Mini Review: Silent Night (2012)
by Steve Habrat
In November of 2012, Anchor Bay Films quietly snuck Steve C. Miller’s Silent Night, a loose remake of the 1984 Christmas slasher Silent Night, Deadly Night, into select theaters and then quickly released it on Blu-ray and DVD just a few short weeks later. Were us horror fans really that bad that we deserved a lump of coal like this?! Apparently yes, yes we were. From the get-go, it is obvious Silent Night is winking at the horror fans that will undoubtedly flock to it over the years. But too often, the film is awkward and amateurish, consistently confusing pulpy gore for honest scares to the point where it is almost maddening. To make it worse, this abysmal waste of time can’t seem to smoothly deliver anything resembling a good joke. It’s so bad, folks, that even a beloved genre star like Malcolm McDowell can’t even sell it, and believe me when I tell you that he tries very, very hard to make this formulaic snoozefest work. The only positives that you will find in Silent Night are the homicidal Santa, who prefers to toast his victims with a flamethrower, and a scene in which one character gets their head chopped in half with an axe. That is where this turkey’s joys begin and end.
Silent Night picks up on Christmas Eve, where the citizens of a small Midwestern town are gearing up for a massive holiday celebration that invites hundreds of Santa Claus impersonators to get in on the fun. Among the citizens looking forward to the holiday activities are Aubrey Bradimore (played by Jamie King), a sheriff’s deputy still attempting to get over the loss of her husband. The celebration seems to be getting off to a smooth start, aside from one belligerent Santa (played by Donal Logue) who is making children cry in a local park, but things take a nasty turn when a small-time porn director and his star wind up brutally slaughtered at a local motel. Bradimore, fellow deputy Giles (played by Andrew Cecon), and the town Sheriff, Cooper (played by Malcolm McDowell), launch an investigation, but they realize that this massacre isn’t an isolated incident. After watching a videotape that was rolling during the murders at the motel, the officers discover that their suspect is dressed as a morbid Santa Claus, making it extremely difficult to track down the killer and bring him to justice. As the sun sets and the celebration kicks into high gear, several more citizens turn up dead, but the quest to track down the maniacal Santa gets personal when one murder strikes close to home for Aubrey.
Silent Night opens with a pitch-black opening credit sequence that suggests that what we are getting into is going to be a straight-shooting horror movie that wallows in shadowy suspense. Miller’s camera is trained on the killer as he makes his chilling Santa mask, suits up in that jolly red suit, and torments one victim with an axe before offing him in a totally unexpected manner. It’s a sturdy stage setter, that you cannot deny, but once Miller emerges from that dark cellar and lets his killer loose on the town streets, the film quickly plummets. Almost every death scene is completely wooden, shot with a jittery camera and strung together through fast edits that resemble something out of a heavy metal music video. These death scenes will undoubtedly please gore fans, as the blood sprays in every single direction, but they never rise above being gross. Now I’m certainly not one to complain about gross, but Miller never even considers injecting an ounce of terror into any of these scenes. They just flail around on the screen with sudden blasts of music, the same old lazy jump scares that we have all come to expect from uninspired horror exercises such as this. Furthermore, the “ick” moments seem to lack a punch of originality, especially a scene in which a wannabe porn star is crammed into a wood chipper. It’s nauseating enough, but it seems like more of an obnoxious cry for attention rather than a vicious little surprise.
In addition to the lack of solid scares, Miller can’t seem to get his actors to do much with Jayson Rothwell’s clunky script, which is bogged down with clichéd dialogue and leaden one-liners. McDowell taps into his fiery wit and bug-eyed smugness, but even he can’t make some of the jokes work. It’s almost painful watching him spit out lines like “what is this, Glee?” to one caroling officer. And to think that this is the same man who played the sadistic Alex De Large in A Clockwork Orange! King’s Aubrey fares no better, as she just sulks around and forces a brooding side to her one-dimensional heroine. Cecon’s Giles is also pretty painful, a dimwit only present to bite it in an idiotic death scene. The only two actors who seem to rise above the material are Logue, who gets to have a bit of fun as a cranky Saint Nick who rants and raves about the holiday season, and Ellen Wong, who shows up as the perky Brenda, the wisecracking secretary of the police station. Overall, while all of the bloody mayhem and tongue-in-cheek approach may sound tempting to horror fans, Miller’s Silent Night is a flat, clumsy, and scare-less affair that bores more than it thrills. Aside from it’s chilling killer, it is just another careless remake that should have remained shelved at the studio.
Silent Night is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Among the many sleazy horror subgenres out there, one of the most popular of the late 1970s and ‘80s was the slasher film. Grindhouse theaters and rundown drive-ins were bombarded with masked psychos wielding a number of assorted kitchen utensils or power tools ranging from machetes, cutting knives, chain saws, meat cleavers, and more. While major Hollywood studios were only responsible for a small number of these slasher films, a good majority of them were released through small independent studios looking to capitalize on the popularity of films like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Black Christmas, and Halloween. Many of these films were artless and depraved, riddled with senseless blood, guts, and gratuitous nudity—things that were not heavily present in any of the films that inspired these knockoffs. Today, a large number of these cheap exploitation slashers are lost in the sands of time, but there are still some that have amassed respectable cult followings. One such cult slasher would be director William Lustig’s 1980 exploitation classic Maniac, an urban nightmare that appealed to 42nd Street crowds due to its unflinching violence and gore. While it may not enjoy the popularity of, say, Halloween, Maniac is still popular enough that it finally earned itself a remake makeover. Now we have director Frank Khalfoun’s Maniac, a surprisingly harrowing, disturbing, and frighteningly vicious horror film produced and written by French horror director Alexandre Aja.
Maniac places us in the shoes of Frank Zito (played by Elijah Wood), a soft-spoken loner who manages a mannequin shop that was left to him by his abusive late mother, Angela (played by America Olivio), who also worked as a prostitute on the side. Traumatized by his mother’s treatment towards him, Frank takes to the streets and stalks down beautiful young women who he murders and scalps with a hunting knife. One day, Frank meets a young upcoming photographer named Anna (played by Nora Arnezeder), who is interested in photographing the mannequins inside Frank’s shop. The two immediately strike up a friendship, but soon, Frank takes a liking to the beautiful artist. One evening, Frank and Anna go on a date to the movies, but after the date, Frank is devastated to learn that Anna has a boyfriend. Frank struggles to maintain the friendship, but after humiliating encounters with Anna’s boyfriend, Jason (played by Sammi Rotibi), and her mentor, Rita (played by Jan Broberg), he snaps and looses his tiny grip on reality, which puts Anna in serious danger.
