distrust stemming from gambles on anonymous samaritans. By 2007? When Dave Meyers’ Platinum Dunes remake hit theaters? Hitchhiking was an outdated method of transportation, bygone and classified as a psychedelic 60s-70s byproduct. Peace, love, and free rides for all? Not anymore, since communal flower-power naivety had died out long before even Y2K. How was Michael Bay’s production company going to sell hitchhiking as a plausible conflict instigator once again?

It’s the age-old question of “How, now?” when remakes lift themes from an entrenched period of history that no longer reflects current technology or accepted behaviors. A query screenwriters Jake Wade Wall and Eric Bernt had to answer when charting another hitcher’s new route (original writer Eric Red is credited as well, but per reports, did not participate). One without the now-obvious advantage of rideshare cultures, since Uber’s corporate origin dates back only as far as 2009. Then again, that wouldn’t be hitching, would it? Despite how we’ve doubled-back on “don’t get in cars with strangers” warnings under the guise of operational legitimacy. Movies like Spree and Ryde are leading the charge there.

The Approach

Dave Meyers’ remake rewrites noticeable tweaks, but one standout holds the most importance: the titular hitchhiker’s first automobile-halt attempt doesn’t work. Not only that, but the sole protagonist in Robert Harmon’s source, Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell), now has a girlfriend riding shotgun from the very beginning. These two alterations are integral since the first instinct shown by Meyers’ couple is to deny some unpredictable slickster access to their personal bubble. An awareness that Jim Halsey V1.0 lacks when the O.G. John Ryder (Rutger Hauer) flags down the cheerful, solo traveler. It’s the love interest in 2007’s who keeps her man from doing anything stupid (er, at first), already leveling the gender mindsets against one another (Jim doesn’t blink when extending generosity to a shady individual).

Instead of starting right with a roadside interaction between villain and targets, 2007’s The Hitcher introduces Jim (Zachary Knighton) and Grace Andrews (Sophia Bush) as lovebirds en route to Lake Havasu. As Jim’s Oldsmobile 442 grips the rain-slick pavement of a New Mexico roadway, he pulls this miraculous three-sixty to spin around a black silhouette standing in his lane. An unidentified man starts walking towards the car, but Grace convinces Jim to ignore the unknown person. A bit further down the road, while purchasing snack cakes and gasoline, the same man hops out of an eighteen-wheeler, still far from his supposed destination. Feeling somewhat guilty, Jim offers his front seat to John Ryder (Sean Bean) without Grace’s full endorsement. Too bad, her woman’s intuition could have saved so many lives.

Meyers’ The Hitcher doesn’t bypass the prominent landmarks on Harmon’s glove compartment map. Ryder initially gets kicked out the passenger-side door, there’s a police helicopter chase, a precinct’s dog licks some dead officer’s wound, and yes, the tractor-trailer torture rack is critical in either film. Meyers’ remake emphasizes familiarity but aims to heighten stakes by stressing emotional connections between characters instead of tallying John Ryder’s kill count. These are much less random acts of vehicular violence and more outbursts of aggression against innocents who find themselves in another merciless, signature “dark and gritty” horror reboot that became Platinum Dunes’ 2000s calling card.

Does It Work?

In the 80s, Harmon’s more free-spirited approach to horror by circumstance could thrive as John Ryder’s hijacked truck bursts through abandoned garage doors or Ryder slips severed fingers into french fry piles. In 2007, Dave Meyers trades this berzerk zaniness for a stronger narrative structure that sniffs out a way to force hitchhiking upon characters already on-edge. Grace Andrews senses danger from the minute Ryder’s glimpsed standing in torrential rain, his figure looming, and yet Ryder still finds a way inside Jim Halsey’s Oldsmobile. It never feels like dummies being dummies. Wall and Bernt update an otherwise dated story with decade-approved modifications, as Bean’s revved-up stalker encounters more obstacles than Hauer’s easy ridin’ psychopath.

Better yet, the inclusion of Grace from square one versus the pawn-like sacrifice of Nash (Jennifer Jason Leigh) flips the script in a way that vocalizes different gendered fears. Jim would have succumbed to Ryder’s knife after that near-accident aversion in the thunderstorm, staged against a midnight backdrop that couldn’t scream, “Hi, you’re in a horror movie,” any louder. Instead, Grace draws upon a woman’s experience to echo, “Um, hell no,” as a voice of reason. Later on, Jim ignores her judgment, as the male’s unawareness doesn’t sense predatory instincts like Sophia Bush’s college girl must to survive her surroundings. An added layer of commentary the original lacks, stirring romantic loss and investment the prior’s shark-chases-lunch scenario doesn’t stress as much (not a negative ding, mind you).

