Monday, February 11, 2008

Unhitched & Unhinged

The trouble with writing about today's horror movie remakes is that my own reviews inevitably make me appear surly, old and unfair. As a critic, I continually find myself in the position of lauding the old at the expense of the new, and I don't appreciate that position in the slightest. Why? Well, if I appear biased by my age, by my generational preferences, it is too easy to dismiss what I say as being the screed of someone who has some unrealistic and disproportionate loyalty to the films and productions of his youth; and not the films of today. It's a real pickle for me.

Because I'm not that guy. Seriously. You will find on these web pages, positive reviews for such horrors as Vacancy (just last week!), The Descent, and even the giant crocodile movie, Primeval. Of course, those movies aren't remakes of classics, just modern films that I happened to enjoy and find value in. In terms of remakes, the closest thing you'll probably find to praise is in my Rob Zombie Halloween (2007) review. I find that horror remake utterly inferior to the original Carpenter film, but I acknowledge that at the very least Zombie boasts an interesting visual and narrative aesthetic and attempted to say something original and unique with his remake. I don't think it was always successul, but it was not slavish, and at times it was quite powerful. He had a vision for that film, and it wasn't by-the-numbers.

The film that today has me ruminating on horror remakes and my response to them is the 2007 Michael Bay disaster, The Hitcher. It's a re-do of the 1986 Robert Harmon film that starred Rutger Hauer as a psychotic, unkillable hitchhiker. Some kid named Dave Meyers directs the 2007 remake and it's an utterly atrocious and botched film, worse even than the remake of When a Stranger Calls, which had been the benchmark for bad genre remakes as far as I was concerned.

But here's the thing: I can thank this shitty remake for helping me clarify my feelings about remakes in general. This new version of The Hitcher is so brain-dead, so poorly-executed, so ill-conceived that it crystallized the point for me. It's the point that hopefully gets me off the hook, I believe, as just cranky old nostalgia-boy, and legitimatizes my critical point of view.

And that is this: the original films in most cases (whether The Hitcher or The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) are about something larger than themselves, usually in terms of sociology or politics. Simply put, they feature subtexts. And what is implied (and not actually depicted) in horror films is often as important as what is seen on screen. I accept this as an axiom.

Yet the new films, the remakes - are about precisely nothing...other than the mechanics of the familiar plot. And this is a problem, because with remakes, we already know the plot, don't we? That's why the threshold for enjoyment is so low in these films, I believe, at least for anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of the genre's history. Some remakes can get around this "familiarity breeds contempt" rule with technical skill (the 2003 Chain Saw remake was a well-crafted scare machine if not the artistic Hooper masterpiece), or by re-imagining the original with a modern context. In that regard, the remake of The Hills Have Eyes proved interesting since it imposed the Red State/Blue State divide and context of the Iraq War on the proceedings. Again, not a perfect horror film, but at least there was an attempt to make the horror relevant and meaningful to us today. I respect that.

But for the most part, today's horror remakes are like this dreadful version of The Hitcher: lacking in imagination, originality, visual aplomb and totally absent any meaningful comment on our society.

And it all goes back to a statement that Fright Night's film editor, Kent Beyda, made when I interviewed him for Horror Films of the 1980s. He noted how that 1985 vampire film featured rich sub-text about adolescent sexuality. He said: "To me, that's what makes a great movie. It works on more than one level. That's what you want. These days, they don't make those movies any more. They don't allow it. I worked on the first Scooby-Doo movie and that was designed to be layed and it had lots of interesting subtext and the studio made us drop every bit of it. So yeah, a movie like Fright Night couldn't be made these days, at least not by a major studio."

That declaration explains better than anything why today's horror remakes are so bad. Although there have been advancements in digital effects and other film technologies in the last several years, we have moved backwards since the 1970s and 1980s in terms of constructing films that matter, that carry meaning, that resonate in our psyches. The original horror films featured strong sub-texts; most of the remakes don't and therefore play as lobotomized, Cliff-Notes versions of smarter, more original material.