Where most horror remakes refuse to do anything new or inspired with the material they are updating, Khalfoun’s Maniac dares to get creative with its style. The original Maniac was told in a fairly straightforward manner, although, we were asked to root for the bad guy of the story, something that does indeed make the viewer’s skin crawl. Maniac 2013 asks the same thing of the audience, but it takes it a step further and presents the action from the POV of Frank. The idea that we are peering through Frank’s eyes is undeniably creepy, and since we are inside his head, we are unable to escape from his demons. At times, Khalfoun blurs the picture, distorts sound, or descends into the surreal, offering up rattling hallucinations that really do a fine job of showing off Frank’s unstable condition. This POV presentation also gives the violence a razor-sharp edge that really cuts you deep. Each and every time Frank jabs his knife into one of his victims, you’ll desperately want to close your eyes. The violence is shockingly realistic, and it is shown in all of its revolting glory. It’s so graphic that even Frank looses his lunch after murdering one poor girl. It’s certainly not for the faint of heart.
Since the story is presented from Frank’s point of view, you may wonder why a high-profile star like Elijah Wood is involved with this small project. The few glimpses that we get of Frank are in reflections, where we are exposed to the glazed-over trance that he seems to float around in from day to day. His reflection presents a boyish face, drawn in innocence that suggests that he wouldn’t hurt a fly. Obviously, we know better, but armed with those puppy eyes, we know Frank is capable of fooling a lot of people into thinking he is completely harmless. Wood uses his physical appearance to his advantage, but his performance is wounded by his line delivery, which seems very mechanical and staged. The problem could stem from the dialogue, which is embarrassingly clunky and refuses to roll off the tongue in a natural fashion. As far as the other performers go, Arnezeder’s Anna is the ray of hope that Frank is desperately in need of. When she reveals she has a boyfriend, we certainly feel the dagger driven right into Frank’s heart, but we fear for her when he finally falls off into the abyss. Olivio certainly makes you raise an eyebrow as Frank’s prostitute mother, who forces him to hide in the closet while she has a threesome. Rotibi is spot on as the testy Jason, Anna’s boyfriend who takes an immediate disliking to Frank and viscously accuses him of being gay.
In addition to the impressive POV style and unnervingly realistic violence, Maniac 2013 also benefits from an awesome retro soundtrack that is sure to get stuck on repeat inside your head. Composed by French musician Rob, the soundtrack invokes an early ‘80s aura, sounding like a mash up between the dreamy notes of Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust, the triumphant synthesizer blasts of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, and the urban beats of Nicholas Winding Refn’s throwback thriller Drive. With the soundtrack transporting you back to 1980, Khalfoun uses it to intensify the film’s urban grit. You almost feel like you’re on the grimy midnight streets with the homeless hiding inside camping tents, club kids drunkenly stumbling out of dance clubs in search of a blackout hook-up, and wandering hoods with their faces suspiciously concealed. All of this is sure to scare you away from wandering darkened city streets ever again. Overall, while the film’s dialogue could have used some major attention, Maniac is still an unexpectedly chilling walk in a madman’s shoes. It’s respectful of the original film while also setting itself apart from what Lustig delivered back in 1980. Maniac is stylish, chilling, and wildly grisly horror remake that is sure to disturb even the most hardened horror fan.
Maniac is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Mini Review: Carrie (2013)
by Steve Habrat
Each year, it seems that Hollywood continues down the long list of classic horror movies and picks another one or two that they believe are in desperate need of an update. This year, we’ve seen spiffy remakes of The Evil Dead and the lesser-known Maniac, but it seems that Hollywood wasn’t eager to stop with those two. Rounding out the horror remakes for the year is director Kimberly Peirce’s Carrie, a teen-scream thriller revamped for a generation raised on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Now, don’t get me wrong, Peirce’s Carrie isn’t a bad film. It’s got quite a bit in the way of suspense and it’s slickly made with pretty faces, expensive special effects, and big names that look good on a poster. However, like a good majority of horror remakes out there, Peirce and her screenwriter, Lawrence D. Cohen and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, do absolutely nothing new with Stephen King’s breakout material. It’s exactly what we saw in Brian De Palma’s 1976 Sissy Spacek version, just with minor scene and plot tweaks to give the illusion that the filmmakers aren’t being a tiny bit lazy. This remake falls in with the bunch that are almost shot-for-shot reconstructions of other, better movies. (Tsk tsk)
Carrie introduces us to Carrie White (played by Chole Grace Moretz), an introverted high school senior who is consistently targeted by her bullying classmates. One day, while showering after gym class, Carrie experiences her first period. Horrified and confused due to her deeply religious upbringing by her mother, Margaret White (played by Julianne Moore), she screams for help from her peers. Naturally, the girls see a prime moment to tease the poor girl and one of Carrie’s main tormentors, Chris (played by Portia Doubleday), even decides to film the girl’s anguish on her smartphone so that she can later post it on YouTube. The viscous teasing is finally stopped by Miss Desjardin (played by Judy Greer), the no-nonsense gym teacher who sticks up for Carrie. Miss Desjardin takes Carrie to the principal’s office where Carrie is told that the school will have to notify her mother of the incident. Terrified over her mother learning of the incident, Carrie uses telekinesis to blow up a water cooler. Confused by this emerging talent, Carrie begins researching telekinesis and teaching herself how to control it. Meanwhile, Sue (played by Gabriella Wilde), one of the girls that were present during the locker room incident, begins feeling bad about the way she treated Carrie. Sue asks her boyfriend, Tommy (played by Ansel Elgort), a popular jock that all the girls swoon over, to take Carrie to prom and show her a good time. After multiple attempts to ask her, Tommy finally gets Carrie to say yes, but her mother forbids to her to go, fearing that something awful will happen. Carrie defies her mother’s wishes, but as it turns out, Chris has something in store for Carrie that will push the tortured soul over the edge.
While it’s never quite as creepy as the 1976 original, Carrie 2013 does pack plenty of suspense, especially in its second half. The minutes leading up to that bucket of blood being dumped on the poor girl’s head are sickening, mostly because we hate to see Carrie’s high come crashing down. There is also plenty of unease coming from her crackpot mother, Margaret, a fanatical Christian who self mutilates and is convinced that Carrie’s telekinesis is the work of the devil. The suspense crafted by Peirce is all well and good, but it should never be confused with legitimate scares. Nothing you see here will keep you from a good night’s sleep. However, the fact that it is able to generate any form of suspense is miraculous because the filmmaker’s take very few risks with a story almost everyone is familiar with. The early scenes are loaded with smartphones, social media harassment, teenage slang, and current radio hits by of-the-moment bands, all things that you expect from a remake looking for approval from the teen crowd that snuck into it. Sadly, it becomes increasingly clear that the filmmakers had nothing new to bring to the story—it’s just brought up to modern times for modern audiences, which makes some Carrie 2013 a bit of a bore. Even worse, it leaves you questioning the point of remaking the film in the first place.
