The Hitcher

Onscreen titles at the beginning of “The Hitcher” tell us that 42,000 people are killed on American highways each year. That information, while probably accurate, is irrelevant to the content of the movie. Unless those 42,000 are all killed not by traffic accidents but by homicidal maniacs. Which seems a little high to me.

The maniac in “The Hitcher” (a remake of a fondly remembered 1986 cult hit) calls himself John Ryder (Sean Bean), and his reasons for killing are not disclosed. He terrorizes a young couple named Grace (Sophia Bush) and Jim (Zachary Knighton), who are driving from Texas to Lake Havasu for Spring Break when they nearly run John over as he stands in the middle of the road, his car apparently broken down. He winds up as their passenger, just as far as the next motel on this lonely stretch of New Mexico highway, only to be forcibly removed after he starts to behave in a threatening manner.

Thus begins a game of cat and mouse, with John as the cat, and Grace and Jim as the stupid, stupid mice. The scene with John in the car is a suitably tense encounter, and it gives one hope that the rest of the film (by music video director Dave Meyers) will be just as suspenseful. But when we’re talking about horror flicks of this genre, the primary difference between good ones and bad ones is how believably the heroes act. Jim and Grace soon prove themselves to be frustratingly dumb in their behavior, to the point that to watch the film, one must be prepared to do a lot of angry yelling at the screen.

One idiotic turn of events that is not their fault comes when they are arrested by local police for slashing up a station wagon full of innocents. They didn’t do it, of course — in fact, they were in the act of frantically administering first aid when the cops arrived — but that doesn’t stop the fiercely dunderheaded police from hauling them in and locking them up, refusing to even listen to their claims that a man named John Ryder did it.

More shenanigans, and then Jim and Grace are on the run again, with both the law and John Ryder in pursuit, the latter continuing to spread mayhem while remaining out of sight, effectively framing the couple for everything he does.

He’s an interesting case, that John. He’s rational enough to be elusive and wily, yet at the same time completely unhinged. I don’t know how often you get that combination in real life — seems like most mass murderers are either completely evasive or totally, publicly out of control — but John certainly makes it work for him.

The script is credited to Eric Red (who wrote the original, too) and two others, yet shows all the signs of being absurdly padded to fill out the running time. There are only so many different ways that a non-supernatural killer can keep catching up with the same pair of people, so the story runs dry at about the 60-minute mark. The last 15 minutes are an obvious and desperate attempt to make the film long enough to count as a real movie, and Jim and Grace’s actions become more and more ridiculous as it goes.

It’s too bad. The film begins promisingly enough, and the cast (including Neal McDonough as a state trooper) is strong. If only they had a good story and enough solid thrills to sustain it for longer than a half-hour.

D+ (1 hr., 23 min.; R, abundant harsh profanity, a lot of blood and graphic violence, brief partial nudity.)