Hills Have Eyes, The (2006)

Reviewed By Erik Childress
Posted 03/10/06 16:28:44

"Thanks For The Warning. Known It For 30 Years."
3 stars (Average)

Director Alexandre Aja burst onto the scene with his ultraviolent Frenchy slasher film with a twist last year called High Tension. It showed a lot of flair and atmosphere for a routine bloodfest. But it was the ridiculous twist in the final act that did him in and forced most hardcore (and especially the more casual) genre aficionados to cry foul. There are also those who would argue that the twist was Aja’s prevention of getting sued by Dean Koontz for basically ripping off the first two acts of his book, Intensity. Based on the skill he did show however, he bypassed copyright infringement by getting the gig of doing a flat remake of Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (who serves as a producer). But like High Tension, something just comes up amiss by the time the final third comes around and the emphasis on flat takes on further justification.

As we are informed during the opening credits prologue (akin to the Dawn of the Dead remake’s flashy mélange of info and images), the U.S. conducted nuclear tests out in the desert. They made their warnings clear but some people didn’t listen, spawning a generation of mutants who now wander the hills and lure people in with the help of a gas station attendant (Tom Bower) who gets their valuables as reward.

In traipses the vacationing Carter/Bukowski family. With their giant RV and car in tow, “Big” Bob Carter (Ted Levine) is the Republican Clark Griswold choosing to drive to California with a mini-arsenal and giving his Polish son-in-law, Doug (Aaron Stanford), so much grief that he may as well be calling him “meathead.” Mama Carter (Kathleen Quinlan) is a prayer junkie. Doug’s wife, Lynne (Vinessa Shaw) handles the baby and mediator duties between hubby and daddy. Sister Brenda (Lost’s Emilie de Ravin, continuing to be put in baby-napping situations with mysterious “Others”) hates the trip and brother Bobby (Dan Byrd) knows a little something from guns to air conditioners, which may just be handy later on.

Anyone familiar with Craven’s original knows that good times do not lie ahead. A blowout and crash leaves the family stranded and a series of attacks commence. The infamous camper attack takes nearly an hour to get to, but remains effective in and of itself because the worst fears we’ve imagined in the time we’ve waited for it finally comes to fruition. And yet, because it’s SO familiar and brings with it the baggage of the nearly event-by-event staging that took place in 1974, by the time its over we’re less shocked than relieved.

Where High Tension casually borrowed Koontzian set pieces and action, Aja’s take on The Hills Have Eyes plays it relatively close to the vest of its predecessor while liberally homaging his own work with the blood-soaked avenger. As Doug fights to get his baby back, he doesn’t so much fight the abductors on their own turf but in an abandoned ghost town whose scenes play out much too similarly to the flawed (but more effective) Texas Chainsaw remake. How many axes to the head do you need before you start calling out for a more original kill stroke? Craven’s film may not have been as Rube Goldbergian as Last House on the Left, but there was satisfaction through the ingenuity of the various eye-for-eyes. Here the big payoff is visually the same, but so was the shower scene is Gus Van Sant’s Psycho.

One of the odder aspects of the updated screenplay by Aja and Gregory Levasseur is the sort of socio-political moments that stand-up to be counted during the film. I’m sure Craven basked in the irony of the nuclear family vs. the nuclear-bombed family, but it was still a buried subtext in a revenge thriller. Aja wears his right-out front at some of the weirdest moments backed in full surround sound orchestra. Big Bob’s love of guns and his belittling of Doug for being “a democrat.” Mom’s prayer conferences. And particularly Doug’s evolvement to a killing machine which leads up to the iconic sun-drenched shot of the warrior coming down from the hills, covered in red victory and baby in hand – who, nevertheless, just moments earlier made the age-old mistake of dropping his weapon right beside the guy he thinks he just killed.

I’m sure on the commentary Aja will elude to the big-eyed girl with the red-hooded sweatshirt as his homage to E.T., but so what? We have all made references to movies too and if you’ve seen the original there’s very little reason to see this. With more limited resources, Craven went out and got the already scary-lookin’ Michael Berryman. I suppose Aja’s nod to that is casting Billy Drago, who is the only mutant to appear sans horribly disfiguring makeup because, c’mon, it’s Billy Drago. (The Berryman character has now been made up to resemble Sloth from The Goonies.) Aja also treats the audience as mutants unable to grasp what’s happened to these people despite an opening scrawl, the credits prologue, newspaper clippings found by dad at the gas station and a monologue by one dude straight out of the Martian Chronicles that tells us again that nuclear bombs and people don’t mix well. We don’t need the added chasers for the point to go down smooth. With the first act already being padded out, giving each character their discovery moment is pointless unless we’re already being kept in the dark about the origin of the cannibalistic hill dwellers. So Doug found a big crater with abandoned vehicles. I found a few holes too in your movie that can be plugged up. As for Aja’s future in horror he better find some original material or, at least, a way to make material his own just as John Carpenter did with The Thing or Zack Snyder with Dawn of the Dead because hitching a ride on other people’s glories will always be the other’s glory.

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