Complimenting Peirce’s suspense are the performances from Moretz, Moore, and Greer, all of which are at the top of their game. Moretz is the very definition of pitiful as Carrie, a tragic girl with barely a friend in the world. She clutches her books tightly to her chest as she hurries through the halls, making sure she doesn’t glance over at the hurtful graffiti painted on the wall about her. Moore is a spitfire as the insanely religious Margaret, a scowling Bible thumper who locks poor Carrie in a closet and forces her to pray for hours on end. Greer earns your respect as the fuming gym teacher Miss Desjardin, a flurry of discipline who sticks up for the timid girl who is always hiding at the back of the class. Portia Doubleday is also memorable as the seething Chris, the vile and arrogant popular girl who hatches the plot to dump the pig’s blood on Carrie’s head. Overall, while there are several moments of Carrie 2013 that make you sit up and take notice, Peirce’s remake seems to exist solely for teenagers who don’t want to be bothered with De Palma’s original because it’s too dated for their tastes. This could have been a vehicle to explore bullying in the social media age, but instead it just looks the other way and refuses to spark an intelligent discussion on the topic. Oh well, at least it looks hip sitting on the sidelines.
Attack of the Remakes! The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003)
by Steve Habrat
Tobe Hooper’s grubby 1974 horror outing The Texas Chain Saw Massacre ranks as one of the scariest films I have ever seen. Hands down. It is downright terrifying and manages to make us queasy even though it has very little gore to speak of. In 2003, Michael Bay’s production company Platinum Dunes decided that they were going to remake the film, a decision that would open the remake floodgates and shower the film market with a slew of senseless horror remakes that absolutely no horror fan was begging for. With music video director Marcus Nispel behind the camera, Bay unleashed his sleek and gory update that comes at you like a speeding demon. Truth be told, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2003 is not that bad of a film. It’s actually sort of fun and it has plenty of personality and style. It has a must see opening sequence shot in shaky black and white, a crime reel that is chillingly authentic as John Larroquette somberly explains the back-story. It opens the movie with a bang. What comes next is a fairly mundane but excessively flashy exercise in teen slashers elevated by the presence of R. Lee Ermey and, surprisingly, Jessica Biel. It’s the excess and Nispel’s reluctance to leave anything to the imagination that ultimately keeps The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2003 from reaching the levels of terror that the original does. Oh, and cannibalism would have helped too.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre begins on August 18th, 1973, with five teenagers, Erin (Played by Jessica Biel), her boyfriend Kemper (Played by Eric Balfour), Andy (Played by Mike Vogel), Morgan (Played by Jonathan Tucker), and Pepper (Played by Erica Leerhsen) passing through Texas on their way to a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert. While making their way along the desolate highway, they happen upon a distraught hitchhiker (Played by Lauren German), who quickly climbs into their van, rambles about a “bad man,” and then shoots herself in the head. Terrified, the group stops off at the nearest gas station to call the sheriff. The sheriff convinces the group to meet him at a local abandoned mill, where he will come and pick up the body. The group waits for hours but the sheriff is a no show so Erin and Kemper decide to travel to a nearby farmhouse to try to contact the sheriff again. The home seems to belong to a cranky amputee named Monty (Played by Terrence Evans) but as Erin and Kemper linger at the home, they begin to suspect that Monty may not be the only person lurking around the decrepit home. Their suspicions are confirmed when they are chased down by Leatherface (Played by Andrew Bryniarski), a gigantic psychopath who enjoys dispatching his victims with a chain saw and then removing their faces so he can wear them as masks.
Since Michael Bay and Platinum Dunes insisted that this film exist, I can at least give it credit for the fact that it isn’t a shot for shot remake of the brilliant Hooper original. It is bold enough to play around with the premise and up the number of nutcases from four to seven, making the whole film seem a bit more dangerous. While upping the number of psychos is a positive, Nispel and Bay do everything in their power to strip Leatherface of the horror he once possessed. And, lets face it, it takes a lot to make a psycho with a chain saw only slightly creepy but apparently Nispel and Bay were up to the challenge. Looking like your crazy uncle in an expensive Halloween costume, Leatherface looks like he is wearing a rubber zombie mask that tried to smile but couldn’t. Only once do we see him wear another face and there doesn’t seem to be any of the eerie cross-dressing that the character liked in the original. It would have been nice to see him in that famous suit with a woman’s face covering his own but I guess you can’t always get what you want. Nispel and Bay also give him a new origin story, one that just comes off as silly. Things really got shaky when old Leatherface decides to peel off his mask and show us what it underneath that rotting flesh. I’ll tell you this much, it isn’t very spooky and actually sort of laughable.
While Nispel and Bay certain screwed up the monster, they fair better with just about everyone else. I still think that Biel does a great job as Erin and she rightfully earns our sympathy, especially as things really get bad. She’s no Marilyn Burns but she is alright in my book. Balfour is also pretty strong as Kemper, a guy just trying to do the right thing for his girlfriend. Another standout amongst the group of teens is Tucker’s shaggy pothead Morgan, who always has just a little too much to say when he shouldn’t. Out of all the teens, I actually liked him the best. Leerhsen and Vogel are okay but they never really grab us like Biel, Balfour, and Tucker. Then we have the merry Hewitt family, led by R. Lee Ermey’s deranged Sheriff Hoyt, a mean son of a bitch who drools chewing tobacco and giggles at the suffering teens. He is here in full force blasting hilariously sick and twisted one-liners right into the faces of his victims. Marietta Marich is also pretty terrifying as the matriarch of the Hewitt family, Luda Mae Hewitt. She rules the family with a rusted fist, demanding that Leatherface lumbers into the family room and get one of the sobbing victims out of her sight. It is such a cold and cruel scene, one that ends with one character suggesting that their victim should stay for dinner, one of the better nods to the original film.
While cannibalism is only hinted at here and there, it is largely absent from this entry in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre series. If you didn’t know it played a big role in the original, you’d have no idea it was even present in this one. Nispel does take great care in constructing the Hewitt home, a massive, decaying structure gloriously backlit when the sun sinks from the sky. Some of my favorite images in the film are the ones where Nispel’s camera peeks out of the trees and stares cautiously at the house, almost like it is going to spring to life and attack. The set design on the inside of the home is even more painstaking and ornate as the camera pans over rotting corpses, demonic dolls nailed to the wall, and leaky pipes that could very well be oozing blood. While some of the chases are sort of fun and that scene with one character getting his leg cut clean off by Leatherface’s roaring chain saw are nifty, you can help but find yourself longing for that grainy cinematography and that hazy, late summer atmosphere that drips with death and decay. I longed for a scene that would disturb me like the original’s twitching death, where a character that was just clubbed over the head with a mallet thrashed and twitched as his brains oozed from his head wound. I wished for the dinner party scene, the one where Marilyn Burns shrieked in terror as the Sawyer clan tormented her over a plate of human BBQ. And the film didn’t end with that terrifying image of Leatherface doing his “dance of death” in blazing Texas sun. There is nothing razor sharp like that here. Looks like Bay and Nispel removed the chain from this one.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2003 is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Attack of the Remakes! A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)
by Steve Habrat
It may be blasphemous as a die-hard fan of horror to say this but I’ve never particularly cared for Freddy Kruger. I know, I know, how can I dislike one of the most iconic slashers every projected on the big screen? I guess I saw Wes Craven’sA Nightmare on Elm Street at an older age and Freddy Kruger just came off as a clown in a Christmas sweater. I was so used to seeing campy versions of him that I was never really able to get swept up in the love of the character. Considering Leatherface, Michael Myers, and Jason Voorhees had all undergone the remake treatment, Freddy Kruger was expected to be next monster off the horror remake assembly line. Infinitely better than the Friday the 13th remake but still an artificial bore, A Nightmare on Elm Street does find Freddy Kruger shedding his comedic aura and retreating to the ominous shadows that spit him out and I couldn’t be happier about that. It was great to see someone other than Robert Englund step in as the iconic burn victim and put a fresh spin on the character, something that was greatly needed. Handed over to music video director Samuel Bayer, he works hard to earn the respect of Craven and the fans of the original but the problem is that Michael Bay is on board as a producer and it is incredibly obvious considering the lack of mood and abundance of rubbery special effects.
