“You scream like a little bitch,” taunts a scruffy Sean Bean in “The Hitcher,” acting as if mindless slasher-flick remakes were intended to scare only patty-cake schoolgirls and the makers of “The Hills Have Eyes” and “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” were just trying to bore mature audiences with an already-told story, has-been (or never-again) actors and strategically placed, rapid transitions from quiet to loud.
It’s hard to imagine anyone sitting calmly through “The Hitcher,” though, with nary a quickened pulse nor the impetus to yell aloud. It’s scary, conveniently surprising and full of likeable — if not also one-dimensional — characters. The film relies on cheap, sit-back-and-have-a-heart-attack horror, rather than what is sometimes called “smart suspense,” but bringing audiences to the brink of actual cardiac arrest is not exactly cause for complaint.
The worst moments in “The Hitcher” thankfully happen early. First, a totally irrelevant statistic warns movie-goers about the sky-high number of deaths that occur on American highways each year (never mind that most of said deaths occur by accident, not by way of bloodthirsty hitchhikers). Next, a speeding motorcar makes fresh roadkill out of a CG bunny rabbit, unnecessarily setting the scene for careless violence yet to come.
Cut to Grace (played by Sophia Bush of TV’s “One Tree Hill”) and boyfriend Jim (played by blue-eyed Zachary Knighton) as they leave college and dust trail behind to the tune of the All-American Rejects’ “Move Along.” Bush nicely fills out her role (and tank-top) with a certain teen-drama charisma, and Knighton is oddly likeable as well. At least he looks like the kind of goateed, beer-guzzling college quarterback that a girl as hot as Bush would annoyingly fall for (and not some chiseled A&F model who wouldn’t know the difference between a V-8 engine and a can of spicy tomato juice).
After a much-contested bathroom break and some cutesy love-talk, something wicked their way comes in the form of a tall scary man wearing a rain-soaked trench coat, his thumb ominously outstretched. Once the hitcher (Bean) is picked up, he becomes any automobilist’s worst nightmare, never ceasing to frighten, torture and kill as if for no reason other than sheer madness. Even when Grace and Jim think they’ve escaped him, they find that he is already a step ahead. Like a carnivorous cat, Bean stalks his prey and then steps on their tails in order to watch them writhe and wriggle. More and more motorists fall victim to his blood lust, including some laughably incompetent police officers. As the bodies pile up, Bean becomes the weapon of mass destruction to Sophia’s Bush — or something like that.
No matter how many shortcuts “The Hitcher” takes to being entertaining, it never runs off into the ditch of dull repetition. Some clever role-reversals and turns of plot make for at least a non-boring journey — albeit one that begins and ends predictably.
Interestingly enough, at one point, Grace falls asleep in a motel bed while watching Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” which serves as a subtle reminder of just how far American horror films — and attention spans — have descended in the past 50 years or so. While this “Hitch[er]” could have borrowed some “cock” from the master of suspense (or something else — say, creativity? — that might have pulled it out of the realm of indistinguishable horror schlock), it thankfully makes use of what it’s got — namely, its fingers. Er, thumb. And it’s that quality, if nothing else, that earns “The Hitcher” a free ride.