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The Hitcher

Directed by Dave Meyers

Written by Eric Red, Jake Wade Wall and Eric Bernt

Starring Sophia Bush, Sean Bean and Zachary Knighton

Classification: 14A

Rating: **

When it comes to things that characters in horror movies should never do, giving a ride to a stranger on a deserted highway during a stormy night ranks right up there with vacationing in a remote cabin or losing your virginity. But the unlucky couple in The Hitcher learns this lesson the hard way, which is especially unfortunate since they could have rented the movie's original version and avoided this spot of trouble altogether.

Brought to you by the same production company that's already recycled Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Amityville Horror in recent years, The Hitcher hews very close to the blueprint of the first Hitcher, a 1986 hit that was itself derivative of James Cameron's The Terminator, Steven Spielberg's Duel and assorted killer-on-the-highway movies but was still satisfactorily tense and nasty.

It featured a then-fresh-faced C. Thomas Howell as the ill-fated traveller. For the remake, he's replaced behind the wheel by college sweethearts Grace (Sophia Bush) and Jim (Zachary Knighton), who have begun their spring-break vacation by driving across New Mexico.

During a late-night rainstorm, they nearly hit a man standing in the road. Spooked by his presence, they drive on but encounter him again at a gas station. Feeling guilty about not helping him in the first place, Jim agrees to give the man -- who identifies himself as John Ryder (Sean Bean) -- a lift to the next town.

In a serious lapse of hitchhiker etiquette, Ryder is soon holding a knife to Grace's throat. They manage to forcibly eject him from Jim's car -- too bad this hitcher is harder to kill than a cyborg. For the rest of the film, Ryder torments Grace and Jim by killing just about everyone else they encounter, including a family of four and innumerable policemen, and making the college kids seem like the culprits.

The fact that Ryder's motivation is left utterly opaque is unusual for a contemporary horror film -- too many of them are eager to ascribe the killer's bloodthirstiness to a traumatic childhood or a sugar-heavy diet. The strategy works in the movie's favour, and Bean, though not as creepy as Rutger Hauer in the original (really, who could be?), makes for an enjoyably ruthless and vicious villain.

The young couple is far less compelling, which is one reason why the remake is only intermittently effective. Bland and dim-witted, it's hard to see why they'd attract Ryder's wrath. If they're the sort of quarry he prefers, it's too bad he didn't go hunting for cast members of MTV's Laguna Beach.

To his credit, director Dave Meyers -- a maker of memorable music videos for Pink, Missy Elliott and OutKast, essaying his first feature film -- doesn't waste time attempting to develop their characters any further. He's better at orchestrating the mayhem (especially one scene of high-speed carnage incongruously scored to the Nine Inch Nails song Closer to God) and smaller-scaled sequences that suggest that, unlike many brash young Hollywood types, Meyers has actually seen a Hitchcock movie. (In case you had any doubt, he helpfully adds a scene in which Grace watches The Birds on a motel-room TV.)

Ultimately, though, Meyers fails to improve on a film that was hardly a benchmark of quality in the first place. Viewers looking for more than a few secondhand thrills should drive right past The Hitcher.