A Nightmare on Elm Street begins in the Springwood Diner where Kris (Played by Katie Cassidy) meets up with her sleep-deprived boyfriend Dean (Played by Kellan Lutz), waitress Nancy (Played by Rooney Mara), mutual friend Quentin (Played by Kyle Gallner), and Kris’s ex-boyfriend Jesse (Played by Thomas Dekker). It turns out that Dean is afraid to go to sleep because when he does, he dreams of a horrifically burned psychopath who launches gruesome attacks against him. After Dean appears to cut his own throat, the teenagers begin to investigate the ramblings of their deceases friend. As their search continues, they discover that they all may have known each other longer than they thought. They also uncover information about a deceased gardener named Freddy Kruger (Played by Jackie Earle Haley), who was believed to be a pedophile. As this information comes to light, Kris, Nancy, Jesse, and Quentin begin to suffer from the same bizarre dreams that Dean complained about. These dreams are particularly horrific for Nancy, who was always Freddy’s favorite. While more and more teens die of unusual circumstances, Nancy and Quentin race to figure out a way to pull Freddy from the dream world and into the real one so that they can destroy him.
While director Bayer and Bay do very little to rework Craven’c classic story, they do tinker with Freddy’s back-story, which has him a full-on pedophile rather than a child killer with a knife-glove. This swap does make your skin crawl when he creeps out of his hissing boiler room toward one of his victims. Funny enough, Freddy’s favored boiler room was something that could have undergone a bit of a change. It worked okay in the original film but it would have been cool to see Freddy’s lair undergo a bit of a change to match the character’s back-story and appearance. As far as looks go, Freddy certainly looks horrific even if he is largely kept in the shadows for much of the movie. I have to give the filmmakers credit for keeping the monster largely in the dark because that does ratchet up the spooks but when Haley is reveled in the hellish glow of his boiler room, the effects applied to his face look sort of obvious and, dare I say, cheap. The rest of the dream world that takes hold when the characters doze off look familiar, like music video sets reused with buckets of fake blood thrown around. Bayer tries to make them creepier by throwing in little girls who jump rope, play hopscotch, and chant, “One, two, Freddy’s coming for you!” Frankly, I found these scenes to feel more staged than surreal.
Surprisingly, the performances are much better than in the previous Platinum Dunes offering. I certainly think that the casting of Jackie Earle Haley as Freddy Kruger was inspired and he does attack the role with his fangs bared. He ditches the countless one-liners and instead growls loudly over the soundtrack. The flashback sequence that finds him without all the prosthetics and CGI is effectively creepy, mostly because anything dealing with pedophilia is creepy. Then there is Rooney Mara as Nancy, a promising up-and-comer that seems well aware that she is better than the movie she is in. The filmmakers twist Nancy into an angsty teenager who hides away in her room with headphones crammed into her ears and huddles over her paintings she enjoys doing. It seems like Bayer had a hard time trying to work her in front and center in the film, as she almost seems secondary to Kris in the opening sequence. About a half hour in, Mara is the star of this bloodbath, which in turn perks the film up. Cassidy and Dekker are forgettable as disposable teens there simply to die by Freddy’s favored glove. Gallner puts in 110% as Quentin, an equally angsty teenager who has feelings for the arty Nancy.
Considering A Nightmare on Elm Street 2010 is largely drawing from the original film’s storyline, the film lacks any real surprises, which is immensely disappointing. While Bayner certainly has plenty of gore to go around, I found some of the violence to be watered down a bit, a shocker because I figured that the filmmakers would fall back on it. There still is no question that the concept is bright but failure to take it in a new direction stalls the film almost instantly. Let’s be honest here, Bay is certainly not the most creative in the story department. Predictability hangs low over our heads as characters we figure are going to get the knife do and twists we figure are coming fail to get the gasp they are hoping for. Then there is the ending, which I was less than impressed with. It consists of Freddy tossing Nancy around a room while he utters repulsive lines of dialogue her way. Having a monster lick the face of the freaked out heroine can only make us squirm so many times before it seems recycled. Much like Friday the 13th, Bayner tacks on a GOTCHA! moment before fleeing off into the end credits, but it feels like a cheap shot jolt. Overall, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2010 is a lousy film because it never gets off the ground. It feels like it was shot on Hollywood sets with tasteless CGI painted over it to make it more interesting. It never scares us although it does repulse us with its subject matter in a few places. It only grabs a recommendation for Haley’s commanding performance.
A Nightmare on Elm Street 2010 is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Attack of the Remakes! Friday the 13th (2009)
by Steve Habrat
It has always been extremely difficult for me to get into Jason Voorhees and the Friday the 13th series. I never found the hockey mask killer to be all that frightening and I found his films to be redundant exercises in sex, violence, and stupidity. The only film in the Friday the 13th series that I sort of liked was the original 1980 film, the one where Jason’s mother was the psycho chopping up hornball camp counselors. With Hollywood remaking every horror film under the gravestone, it came as no big surprise that Friday the 13th would be getting the unholy treatment. While I figured the film would be lousy, I sort of thought that maybe Hollywood would shake the series up a bit. When they handed the film over to Michael Bay’s production company Platinum Dunes and director Marcus Nispel (the guy who gave us the semi-entertaining Texas Chain Saw reboot), it was obvious that this was going to be a major train wreck. Well folks, my worst fears were confirmed. The 2009 remake of Friday the 13th is absolutely awful in every way, shape, and form. Only once or twice is the film actually clever and show a brief glimpse of what could be if Bay wasn’t behind the film. I really don’t expect much out of these throwaway post-Halloween slashers but my God, at least put in some effort. I expect a little more than glossy guts, bare breasts, and steamy sex.