Why was the original The Hitcher (1986) a great horror film? It had almost nothing to do with the premise or the action scenes (though they were superb). No, the reason The Hitcher was great (and the reason Roger Ebvert called the film "diseased" and "corrupt") was that it boasted a fascinating and dangerous sexual subtext. It was about more than flipping cars and severed fingers in french fries.

"There's something strange going on between the two of you," a police official noted about the deadly game being played on America's lonely highways by unlucky protagonist Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell) and the psycho John Ryder (Rutger Hauer). Indeed there was: the relationship between these men was distinctly homo-erotic and all the duels, revving engines and gunfights couldn't hide that the game being played here was the equivalent of sadomasochistic foreplay.

When the two men first meet in the original film, it played like a forbidden and random sexual encounter (Larry Craig, you're on notice...). On a lonely stretch of road, a single male (Halsey) picks up a male hitchhiker. His first nervous words to John Ryder (a name which boasts a sexual meaning too...), are: "My Mom told me never to do this." Ryder's response is to grope Jim's knee and say: "Just looking."

Things escalate from there. The Hitcher (Ryder) eliminates competition for Jim's affection, killing the film's only significant female character, Nash (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Another moment also reflects the sexual attraction between the two men. Halsey spits defiantly in Ryder's face and the Hitcher covets his spittle as though it is a gesture of affection and release. And in a sense, maybe it is, since it's an ejaculation, the passing of a bodily fluid from one man to another.

Other moments reinforce the decidedly kinky nature of the relationship between Ryder and Halsey. During the finale, Halsey slowly caresses Ryder - ostensibly his mortal enemy - with a rifle barrel, an obvious phallic symbol. The film's closing shot finds Halsey lighting up a cigarette (also how the film opened - only it was Ryder...), and the message is explicitly one of after-glow. The game is over, and a cigarette is the post-sex indulgence.

What I'm attempting to indicate here is that there's a lot more to the 1986 Hitcher than a cross-country chase between a psycho and an innocent bystander. The film's subtext grants the film a deeper meaning. In a society where a man can't express his desire for another man in the open, is this how one such man handles his "repression," by going postal? Perhaps, perhaps not, but the point is that - at the very least - The Hitcher is worth debating, worth talking about. It's not merely a mechanical thrill ride, but an attempt to say something interesting (and unique) in artistic and not terribly obvious manner.

One can't make the same claim of the 2007 The Hitcher, starring Sean Bean as John Ryder. The director, Dave Meyers, comes from the world of Britney Spears music videos and appears exceptionally young (from the bonus materials). Judging from the quality of his work here, he didn't understand the original Hitcher at all. He didn't sense what the movie was really about. All he saw was an action flick. So do you see what's happening? The studio system is reaping the rewards of its own bad decision-making here. If you don't allow subtext in films; an audience grows up that can't detect subtext. When they mature and make their movies --- surprise, no subtext. We all suffer.

Frankly, Meyers shoots this film like a music video. A major action scene on the highway is cut to the Nine Inch Nails tune "Closer," which is perfectly in keepng with the kinky subtext of the original film, but here -- what does it mean? Again, precisely nothing. Nothing backs it up; nothing connects to it. It's just a musical action interlude, and the cars get blowed up good.

Why doesn't this well-picked tune connect to the psycho-sexual game at the heart of The Hitcher? Well, apparently in a bid to offend no one and play well in Kansas, this new Hitcher involves Ryder threatening not a single young man, but rather a young college couple, a guy named Jim and a sexy gal named Grace. Yep, no homosexual underpinnings here, thank you very much! Instead, Ryder comes after this insipid but oh so gorgeous couple because they left him on a stretch of road during a storm. It's just revenge.

Oh, okay.

The new Hitcher also slavishly recreates situations from the original, including a truck-stop murder and a massacre at a police station, but there's no punch and no meaning because the script is bereft of intelligence, humor, wit, and anything approximating a subtext.

Sean Bean is a good actor, of course. Perhaps a better actor, empirically speaking than Rutger Hauer (though it's debatable). Yet Hauer was off-kilter and larger-than-life in the original film. He brought a twisted perspective to the role of John Ryder. He came at the part sideways, registering enjoyment, attraction and derangement. Disappointingly, Bean plays a boiler-plate, garden variety psychopath. He's grim and focused, but his performance feels phoned in. You've seen this kind of character a million times before.

