Welcome to Cutting It Close, a monthly column that tackles one of the most popular subgenres in horror: slashers. Alas, there’s a catch—we won’t be discussing the likes of Freddy Krueger, Ghostface, Jason Voorhees, or Michael Myers. No, this series will only look at those slasher movies that aren’t as iconic, yet they can hold their own for various reasons. They may not be top-tier or even popular, but, as the column title suggests, they cut it close.
Horror in the 2000s was the beginning of a new and exciting renaissance. The success of The Ring invited more localizations of foreign films; the genre went beyond the call of duty when depicting violence and undue scenes of torture; remakes of classic horror titles were the new normal. All in all, if there was any sort of itch for something, studios were willing to scratch.
“It wasn’t until recently that horror fans recognized the importance of remakes — offering new perspectives as well as letting others play in the sandbox […]”
The remake fever led to dissension among fans who chiefly felt the past shouldn’t be messed with. Those opposed to modernizations and reimaginings had a knee-jerk reaction to each remake’s announcement. No matter how good the new version turned out to be, the detractors made their grievances loud and clear. Yet, for every exceptional remake, there was a surplus of mediocre ones that were clearly nothing more than artless cash grabs. It wasn’t until recently that horror fans recognized the importance of remakes — offering new perspectives as well as letting others play in the sandbox — and how they don’t necessarily take anything away from the original.
One of the biggest outcries over a remake had to be 2007’s The Hitcher. Platinum Dunes had previously scored big with its updates of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Amityville Horror; founders Michael Bay, Brad Fuller, and Andrew Form wanted to keep the party going by revisiting another cult classic. Director Dave Meyers was hired even before a script was finalized because the producers “sensed that this story was important to him.” Meyers, who had only done music videos and commercials up to that point, saw this as a chance to reinterpret the original as a “date-movie thriller” with emphasis on the main characters’ relationship.
The film begins with the protagonists — college students Jim Halsey (Zachary Knighton) and Grace Andrews (Sophia Bush) — leaving Austin, Texas to meet friends for Spring Break fun. While driving through New Mexico, they get tangled up with a deranged hitchhiker named John Ryder (Sean Bean). They successfully boot him from their moving vehicle, but the madman keeps popping up whenever they least expect him to. Eventually, the couple has no choice other than to fight Ryder head on whilst also evading the police who are convinced Jim and Grace are responsible for the murders he committed.
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Among all the notable differences seen in the remake, the inclusion of Grace stands out. The 1986 Hitcher film cast Jennifer Jason Leigh as C. Thomas Howell’s ensuing love interest Nash, but Sophia Bush’s character serves a very different purpose. Having a couple at the center of the story introduces a new dynamic that admittedly grounds the update in literalism. Fans of the first movie liken it to a living nightmare steeped in irreality. On the other hand, Meyers and the producers sought for more realism, and their doing so incidentally did away with the fantastical elements of Robert Harmon’s film.
Not only does Grace evolve into a “final girl” after surviving Ryder‘s wanton destruction, her presence also strips the story of any possible homoerotic subtext. Writer Eric Red may not have picked up on this when he wrote the script, but critics and audiences have read into the precarious yet emotionally intimate relationship between the original Jim and Ryder. Here, however, the addition of Grace circumvents the notion of a gay undercurrent between said boyfriend and homicidal hitchhiker. Once again, the new version strips away another layer.
The blatant focus on stunts rather than story is what brings The Hitcher to a crawl, at times. Based on Meyers’ behind-the-scenes assertion that “action makes for a good movie,” it’s obvious the producers prioritized the high-speed chases, collisions, and explosions. There is more extreme road rage this time around, and it’s all realized through concussive setpieces and jarring, music video-esque editing. It all grabs your attention, but it also feels wildly out of place. The movie’s DP, James Hawkinson, compensates by gracing the film with picturesque cinematography in the more tranquil and thoughtful moments.
“The Hitcher was no exception to [the early 2000s] craving for excessive misery and pain in horror.”
The 2000s — oh, what a strange decade it was. People weren’t sure they’d even see the aughts, considering the posited threat of Y2K. Once that blew over there was a discernible shift in the media. This was especially true after the real-life tragedy of 9/11 urged for more public surveillance and moderation. Paranoia swept across the world. Movies and television were a definite reflection of that. Big-screen horror, in particular, experienced a significant transformation now that studios had lost interest in both the slasher resurgence and urban Gothic stories. Instead, there was pushback against the new status quo of constant monitoring and puritanical censorship. The scapegoating of horror as the root cause of moral corruption especially caused filmmakers to do the opposite of what they were told. This newfound desire for bloodletting spoke volumes about the cultural unrest going on in the world.
The Hitcher was no exception to this craving for excessive misery and pain in horror. The original was deemed too violent once upon a time, but the remake makes it seem tame in comparison. The suggestion of injury was no longer enough to satisfy audiences; they wanted to squirm at the sight of whatever the studios could get away with. Early on, Meyers limited the film’s grisliness to head wounds and stabbings. Platinum Dunes’ previous pictures were far more vicious and willing to openly maim and torture the characters. It isn’t until the last act, where the famous truck scene is reimagined with a different victim, that we see the movie at its most mean-spirited and brutal. The camera doesn’t cut away to save viewers from seeing the unimaginable, either.
There was no shortage of variety in 2000s horror, but that diversity was often achieved through countless, overly polished remakes padded with graphic gore and loathsome characters. Content creators were understandably angry at all that was going on in the real world, and their movies were an extension of that pent-up rage and uneasiness. While the yearning for more cinematic brutality continued well into the following decade, it was never as sharp and raw as it was during the movement’s heyday.
The Hitcher remake was automatically lumped in with these other titles suffused with cruelty and debauchery. Even so, it doesn’t exist without certain merits that were overlooked because of its standing. Meyers’ debut is a vista of landscapes and natural scenery; glossy, stylish editing makes the movie pop on screen; the main actors are charismatic and deliver solid performances in spite of the material. Yet by the end of this fatal road trip, observant viewers concur with Grace‘s final line in the movie — “I don’t feel a thing.” Yes, this remake looks good and gets the adrenaline pumping, but on closer inspection, it’s merely running on empty.
“There is more extreme road rage this time around, and it’s all realized through concussive setpieces and jarring, music video-esque editing.”