Friday the 13th 2009 picks on June 13th, 1980, with a terrified camp counselor beheading the crazed mother of Jason Voorhees, who went on a killing spree after her handicapped son drowned at Camp Crystal Lake. The film then jumps to present day with a handful of backpacking teenagers searching the woods just outside of Camp Crystal Lake for some marijuana that was planted weeks earlier. After they set up camp for the night, they are soon stalked and killed by a hooded maniac with a machete. One of the girls in the group, Whitney (Played by Amanda Righetti), is not slaughtered but captured by the hooded killer and taken prisoner. Six weeks pass and authorities are still unable to come up with an explanation for the strange disappearances of the teens. Meanwhile, another group of teenagers, Trent (Played by Travis Van Winkle), his girlfriend Jenna (Played by Danielle Panabaker), Chelsea (Played by Willa Ford), Bree (Played by Julianna Guill), Chewie (Played by Aaron Yoo), Lawrence (Played by Arlen Escarpeta), and Nolan (Played by Ryan Hansen), arrive in town for a weekend at Trent’s summer cabin just outside of Camp Crystal Lake. The group bumps into Clay (Played by Jared Padalecki), who is frantically searching for his sister Whitney. As they explore Camp Crystal Lake, the group stumbles across the same hooded figure, who now wears a hockey mask. As they dig into the events that happened at Camp Crystal Lake, they make the horrific discover that this strange man may be the legendary Jason Voorhees (Played by Derek Mears).
If you can believe it, director Nispel and Bay are not content with giving us just one group of teenagers to hate. They feel the need to give us two groups of annoying clichés that are begging to be killed by the machete-wielding psycho Jason. They do all the typical things that teens in these movies love to do. They wander off by themselves in a drunken stupor or marijuana haze, they hook up with each other in graphic sex scenes that reportedly made Mr. Bay very upset, and they talk to each other about the dumbest shit imaginable. I am well aware that these stupid teenagers are part of the appeal of these types of films but it would have been so refreshing to see them using common sense for once rather than aimlessly wandering around a dimly lit tool shed packed with more weapons than Jason could dream of. The film also has the same faux-gritty look that Nispel’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre had, sleek and screaming a big price tag. The big budget look would be okay if the film had some sort of ominous atmosphere but it sort of comes off like a nu-metal music video with strategically place fog machines stuck in moss. I guess the one positive you can find here is that at least the filmmakers don’t resort to a shot-for-shot rehash and instead decide to make something that stands apart from what came before it. Yet even this is flawed because Jason only appeared briefly in the original Friday the 13th. This is more of a combination of Friday the 13th Part 2 and Part 3, with actors and actresses that look like they would be more comfortable modeling for Abercrombie & Fitch.
While none of the acting is worth mentioning, the film does take an interesting approach to Jason. More territorial maniac than supernatural specter, Jason dashes after these morons with such ferocity that Nispel and Bay were almost able to convince me that Jason is a neat character. He lumbers out of the dark suddenly and he sets traps for the kids to walk blindly into, which was a nice touch for Mr. Voorhees. Nispel and Bay also cram in a new explanation on how Jason found that legendary hockey mask, a sequence that is both painfully stupid and cheesy fun at the same time. It was one of the only scenes that I actually sort of enjoyed. The other was a fleeting glimpse of Jason showing some sort of emotion as Whitney, his sobbing prisoner, pleads with him and says his name. He stops for a moment and studies her, almost backs off for just a brief second, only to stomp away and hunt more teens. I was actually intrigued by the moment because it made me think that maybe all Jason wants is someone to be kind to him rather than wave him off and ignore him like he was all those years ago. Just as quickly as we saw the potential to give a bit of depth to the character, it was gone.
The main draw to Friday the 13th is going to be the elaborate kill sequences but this poor excuse of a film can’t even get that aspect right. Every death scene is a massive let down because there is very little creativity behind the camera. Only one kill made me sit up and take notice but then the scene switches and the intrigue fades. Nispel makes sure he throws in that famous “ch-ch-ch-ch… ka-ka-ka-ka” whispered in the score but it is only here or there and it never sends chills like it wants to. The acting is awful and predictable, with terrible dialogue handed to only marginally talented young thespians. It has been reported that Bay walked out of the premier of the film due to the unflinching sex scenes that Nispel includes but I wonder if he just wasn’t embarrassed by how awful the movie is. That really says something when Michael Bay walks out of the movie. Overall, it doesn’t build upon the dying slasher genre like it could have and it does very little for the gasping Friday the 13th series. My advice is stick to the original trilogy because at least they were sort of fun and atmospheric. And they didn’t have involvement from Michael Bay.
Friday the 13th is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Attack of the Remakes! Halloween II (2009)
by Steve Habrat
While Rob Zombie tried his damndest to put his own fresh spin on the Halloween series while also staying true to the original story in his 2007 remake, you could tell that Zombie was on a short leash. It felt like he was holding something back, whatever that something was. Initially, Zombie swore he would not make a sequel to his remake but after the studio threatened to make a sequel without him, he agreed to slip back into the director’s chair to prevent someone else from desecrating his vision. Personally, I felt his vision was complete and that it really didn’t need a sequel but you know how Hollywood is. Apparently, they wanted to ignore the period he placed on the end of his film. In 2009, Zombie unleashed the deranged funhouse Halloween II, a meaner, bloodier, and busier follow-up that has to rank as one of the most unusual slasher horror films I have ever seen. Even more hit or miss than his 2007 reboot, Zombie attempts to mix exploitation gore, surreal black and white horror, and Michael Myers together and the results are… interesting. Halloween II finds Zombie off his leash and fully embracing that something that he was holding back. That something, it turns out, is full on brutality and countless nods to the classic horror that inspires him.
Picking up just moments after the first film ended, Laurie Strode (Played by Scout Taylor-Compton) is found wandering the streets of Haddonfield with a gun in her hand. Badly injured and in severe shock, Laurie is taken to the emergency room where her wounds are cleaned and mended through ear splitting cries for her family and friends. A year passes and Laurie, now a punk rock rebel who suffers from horrific dreams, is under the care of Sheriff Lee Brackett (Played by Brad Dourif) and shacking up with fellow survivor Annie (Played by Danielle Harris). As Halloween approaches, Laurie’s dreams begin to hint that Michael Myers (Played by Tyler Mane) may not be dead at all. Fueling Laurie’s fears is the fact that the authorities never found a body. Meanwhile, Michael has been searching for his long, lost sister and finding encouragement from the apparition of his deceased mother (Played by Sheri Moon Zombie). To make matters worse, Dr. Samuel Loomis (Played by Malcolm McDowell), who is no longer the good doctor he once was, is capitalizing on the massacre that ripped the small town apart.