Again, allow me to make the point about remakes based on one simple scene featured in both versions of the material. In the original Hitcher, Jim Halsey asks Ryder why he is tormenting him. The answer from Ryder is cryptic: "I want you to stop me." In Hauer's brilliant interpretation, this line is possibly a come-on, a flirtation. It is laden with meanings. It could mean Ryder knows he's insane and wants to be stopped. Or it could be - simply - an invitation to the dance. A beckoning to Jim to join him in the sadomasochistic game Ryder plays. Hauer plays it ambiguously, so that we don't quite know what Ryder means. This discomforts us because of the ambivalence inherent in the delivery. And discomfort is important in the set-up of any horror movie.

In the remake, Ryder answers the same question with the same words. But there's no double meaning. He tells Grace and Jim (on two occasions) that he wants them to "stop him." But here - in contrast and defiance of the original film - there is no innuendo or second possible interpretation in the delivery or the line. Ryder's agenda is simply that he wants to be killed. He wants to die. He literally wants to be stopped. Because of the glaring lack of subtext in the film, there's no other way to read Ryder's intentions. Jim and Grace are made to look stupid by the screenplay because they don't take multiple opportunities to kill him and fulfill his wishes. I mean, the guy says what he wants, and they still don't get it. Jim has to die before Grace is willing to take the psychopath at his word. At one point, she has a pistol lodged at Ryder's head, and her beloved boyfriend is strapped between two trucks, about to be torn apart. Ryder tells her directly, "I want you to stop me." He means it.

But she can't bring herself to kill him. So Ryder kills Jim and continues on his reign of terror.

If you haven't already lost interest in the remake, this scene will just kill it for you. People used to complain about characters being stupid in horror movies, but they were never this stupid. Not only can writers and directors not understand subtext in films these days, but apparently the dramatis personae in the narratives can't understand simple, plainspoken English. There is nothing ambiguous about Ryder's desire to die in this film, and Grace is an idiot.

Horror remains the genre of the imagination, of the unspoken; of the hinted-at. It is the genre of the double meaning, the unconscious AND subconscious. I'm so unforgiving on the horror movie remakes of today because most of them are just like this remake of The Hitcher. They are devoid of intelligence and consist only of action and violence. Sure, hyperkinetic editing and a shaky cam are great tools that enhance the "realism" and intimacy of a film like The Hitcher, but give me a rich subtext any day, so that the sound and fury means something. Don't insult my intelligence.

The Hitcher remake opens with an on-screen card noting that 42,000 people die on highways every year. Watching this movie, watching fools like Jim and Grace grapple with John Ryder, you'll wish that number was 42,002.


  1. Hi John, I apologize about the OT comment. As a Fantastic Journeyer, I thought you might like to read my exclusive 2008 interview with DC Fontana on The Fantastic Journey. I just got it back yesterday. She gives some neat behind-the-scenes glimpses with her POV, more extensively on Willaway, a little about why Katie left (not much, but it's something). It's a long interview. Clicking my avatar will take you there, I'll leave a link at the TFJ blog header so that it can be easily accessed anytime.

  2. Anonymous12:02 PM

    I remember watching the "Halloween" remake and the sheer love Zombie put into writing the dialogue of Malcolm McDowell's crackling interpretation of Loomis, and thinking that perhaps the remake should have been from Loomis' perspective, offering a more novel spin. Still, Ken Foree with sideburns and a Bowie knife, and the scene where Loomis calls Michael "his best friend", along with Zombie's visceral style made it worth my time. I did not see the remake of "The Hitcher", and have no plan to do so. I think the best thing anyone can do at this moment is watch "All That Jazz" because Roy Scheider, my favorite actor of all time(and a favorite of most) is dead, and he should be in all our thoughts. Goodbye, Chief.

  3. the only thing better than intelligently written and acted horror is intelligent analysis of horror. of course, the sad truth is that mindless violence and blood and gore is what gets butts into seats and satisfies the hollywood money machine. subtext is a thing of the past. the hollywood dialectic these days: monster meet victim. let the generic mayhem begin.


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