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The Hitcher (1986, USA) versus The Hitcher (2007,USA)

12/06/2011

Director: Robert Harmon (1986), Dave Meyers (2007)      Starring: Rutger Hauer, C. Thomas Howell, Jennifer Jason Leigh (1986), Sean Bean, Sophia Bush, Zachary Knighton (2007)

Rutger Hauer. Sean Bean. Two great actors with plenty in common, not the least of which the occasional job in a film that is wholly unworthy of their talents. They’ve also been known to play the occasional villain to great effect and so it’s perhaps no surprise that Sean Bean was selected to replace Hauer in the titular role of the 2007 remake of cult horror classic The Hitcher. I like Rutger Hauer. I like Sean Bean. But which one is best? There’s only one way to find out…. compare and contrast the original ’86 Hitcher with the twenty first century reboot. Easy! (But not without spoilers – if you haven’t seen either version you have been warned.)

The plot is simple (and remains more or less unchanged between the two versions). The young and adventurous Jim Halsey picks up a hitch-hiker as he drives through Texas. When the hitcher flips out and tries to kill him, he manages to escape with his life only to find himself relentlessly pursued by his new found acquaintance who leaves a trail of carnage in his wake, leaving Jim to take the blame. Chased by the killer and the cops Jim is forced to fight for his very survival.

Vive Le Difference

While the broad outline of the plot is more or less identical in each version, the ’07 version makes some minor modifications in order to appease contemporary expectations of this sort of stalker horror film. In the original, Jim is on his own doing a solitary long distance drive to California when he picks up the hitcher on a whim. “My mother told me never to do this” he quips as he lets the sinister John Ryder (Hauer) into his car. This lends an intimacy to the pursuit and added menace as Jim is very much on his own, with nobody to turn to for support, practical or moral. Fast forward twenty years and he is on a road trip with girlfriend Grace, presumably in an attempt to “modernise” the story, a device that changes the dynamic substantially. No longer on his own, Jim and Grace have each other for a small sense of comfort after all, a problem shared is a problem halved. The emphasis also shifts towards Grace being the more central of the two victim characters. You get the feeling that this is in an effort to engender a bit more sympathy and a greater feeling of threat. It doesn’t really work. On the plus side, at their initial encounter with Ryder they sensibly decide not to pick him up, a reflection of a more modern mistrust of strangers and it’s only when Jim runs into him at a gas station that he capitulates, driven by guilt at leaving him stranded in the lashing rain. It’s an interesting touch but it does drag things out longer than necessary and here is the primary difference between the ’86 and ’07 versions. In its first incarnation, The Hitcher is a tightly paced thrill ride, a supremely efficient horror/thriller. The remake adds a lot of flab for no real reason, perhaps it’s simply to mark it out as being different from the original because it certainly doesn’t add any substance or excitement to the film. Round one to the ’86 version I think.

Along For The Ryde(r)

I’m a bit of a fan of both Hauer and Bean but here there is no contest. Whether he has been hampered by having to put on an American accent or the excessive additions to the script that bring nothing to the character is inconsequential to the fact that sadly Sean Bean cannot measure up to Rutger Hauer’s Ryder. It’s all in the eyes. Yes, Bean manages an air of menace and certainly has a convincing sneering physicality in the remake but let’s face it, Hauer has seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Those piercing eyes are the key to Ryder’s menace, boring into Jim’s soul to see if he is a worthy opponent. He is at his most terrifying when nothing is happening. In one scene he sits across from Jim in a roadside diner and they have a quiet conversation that’s more chilling than any of the stabbing or shooting or chasing that has transpired up to this point. I’m sorry Sean but you just can’t match it, despite your best efforts. I’m not saying he’s rubbish, he’s not but he just doesn’t have that natural crazed demeanour that Hauer has. This is compounded by the escalation of Ryder’s exploits for the remake. In the later film, his influence is amplified, especially his interference with the police pursuit of Jim and Grace, a blistering car based gun battle cut to Nine Inch Nails and clearly designed to appease the short attention span horror/action fans of the noughties. It’s excessive and unecessary and a little bit unconvincing. Two nil to ’86.

The Power Of Suggestion

That brings me nicely onto the subject of the implied versus the explicit. I suppose it’s only fair to consider that the ’86 version would have been subject to stricter censorship from various classification boards and a lower budget that would have inhibited the makers when it comes to flashy effects or full blown action sequences but I like to think that their “less is more” attitude also has a grounding in artistic sensibility. In the original version of the film, Ryder’s exploits are more often inferred than shown with occasional glimpses of the carnage he has wrought carrying more power as a result. The massacre at the police station springs to mind as an example of a particularly explicit moment in the first film, it’s power magnified by the fact that graphic gore is used sparingly in the film. I find the suggestion of the slayings and Jim’s shocked reaction to what he finds, far more effective at conveying the horrors Ryder has carried out than the direct, illustrative gore of the reboot. It’s very much a sign of the times that horror film makers feel the need for such explicit violence and gore in a bid to appease audiences and perhaps snare a bit of notoriety. I’ve nothing against gore and carnage per se, it’s just that when you are making a film like this sometimes it’s more effective to suggest something than show it, to allow the imagination of the viewer to add far worse horrors than you would ever show and to build the suspense. Given that a major part of the plot is the mystery of Ryder, who he is and why he is doing what he is doing, the suggestive approach seems far more appropriate. Is this a statement on the nature of audiences today? Do people have less imagination? Or is it just the result of more lenient film boards and a change in what we deem acceptable in cinema? I must admit I lean towards the former explanation. Sometimes the carnage and gore is spoon feeding an audience who are happy because it alleviates the need to engage with the film in the same way. I make that a hat trick for ’86.

In The End

Ah. The conclusion. The final confrontation between Ryder and Halsey. Finally Jim finds the nerve to do what Ryder has been baiting him towards since the beginning. In ’86 he shakes loose his police escort just in time to interrupt Ryder’s escape from custody for a one on one showdown in the Texan desert. ’07 sees Grace (Jim gets the truck stop tug of war treatment, did they feel it would be misogynistic to graphically dismember Grace between the trucks?) do more or less the same but in a less deliberate way. Sort of defeating the point. I guess it makes it easier to sell the film to couples and a female audience to change the protagonist to the girl but in doing so they’ve drifted away from the duellist feel of the original version. It’s not that it’s a bad ending, it’s just not as good as the original one. Four nil to ’86. Game, set and match.

It’s a very modern phenomena, these hollow remakes of classic horror films. Everybody seems to be at it, whether it’s a reboot of a successful eighties classic (see: Nightmare On Elm Street) or a Westernising of one of those weird foreign films (“I’m not reading a film, if I wanted to read it I’d have bought the book” – The Ring or The Grudge are good examples) and invariably they fail to capture the essence that made the original versions so good. That is certainly true here. If the original had never been made, the 2007 version of The Hitcher would have been a passable, if a little pedestrian, horror flick. When held up in comparison with the original version though there really isn’t much of a comparison. It’s not enough to map out some plot points and hang some new special effects or action sequences on them and any attempt to recapture what made the original so good would render the remake so similar as to be utterly pointless. The bottom line? If it’s good enough to inspire a remake, it’s probably good enough to survive the test of time in its original form without interference.

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