While Halloween II has been panned by critics and dismissed by fans as being one of the worst films in the Halloween series, I have to say that I actually found the film fairly entertaining even if it is gleefully repulsive and slightly unfocused. I will agree that the plotline of the film is a mess and that things don’t tie up like Zombie wants them to but the film has such a striking visual approach that it was easy for me to dismiss many of the flaws. I loved the gothic, dreamlike sequences that Zombie uses to cut up his grainy, foul-mouthed slasher exercise. I actually found them to be quite spooky and glaringly Zombie, something that was severely lacking in the 2007 remake. I also really liked the look of Michael in this film. Minus a pair of bloodstained coveralls and half a mask, Michael is filthy dirty and proud of it. Another new touch is Michael’s loud grunts as he brutally stabs to death countless more victims who bump into him. It certainly is a new take on the character and it does deviate from what we have become used to but that is why I like it. While I still prefer silent, coverall-clad Mikey, this one still makes my skin crawl in a good way.
As far as Scout Taylor-Compton goes, her Laurie has undergone a strange shift in character since we last saw her. No longer as buttoned up as she was in the remake, the dark side hinted at has been unleashed and boy, is she grungy. Her shift is unusual, there is no doubt about it, but I feel like Zombie could have found another way to convey that she has embraced more of a darker side after her encounter with Michael. She hangs out with a duo of punk rock chicks that work in a local record shop but these friends are left severely undeveloped and only there to meet the sharp end of Michael’s knife. If you think Laurie’s shift in character is out of left field, wait until you get a load of Loomis. Acting like an arrogant jerk, Loomis is a hot shot flirt who makes big money off of ugly tragedy and it is the complete opposite of what we saw in the first film. I hardly believe that Loomis would have such a drastic shift in his character after getting beaten up by Michael but I guess anything is possible. Dourif is still great as Sheriff Brackett and Danielle Harris works hard as the still-shaky fellow survivor Annie. Sheri Moon Zombie is also back as Michael’s ghostly mother, who encourages her son’s killing spree from the other side. It honestly feels like a way for Zombie to work his wife into the mix but her presence does give Halloween II the unique feel it possesses. Just like Halloween, Zombie throws in a number of B-horror fan favorites including Margot Kidder, ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic, and Richard Riehle.
Throughout Halloween II, Zombie also applies the psychological ‘White Horse’ theory, which he defines at the beginning of the film and then spends the next two hours cramming it down our throats. While I admire Zombie’s attempt to give the film a little psychological depth, he just goes overboard trying to convince us the film is smart. The film does have a seriously eerie opening sequence set in the quiet halls of a hospital while The Moody Blues moan in the background. It superbly pays tribute to the original Halloween II while also working double time to set itself apart from that film. The hospital sequence also features an awesome cameo from Octavia Spencer, who dies extra gruesomely. Steeped in bloody, tie-dyed visuals and unashamed to wear its inspiration on its sleeve, Halloween II comes out just ahead of its predecessor as far as I’m concerned. It feels more original and, dare I say, much more personal than the first film. I personally feel that this film solidifies Zombie’s place on the list of directors to pay close attention to. As he sharpens his skills as a filmmaker, I feel like he will really come up with something that is stunning visually and truly imaginative in the story department. All he needs to do is scale back on the repulsive dialogue and slow down. You can’t quite shake the feeling that Halloween II was rushed and that Zombie was under a lot of pressure to get this thing out. Overall, it certainly isn’t perfect but it is fun to see Zombie set himself apart from the formulaic pack.
Halloween II is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Attack of the Remakes! Halloween (2007)
by Steve Habrat
I think everyone remembers where they were when they learned that there was going to be a remake of John Carpenter’s 1978 flawless horror classic Halloween. I remember I was at my best friends house playing around on his laptop when we happened upon the news. We were in shock, unable to process the fact that there was going to be a remake of one of the scariest films of all time. While half not surprised that Hollywood was going to tinker with a great thing, it still made me sick to my stomach because I figured they would hand the film over to some John Doe director who would screw it up royally. My anger turned to intrigue when I learned that the film was being written, produced, and directed by shock rocker turned filmmaker Rob Zombie. Rob Zombie! While I was a fan of the 2005 splatter flick The Devil’s Rejects, I was so-so with his day-glow Texas Chain Saw Massacre wannabe House of 1000 Corpses. Well, opening weekend came and me and my chums piled into a car and headed to the local theater to check out Zombie’s remake and I must say, we were all fairly impressed with what we saw. Just as nasty, mean, and brutal as I figured it would be, Zombie’s Halloween was actually a surprisingly eerie slasher film that was equally parts new and familiar at the same time, striking just the right balance. It also helps that Zombie populated his dingy remake with a slew of familiar B-horror faces that would make most gore hounds grin from ear to ear. But the most astonishing thing of all remains the fact that the film isn’t nearly as bad as it could have been. Whew!
Halloween 2007 introduces us to young Michael Myers (Played by Daeg Faerch), a ruthlessly bullied boy who already suffers from deranged tendencies. Michael shacks up with his stripper mother Deborah (Played by Sheri Moon Zombie), her deadbeat boyfriend Ronnie (Played by William Forsythe), his older sister Judith (Played by Hanna R. Hall), and his baby sister, only finding affection from his loving mother. On Halloween night, Michael finally snaps from his relentless torment and brutally murders a school bully, Ronnie, Judith, and Judith’s boyfriend Steve. With no recollection of the murders, Michael is taken into custody and sent to Smith’s Grove Sanitarium where is put under the care of kindly Dr. Samuel Loomis (Played by Malcolm McDowell). As the years pass, Michael becomes more and more fixated on papier-mâché masks that he makes in his cell. Dr. Loomis begins to suspect that Michael uses the masks to hide from both himself and the world. Fifteen years pass and Michael (Played by Tyler Mane), now a hulking adult, has stopped speaking to everyone. On the night before Halloween, Michael escapes from his cell and begins making his way back to Haddonfield to find his baby sister, now named Laurie Strode (Played by Scout-Taylor Compton). As Dr. Loomis rushes to contact the authorities, the body count rises as Michael ruthlessly searches for the only person he loves.
The argument has been made that Zombie misunderstood what made the original Halloween such a terrifying experience. It was the fact that we didn’t know anything about Michael or why he is killing anyone who crosses his path. Over the years, he has become known as the “Shape,” the Boogieman walking among us in complete silence. With Halloween 2007, Zombie is forced to dive into Michael’s background and in the process; he explains literally every single aspect of the character. We learn why he wears that legendary mask, what made him snap, that he demonstrated psychotic behavior before he went on his killing spree, and that he is pretty close with that old Dr. Loomis. All of this is complimented with heaping amounts of gore and profane dialogue that does get a bit ludicrous at times. Trust me, I’m no prude but at points you can’t help but picture Zombie hunched over a computer straining to think of the most repulsive dialogue he can. He certainly succeeds. Even though Zombie explains everything, I argue that he had no choice but to explain away the character. What else was he going to do? Hardcore Halloween fans would have grumbled if he would have done a shot for shot remake and thankfully, he didn’t resort to that. I give Zombie credit for daring to try something new with the character and taking a peak behind that legendary mask rather than doing what has already been done. I can certainly say that he does make Halloween his own to an extent because he leaves the ending relatively the same.
