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The Hills Have Eyes   B

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Year Released: 2006
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Alexandre Aja
Writers: Alexandre Aja, Grégory Levasseur
Cast: Aaron Stanford, Kathleen Quinlan, Vinessa Shaw, Emilie de Ravin, Dan Byrd, Tom Bower, Billy Drago, Robert Joy, Ted Levine.

Review by Rob Vaux

The Hills Have Eyes is easily the cream of the recent '70s-horror remake crop: intense, stylish, unspeakably gruesome, and at least marginally evocative of the beyond-low-budget zeitgeist of the original. For those seeking merciless brutality delivered with excitement and flair, director Alexandre Aja's reinterpretation of Wes Craven's 1977 drive-in classic has everything you could possibly want. Craven serves as producer here -- anointing Aja as his successor and allowing the young Frenchman to expand and develop ideas that the limited budget of the first Hills couldn't achieve.

And yet that proves something of a two-edged sword. For while it gives The Hills Have Eyes some terrific sequences that distinguish it from its predecessor, it also robs the film of the raw, unvarnished grit that Craven's version produced. The sets are glossier, the actors prettier, the ghoulishness produced by careful planning rather than seat-of-your-pants inspiration, but something vital is lost in the transition: some bit of outlaw energy that no corporate studio can create.

That doesn't stop The Hills Have Eyes from doing quite well on its own merits, however. Aja understands how to deliver the scares, expertly mixing emotional intensity with flat-out gore to create an experience that any horror fan will relish. The scenario, if overly familiar, has a lot of bite: an all-American family, on their way to California, takes a wrong turn in the New Mexico desert and winds up stranded on an abandoned road... only to be set upon by a clan of mutant cannibals who have survived in the shadow of nearby nuclear tests. The victims -- led by Ted Levine's cocksure patriarch -- find their comforts and protections slowly stripped away, leaving them as violent and lawless as the monsters picking them off.

Aja builds the tension at an admirable pace before cutting loose with the expected shocks and bloodletting. The violence is played refreshingly straight -- relentless and horrifying though possessed of a certain crimson wit -- which gives The Hills Have Eyes a sense of genre pedigree as well as plenty of terrifying moments. The deserts of Morocco fill in beautifully for the stark American Southwest; Aja and DP Maxime Alexandre lend the scenery an eerie, alien quality, punctuated by unsettling POV shots from the distant rocks that look down predatorily on Levine's stranded family. Though the script adheres closely to the original, Aja takes full advantage of the increased budget to add some intriguing new concepts to the mix -- most notably a crater/graveyard of automobiles (remnants of the cannibals' earlier victims), and a ground-zero village formed from the tattered remnants of buildings used in the A-bomb detonations of the 1950s.

This last issue demonstrates the film's more obvious moral subtext -- posited by a French director and aimed squarely at the failings of American society. The 1977 version elicited similar vibes: it spoke to an air of corruption at our nation's soul, hinting that the nuclear family -- long a mainstay of U.S. values -- can be an entity of unspeakable evil, and that our great melting pot is really just a thin veneer uniting savage tribes of demented howler monkeys. The remake is far less subtle in its critique: using expensive makeup to reveal the cannibals' AEC origins, pushing the class differences between hunters and prey, and even sprinkling American flags liberally throughout the mise-en-scène. One wheelchair-bound flesh-eater even takes to reciting "The Star-Spangled Banner," just so we don't miss the point. Its notion of tribal viciousness is well developed (marked by some interesting thematic nods to Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs), and the other threads are reasonably effective, but by stating its message so openly, the film loses some of the unconscious subversion that defined the original.

The results provide a stark reminder of how things have changed -- that while the cultural unease of the 1970s has percolated back into our subconscious, the means used to express it now has a fatter wallet and an upscale address. Craven, the maverick outsider of '77, has now become the dominant creative force in the genre, and studios that were once terrified of such material now see it as just another means of squeezing money out of jaded teenagers. As such, The Hills Have Eyes can never achieve the taboo-shattering rebellion of its predecessor, no matter how much the commercials insist otherwise. It gains a great deal in technical flourish, artistry, and goose-your-date terror -- in many ways, it's the better film -- but no amount of spit or polish can entirely recapture the dark seeds it so earnestly wishes to plant. It needs to come from a different place for that: somewhere riskier, more unknown, a little crazier... and without the benefit of billboards on every corner.

Review published 03.08.2006.

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