Everyone’s favorite bleak, dead-serious tone that defined many a 2000s horror remake means Sean Bean’s “Hitcher” swaps Rutger Hauer’s mythically maniacal smile for cold, careless scowls. Bean plays a very different John Ryder, especially when interrupting the hectic police chase sequence like a mercenary out of Twisted Metal. Hauer’s next-level performance is a violent voyeur who plays cat-and-mouse by corralling Jim into his traps, always smirking and darting wild eyes like an escaped Arkham Asylum patient. Bean becomes more the action-thriller aggressor; a rogue who recklessly charges into battle steering some painted-hood Thunderbird and starts duking it out demolition-derby style with law enforcement. That’s not to say Hauer’s actions are continually stealthy, but Bean’s mean-streak fits the “dark, gritty” mold of an era. Not a poor choice, given how there’s no comparison to Hauer’s deadly-deranged charisma.

The Result

Dave Meyers shifts gears but stays the course for a remake that finds new urgency in an often predictable story about weaponized wanderlust. It’s got all the Platinum Dunes accents. A heavier nightshade than Robert Harmon’s original sunniness, a murderer who’s a walking sourpuss, and go-go gore. In 2007, when torture porn still influenced many mainstream horror titles, you better believe John Ryder’s atrocities became full visual slaughter-scapes. From the religious family slain in their station wagon to the halving of Jim Halsey this time around. Where Harmon found horror in the road games Hauer plays for fun, Meyers races through a more straightforward genre track that still contains its fair share of bonkers surprises (e.g., where does Ryder get the assault rifle).

Meyers’ background working with artists from P!nk to Kid Rock to Creed, as a music video director, serves Bay’s supposed obsession with needle-drops (that explains 6 Underground). Where the 1986 film conveys more mood through hazy desert isolation, Meyers’ hot-pursuit punishment uses popularized songs to amplify moods. The opening credits scroll over Jim and Grace as their adventure begins, before storm clouds foreshadow doom, as The All-American Rejects’ “Move Along” teases cheerier dispositions. When Sean Bean’s Ryder comes engines-furious into frame to shoot down police choppers and technically save Jim from arrest, Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” unleashes the animal within. Editing cuts suddenly become chaotic, and the tunes become the film’s voice—a telltale about the remake’s identity needing to rely on these tools versus blazing its own path.

Even with the bloodlust enhancement, Meyers’ tendencies as a music video specialist, and any viewer’s lack of real-world experience with hitchhiking, The Hitcher is still somewhere between Friday The 13th and A Nightmare On Elm Street on the Platinum Dunes remake scale. Bean’s terrorizing performance is all unto his grimy callousness, making the martyrdom of John Ryder’s “I want to die” catchphrase something more harrowing versus outwardly anarchistic through Hauer’s interpretation. In terms of aughts horror cinema, The Hitcher is a gruesome encapsulation of genre trends set to popular music that benefits from barreling down a motorway straight to Hell. It’s a bumpier journey that rarely reaches the lunacy of its predecessor, but by sticking to its smoking guns, still burns rubber with showboat appeal when executing what the original does not (budget, effects work, so on).

The Lesson

In comparing The Hitcher (1986) and The Hitcher (2007), my biggest takeaway is a constant hammer-point throughout this column: differentiation. While, yes, Dave Meyers’ remake does lean towards blueprint replication, there’s still a valuable strive to change *enough* where the narrative feels like placing the same roadsters and a different grand prix track. Meyers achieves a balance between homage and diversion, which in an interview with, he reveals was intentional:

“The most important thing about doing a remake is doing it right. If you do it right, it continues the mythology of the original. It keeps the original alive and refreshes it for a new generation…I just tried to do my best and push it as far as I possibly could.”

Whether you’re a Rutger Hauer diehard and refuse to accept Sean Bean’s portrayal of John Ryder or not, as a recalibration of a pedal-pressed-hard midnight classic, Meyers and his creative team – Michael Bay included (“…being a powerful director, [Bay] has final cut over these small films…”) – 2007’s The Hitcher follows the correct remake formula.

So what did we learn?

  • There is no going toe-to-toe with Rutger Hauer. You let Sean Bean play John Ryder his way, or be left in the dust.
  • The anxieties and panic of past generations can morph into modern horror refittings.
  • Nine Inch Nails will make any scene better.
  • Platinum Dunes sports a far better track record with 2000s horror remakes than naysayers at the time would make you believe.

Alas, let me end by saying, one final time, Rutger Hauer remains an icon with ample reason. This isn’t to besmirch the remake or belittle Sean Bean’s sociopathic hunter-killer performance. Watching 1986’s The Hitcher for this latest “Revenge of The Remakes” reminded me of revisitation perks, like rediscovering or reaffirming beliefs you already know to be true. In this case, I could bask in the insanity of Hauer’s John Ryder that 2007’s iteration dared not attempt to siphon. If you challenge the throne, you best have the goods or concede out of respect.

To top Hauer? Why bother.


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