The acting of Halloween 2007 ends up being a mixed trick or treat bag of sugary sweets and bitter sours. Sheri Moon Zombie is better at the big-hearted mommy than I ever thought she’d be. She is sort of hit or miss with me but here she proves that she possesses some dramatic depth even if she is forced to spit out cliché lines of dialogue. I really enjoyed her bickering and fighting with Forsythe’s abusive boyfriend Ronnie. He was a real piece of work but he doesn’t stick around long. Faerch is so-so as little Michael, a little too forced but he is creepy when he finally slips into madness. Tyler Mane plays Michael Myers exactly how you would expect him to. He cocks his head from side to side but he stabs, hacks, and slashes just a little more violently than he did in the 1978 original. McDowell was a welcome presence as Dr. Loomis, an interesting choice to play Michael’s psychiatrist. McDowell gives it his all and he comes out with the best performance in the film. Then there is Scout Taylor-Compton as the slightly annoying Laurie Strode, a buttoned up teen with a dark edge according the skulls on her black hoodie. There isn’t really anything that particularly stands out about her and that is precisely her problem. She does prove to audiences that she is a hell of a screamer and her cries of terror could wake the dead. Kristina Klebe and Danielle Harris are on board as Lynda and Annie, Laurie’s friends who lack the fizzy magnetism that they had in the original film but they provide a little eye candy. Brad Dourif is second to McDowell as the skeptical Sheriff Lee Brackett and boy, does he come close to stealing the film from the good doctor. For fans of B-horror, keep a look for cameos from Ken Foree, Udo Kier, Danny Trejo, Clint Howard, Sid Haig, and Sybil Danning, to name a few.
Zombie also makes the wise choice of including the iconic Halloween score, sped up and layered with a few more electronics by Tyler Bates. He adds a few new little synthesizer warbles here and there while paying tribute to the little electronic jolts that Carpenter threw into his film. Zombie applies (unsurprisingly) a grainy and aged look to the film with costumes and sets that are reminiscent of the late 70’s and early 80’s with a gloss of modern caked on. Where the original Halloween sees little to no gore at all throughout its runtime, Zombie brings buckets full of blood and guts to his hillbillies-from-Hell party. I will warn you that the film is exceptionally brutal and grotesque so be prepared and plan accordingly. While I do feel Zombie’s exhausting explanations do take away from some of the horror, I still have to give him credit for staying true to the original film’s story while also daring to add on a fairly engaging prequel. Is the film perfect? Oh no, it certainly isn’t. If someone asked me if I wanted to watch Zombie’s film or Carpenter’s, I’d go with Carpenter’s classic in a heartbeat. Overall, Halloween 2007 could have been much worse but it actually turns out to be a pretty entertaining slasher film with a filthy, razor-sharp edge. I’ll take this ugly beast any day over most other tired and hollow remakes.
Halloween 2007 is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Attack of the Remakes! The Omen (2006)
by Steve Habrat
If there is one thing in this world that makes absolutely no sense to me, it is when Hollywood decides to remake a classic horror film and do a shot-by-shot redo of the film. We saw it happen with Gus Van Sant’s color remake of Psycho and we all know how THAT one turned out (if you can believe it, one of my film professors though it was brilliant…). In 2006, Hollywood got the bright idea to revisit director Richard Donner’s 1976 demonic thriller The Omen, one of the best horror films to emerge from the heyday of gritty, blood-under-the-nails horror. The film may have been one of the countless imitators made in the wake of such demonic horror films like Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist but The Omen remains one of the titans of this subgenre because of its lingering post-Watergate chill and its bleak inverted-crucifix conclusion that practically leaves your heart pounding out of your chest. Basically, the original is a must for die-hard fans of horror. I can’t say the same about the absolutely pointless and flat post 9/11 update. Made to be released on 6/6/06 (I’m being serious), The Omen 2006 attempts to use horrific current events (9/11, Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami) as its gloomy backdrop but then does little else new or exciting with the story. If you’ve seen the original, you’ve seen this one. Absolutely nothing has been changed.
For those who are not familiar with The Omen, I’ll provide a brief plot synopsis. After American diplomat Robert Thorn (Played by Leiv Schreiber) is told that his newborn son died shortly after birth, the distraught Robert grapples with how to break the news to his wife, Katherine (Played by Julia Stiles). The hospital’s priest suggests that Robert adopt another newborn child whose mother died during childbirth and has no other living family member. To spare Katherine the pain, Robert accepts this offer and the Thorn’s raise the child, Damien, as their own. Five years pass and Robert is made Deputy Ambassador to the Court of St. James and the Thorns begin a new, lavish life in London. Everything is great for the Thorns but soon a serious of bizarre events begin to surround Damien (Played by Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick). After a horrific suicide at Damien’s fifth birthday party, Robert is approached by Father Brennan (Played by Peter Postlewaite), who claims to have information on Damien’s birthmother. As the events grow more and more disturbing, Robert is forced to humor Father Brennan and he begins searching for more information on the boy. He gets help from a spooked photographer named Keith Jennings (Played by David Thewlis), who may be marked for death. Meanwhile, a mysterious new nanny named Mrs. Baylock (Played by Mia Farrow) has come to the Thorn household and begun watching over Damien, protecting him at any cost.
Directed by John Moore, The Omen 2006 is shot like a gothic music video and frantically edited together to imitate a strobe light. It’s incredibly stylish and symbolically obvious (the color red surrounds Damien everywhere he goes) to the point where all you can do is roll your eyes. The death scenes are overly grisly and amped up to outdo the chilling sudden demises found in the original film. The sets look like leftovers from David Fincher’s Seven and when an ominous mood fails Moore, he just clouds up the sky and allows a little thunder and lightning to make things creepy or simply dims the light in places where he shouldn’t. He also falls back on shaky camera shots in the hopes that it makes the scene just a tad more interesting. Outside of exploiting real life disasters as the rise of the antichrist, Moore and screenwriter David Seltzer inject a series of bizarre hallucinations and nightmares suffered by Katherine. They are composed of blinding reds and whites as demons in ceremonial robes stalk Katherine in baroque bathrooms and red clad Damien waves a noose around. These scenes are brought to us in rapid fire flashes that are accompanied by loud bangs on the soundtrack, which Moore assumes automatically makes them scary. To the jittery horror viewer, this may all be extremely terrifying but to those of us who are seasoned veterans, it’s all very cheap and lazy.
