Editor’s Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on September 5, 2003, and we’re proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.

The early scenes of The Hitcher II: I’ve Been Waiting, which establish both returning hero Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell) and his girlfriend Maggie (Kari Wuhrer) as small-aircraft pilots, briefly got my hopes up. Perhaps, I thought, the couple would pick up a hitchhiker just before taking off, and the psycho would spend the balance of the movie terrorizing them in the air. Sadly, this sequel never gets that creative in riffing on the first movie, though as completely unnecessary follow-ups go, it ain’t half bad. Everyone involved seems to have taken the project seriously and tried to make it a real movie, as opposed to a cheap knockoff; this is one direct-to-video production (out from Universal Home Video) that behaves like a theatrical feature.

One might be tempted to say, regarding the replacement of the actor in the title role, that of course the original star couldn’t be coaxed into returning. But considering what Rutger Hauer’s been up to in the years since making an indelible impression as the ‘87 film’s John Ryder, it’s hard to imagine him thinking he had better things to do than coming back to the role. His replacement is Jake Busey, who’s always been dependable for psycho turns but whose menace is of a more obvious (and occasionally too jokey) type than Hauer’s cool insinuation. Still, he fills the bill well enough, and the casting could have been worse (it could’ve been Gary…).

As for Howell’s Jim, it’s 15 years later (though he bears what appear to be at least 20 years’ worth of new lines on his face), and he never has gotten over his traumatic encounter with the unstoppable, almost unkillable thumber. He’s become a police officer, but in a well-staged and actually rather surprising opening sequence, he inflicts fatal brutality on a bad guy and gets himself booted from the force. His mentor, Captain Esteridge (another returning character, though played by Stephen Hair instead of Jeffrey DeMunn) invites him out to his Arizona home to recuperate, so off Jim and Maggie go on a cross-desert drive. They encounter Busey’s Jack, an apparently stranded motorcyclist, and despite Jim’s apprehensions, Maggie insists on giving him a lift. Let the murderous threats, cat-and-mouse games and the extermination of an endless supply of cops begin.

The basic trajectory of the script (by encoring producer Charles Meeker, Molly Meeker and Leslie Scharf) pretty much duplicates the original, and the cop-getting-over-an-old-trauma theme has been done to death in dozens of straight-to-video opuses. Yet there are enough unexpected story detours (including a major one about halfway through) to keep ennui from fully setting in. There are very minor hints that Jack may be some sort of reincarnation of John, but thankfully the movie doesn’t pursue this would-be supernatural thread too far.

More importantly, director Louis Morneau (marking a sizable improvement over his last Southwest-set fright feature, Bats) lends the movie a thoroughly big-screen-worthy veneer. With his mobile camera and pro staging, he belies what was no doubt a low budget, and gives the movie a scale and scope pretty much on par with its predecessor, complete with a fairly spectacular climax. Not the least of its achievements is that the Arizona settings are completely convincingly doubled by Calgary, Canada, of all places. The Hitcher II’s tech credits are especially impressive on Universal’s no-frills DVD release, which very attractively replicates George Mooradian’s colorful photography in its 1.85:1 transfer and backs it up with strong Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround audio that’ll have your viewing room rumbling with thunder and gunfire.

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