Hills Have Eyes, The (2006)

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 03/10/06 16:02:42

"Another week, another pointless and unnecessary remake"
2 stars (Pretty Bad)

Although remakes of perfectly decent movies have become increasingly common these days, they seem to be even more prevalent within the horror genre. After the surprise success of the contemporary retreads of such titles as “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” “The Ring” and “Dawn of the Dead,” the last year or so alone has given us new (and largely inferior) revisions of “Assault on Precinct 13,” “The Ring 2,” “The Amityville Horror,” “House of Wax,” “Dark Water,” “Chaos” (a spin on “Last House on the Left” in all but name only), “The Fog” and “When a Stranger Calls.” Since most of these titles have made some money, mostly amongst teenagers too young to have experienced the original and who have been lured by familiar TV actors and the ever-important PG-13 rating, the cycle doesn’t appearing to be ending anytime soon–the next few months will also see new versions of “Pulse,” “The Omen” and, perhaps inevitably, “Friday the 13th.” If I haven’t already retired from reviewing films by the time that Michael Bay III announces a low-budget ($200 million) remake of “Hostel,” I promise to do so at that time.

The latest such remake is “The Hills Have Eyes,” a new version of the notoriously brutal 1977 shockfest that Wes Craven directed as a follow-up to his scandalous debut “Last House on the Left.” To be fair, it is slightly better than most of the recent string of retreads–it has been made with a certain style and gorehounds who have grown increasingly upset over the rash of bland PG-13 horror films will be happy to know that this particular example doesn’t not skimp on the blood or the brutality. And yet, unlike the few great horror remakes to make it through the pipeline (a list that includes John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” David Cronenberg’s “The Fly” and Paul Schrader’s “Cat People”), it never quite breaks away from its ancestor to become its own film. In the end, it winds up being nothing more than a retread–a skillfully made one, I suppose, but one that never quite lives up to the original.

Aside from a few tweaks, the basic storyline is virtually the same. An extended family–including a hard-headed patriarch (Ted Levine), his religious wife (Kathleen Quinlan), an annoying son (Dan Byrd),a newly married older daughter (Vinessa Shaw) with her spineless liberal husband (Aaron Stanford) and newborn child, a slutty younger daughter (Emilie de Ravin) and a pair of giant dogs–are driving cross-country to California when they are waylaid in the middle of the New Mexico desert after breaking an axle. Of course, what they don’t realize is that they have fallen into a trap laid by a family of hideously deformed mutants who have been living out there ever since the US government used the area for nuclear testing in the 1940's. Settling in for the night, the family is brutally attacked without warning and when the carnage subsides, the survivors discover to their horror that the baby has been taken from them. In order to save both the child and themselves, the civilized people are forced to reduce themselves to a primitive state in order to fight back with just as much brutality and savagery as they have received. Put it this way, this is the kind of movie where a scene of cannibalism winds up coming off as a mere afterthought.

To be honest, the original “The Hills Have Eyes” wasn’t much of a movie either; the basic idea of decent people being reduced to savagery was one that Craven had previously explored to far better effect in “Last House on the Left.” What the original did have was a certain grim determination to unnerve viewers with disturbing and unspeakable imagery and to create the idea that any one of the good guys (even the baby) could be mercilessly slaughtered at any point. (Even one of the dogs met its maker in a singularly unpleasant manner.) In addition, it also contained, in the presence of Michael Berryman’s malevolent Pluto, one of the unmistakable icons of 1970's horror–one look at his bald head, hulking frame and creepy demeanor and even the most jaded genre buffs felt a chill go down their spines. These things may not sound like much, especially when compared to the genuinely frightening and transgressive likes of the original “Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” but they had an impact on viewers at the time and they still hold up to a degree today.

The problem with this new version is that most of the shock sequences are staged virtually beat-for-beat in the same manner as the original. For those who never caught it then, such an approach might be okay but those who are familiar with the original will find the proceedings here to be less than startling or surprising. I kept waiting for director/co-writer Alexandre Aja to throw some new quirk or kink into the proceedings to mess things up a bit in a good way but all he contributes to that end is a parade of heavily made-up mutants that look more like a group of extras wearing rejects from a costume factory instead of a tightly-knit and dangerously inbred clan of savages. (He seems to have put more thought into staging one shot to simultaneously echo key images from both “2001" and “A Clockwork Orange” than in giving his villains any sort of individual personality.) Even the descent into violence that our heroes descend to in order to survive lacks any real impact–after a few seconds of fumbling around, they are soon picking off bad guys without even a hint of regret or remorse at what they have been reduced to and the provocative suggestion at the end of the original–that the two seemingly different families could actually grow together once the violent and hard-headed patriarchs were disposed of–is also ignored for another climax in which seemingly dead people jump up for once last shot before being dispatched in a suitably crowd-pleasing manner.

“The Hills Have Eyes” has some virtues–the performances are generally low-key and realistic (not always the easiest thing to achieve in a film like this) and Aja, whose previous effort was the stylish-but-idiotic “Haute Tension,” once again demonstrates that he has the chops to one day direct a good horror film even though he still hasn’t done so as of yet–but they wind up being overwhelmed by the sheer superfluousness of the entire enterprise. For those who never got to see the original, they may well get a couple of genuine jolts for their $10, certainly more than they received from most of the recent genre exercises. However, that same ten-spot could just as easily be used to purchase the DVD of the original–it may not be as slick or hip as this version but it still packs enough of a genuine jolt to more than make up for that.

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