The Hills Have Eyes
Director : Alexandre Aja
Screenplay : Alexandre Aja & Grégory Levasseur (based on the 1977 film by Wes Craven)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2006
Stars : Aaron Stanford (Doug Bukowski), Kathleen Quinlan (Ethel Carter), Vinessa Shaw (Lynne Bukowski), Emilie de Ravin (Brenda Carter), Dan Byrd (Bobby Carter), Robert Joy (Lizard), Ted Levine (Bob Carter), Desmond Askew (Big Brain), Ezra Buzzington (Goggle), Billy Drago (Jupiter), Laura Ortiz (Ruby), Michael Bailey Smith (Plut)
The last few years have witnessed an intriguing splurge of glossy-gritty remakes of classic ’70s American shockers, beginning with Marcus Nispel’s music-video-spin on Tobe Hooper’s seminal The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1973). Since then, we have seen revisions of John Carpenter’s The Fog (1980), Stuart Rosenberg’s The Amityville Horror (1979), and George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978). And awaiting us in the pipeline are new versions of Sam Raimi’s ultra-low-budget splatterfest Evil Dead (1983), Richard Donner’s The Omen (1976), and Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980). When viewed alongside Hollywood’s concomitant tendency to remake every successful Japanese horror film of the past few years, one could easily mount the argument that there are virtually no original ideas circulating among horror producers in America outside of Rob Zombie, who himself is simply channeling grindhouse history through a modern lens.
For the remake of Wes Craven’s mutants-in-the-desert shocker The Hills Have Eyes, Hollywood brought in French director Alexandre Aja, who proved his grisly mettle with High Tension (2004), a gorily effective slasher-thriller whose only letdown was its perversely bad twist ending. No doubt, Aja has skill to spare; he has a fluid sense of camera movement and placement and a particularly sharp ear for how sound can make the most seemingly banal images hum with tension. He brings all that to bear on The Hills Have Eyes, maintaining Craven’s original story with little deviation, but pumping it up with the kind of slick cinematography and showy production design that Craven couldn’t afford back in 1977.
Craven’s original film, an obvious riff on Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre, is certainly no masterpiece, but it is a great example of the American horror genre’s tendencies in the 1970s, especially its focus on familial tensions and darkness in the heartland. The remake keeps the same scenario, in which members of an extended family is stranded in a particularly remote part of the New Mexico desert wasteland and soon find themselves being hunted by a band of mutant miners who resisted forced evacuation during American atomic bomb testing several decades earlier. The mutants as bastard product of American militarism was a potent theme in the immediate post-Vietnam era, and in many ways it still works in today’s era of Iraq-as-Vietnam.
Part of Craven’s theme in the original was the inherent violence of all humankind, which Aja keeps surprisingly potent here, even if it is frequently overstated. The main character is Doug Bukowski (Aaron Stanford), the much-maligned son-in-law of staunch right-winger patriarch Bob (Ted Levine) and his submissive wife Ethel (Kathleen Quinlan). Doug, with his glasses, stylish clothes, and cell phone obsession, is feminized from the outset, with jokes made about his lack of experience with guns and status as the only Democrat in the family.
Yet, as the rest of the family falls victim to the clan of mutated cannibals living in the desert hills (Big Bob, as he’s called, is burned alive in the film’s most horrifying scene, a none-too-symbolic stab at outsized redneck egos everywhere), Doug comes into his own as he ventures forth to save his infant baby from becoming the clan’s next meal. He becomes the movie’s “Final Girl,” outwardly masculinized by his violent ordeal. It isn’t long before Doug is swinging pickaxes into mutant skulls and getting drenched head to toe in gore (which is apparently one of Aja’s signature devices). Other characters also find their inner Rambos as they fight off the mutants, including the teenager daughter and son (Emilie de Ravin and Dan Byrd), who forego direct violence for clever booby traps.
Keeping in step with the increased production values of the rest of the ’70s horror remakes, the make-up effects in The Hills Have Eyes are significantly advanced from those of its predecessor 29 years ago. Horror vets Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger give us atomic mutants with truly frightening visages, even if their characters are ultimately interchangeable monstrosities (the only real stand-out is the one called “Big Brain” in the credits, who is confined to a wheelchair because his mutated head is so large he can’t hold it up with his neck). The film also makes good on the kind of grisly graphic violence the MPAA had clamped down on in the late 1980s, but is now allowing to pour out like so much blood.
Yet, even with its effective moments and overall sense of sun-baked dread, there is still a sense of nagging disappointment in The Hills Have Eyes, which is possibly a product of its remake status. Couldn’t all that time, energy, and talent have been put toward bringing new horrific visions to life, rather than refashioning the nightmares of a previous generation? Aja continues to prove that he knows how to generate both tension and shock, and we can only hope that he hitches his talents to original material next time. The horror remake fever of the early 2000s may produce some tidy profits for producers (which is why we can expect more), but it’s hard not to think that future film historians will look back on it as an era whose primary achievement was to make us look back rather than forward.
Copyright ©2006 James Kendrick
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