If the movie itself isn’t dull enough, the acting doesn’t really do much to spice things up. Schreiber and Stiles are grossly miscast in their roles and look laughable compared to the original’s Gregory Peck and Lee Remick. Schreiber looks stuffy and uncomfortable trying to prevent the rise of the antichrist while Stiles seems too young and bored as she sulks after their demon seed. Davey-Fitzpatrick could rank as one of the worst child actors to hit the screen in quite some time. He fails to really shake us up like he should. Moore instructs him to glare at everyone like they refused to buy him a toy he so desperately wanted. Things really get laughable at the end when Moore asks him to turn from distant child into thrashing demon. He looks like he is throwing a phony temper tantrum and it is downright awful. Postlewaite works his ass off as the perpetually terrified Father Brennan but there is just too little of him to really save this junk heap. Thewlis is likable enough as Jennings, a photographer who captures some sinister photographs. He makes up for the stiff and out-of-place Schreiber but the two just don’t have the chemistry that they should. Rounding out the main players is Farrow, who seems to be having a devilishly good time as Mrs. Baylock. She gives the film the suspense and unease that it so desperately wants.
As if the lack of any surprises and lukewarm performances wasn’t enough, The Omen is littered with glaring screw-ups in the script. Near the climax of the film, Robert receives news that someone very close to him has mysteriously died and upon learning that news, Robert tells Keith that he wants Damien dead. In the next scene, Robert goes to see a mysterious priest who instructs him on how to kill the child. As the priest explains the ritual, the distraught ambassador becomes sick to his stomach and claims that he cannot kill a child. Perhaps he forgot his previous statement? There are plenty more “What the hell?” moments like this to be found throughout the film so make sure you are prepared. As someone who admires the original film and appreciates its slow build-up, I say skip this utterly pointless remake and seek out the original. Somehow, it is more realistic and it’s all the more chilling due to its gritty presentation. If you are determined to see the modern interpretation, well, I suppose if you are in the market for a nap, this one will help put you to sleep.
The Omen 2006 is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Attack of the Remakes! The Hills Have Eyes (2006)
by Steve Habrat
It didn’t take long for Alexandre Aja’s The Hill’s Have Eyes remake to win me over. All it took was that brutal opening sequence and the spirited, stock footage atomic blast credits to convince me that I was in for one hell of a punishing ride. This zippy, bloody remake based on Wes Craven’s 1977 original has certainly been one of the more polarizing reboots to come out of Hollywood. The gritty original film is beloved for its simplicity but its status as a horror classic remains debatable. In fact, I think this is one of the few instances where I would have to go with the remake over the original film. Certainly not a film for the faint of heart, I would go so far as to say that Aja’s interpretation of this radiated nightmare is one of the strongest, most unforgiving, and confident mainstream horror films of recent memory. I adore the fact that this film refuses to play nice and just coast on autopilot as loud blasts of music startle us rather than scare us. I love that it dares give the viewer a heart attack as it drops a helpless infant into a savage world where deformed mutants attempt to chop it up and eat it. I hold my breath as our desperate liberal pacifist hero tiptoes around a forgotten atomic bomb test village as the savage cannibals growl and snicker from unseen vantage points. And how about that score from Tomandandy, all atomic alerts and static moans as characters are slaughtered in the most horrific ways imaginable. This, my friends, is a horror film that isn’t afraid to get right in the viewers face and stay there.
The Hills Have Eyes introduces us to Ethel Carter (Played by Kathleen Quinlan) and her husband, “Big” Bob Carter (Played by Ted Levine), who are on their way from Cleveland, Ohio to San Diego, California for their wedding anniversary. Behind them, they are dragging a trailer filled with their cranky teenage daughter Brenda (Played by Emile de Ravin), respectful son Bobby (Played by Dan Byrd), eldest daughter Lynn (Played by Vinessa Shaw), Lynn’s liberal husband Doug Bukowski (Played by Aaron Stanford), their newborn daughter Catherine, and a pair of feisty German Shepherds. After stopping off at a dilapidated gas station in the middle of the New Mexico desert, the greasy gas station attendant recommends a scenic short cut for the family to take. “Big” Bob decides to take the recommended short cut but after traveling a few miles down the beaten path, the family’s tires are punctured by a spike belt. Stranded out in the middle of nowhere with a totaled car, the family begins trying to figure out a way to make it back to the main road and get help. As night falls in the New Mexico hills, the Carter’s begin to realize that they are not alone and that someone is watching them.
After the arresting opening sequence, Aja allows us to really get to know the Carter family in all their dysfunctional glory. They appear to be the typical American family that bickers, fights, but comes together over dinner. Aja lingers on them a long time before he unleashes his nuclear band of mutants that hide out in a dusty atomic test village. When he finally does launch into the carnage, he doesn’t ease us into it. He grabs us by the hair and tosses us in with such ferocity that we almost need a minute to recover. He knocks off three characters half way through and then to make things worse, we have a kidnapped newborn child to worry about. This first attack on the Carter’s has to ranks as one of the most terrifying sequences in a horror film, as one character is burned to death outside, a graphic rape and torture is occurring inside the trailer. This sequence will bring you to your knees as you watch from the cracked fingers covering your eyes. The sequence really leaves a bruise because we care for these characters and we are forced to watch as they are senselessly slaughtered right in front of our eyes. The film has been accused of descending into “torture porn” but I disagree with this argument. “Torture porn” films like Saw really failed to engage me emotionally like The Hills Have Eyes did. Saw was just disgusting where The Hills Have Eyes is scaring, traumatizing, and disturbing while also churning your stomach.
The one flaw that I can find with The Hills Have Eyes is some of the dialogue at the beginning of the film is poorly written. It was far from natural as characters ramble on with obviously scripted conversations. Luckily, we have some talented actors and actresses in front of the camera who can sell the lame dialogue. Levine ad-libbed all of his dialogue and its all the better for it. He is just fantastic as the gun-totting Republican who loves to tease his liberal son-in-law. Quinlan is believable as the loving mother who stews and frets over her children as they tease her with one dirty joke after another. Byrd and de Ravin are nicely cast as teenage hellions who argue with one another over little things that don’t warrant an argument. In the second half of the film, they really come together to stay alive and keep each other from succumbing to inconsolable grief. Shaw is sort of forgettable as Lynn but it is sweet the way she tries to keep Doug’s spirit up even as Bob relentlessly teases him. Stanford is probably the best next to Levine, especially in the second half of the film. Watching him transform from a non-confrontational wimp into a shotgun packing man on a mission is absolutely jaw dropping.
Elevated by strong pacing and a stunning explosion of violence, The Hills Have Eyes certain gets under your skin and fast. The action is complimented by a marvelous score by Tomandandy, who build suspense with a chugging atomic alert when the mutants are about to strike and make Ennio Morricone proud as soaring trumpets punctuate the final showdown. By the end, it almost sounds like Aja borrowed the score from a forgotten spaghetti western. The make-up and special effects on the mutants is also fairly impressive but the less you know about them, the better they are. I will say that I would have liked to see a bit more development out of them but they are pretty spooky as they are. I liked that Aja doesn’t ever reveal how many mutants are lurking out in the desert, which adds another chilling layer to the film. What ultimately makes The Hills Have Eyes into a ferocious winner is its willingness to be as unpredictable as possible. Aja refuses to work from a familiar formula and his addition of the atomic test village at the end allows the film to stand apart from Craven’s original film. Overall, The Hills Have Eyes is an intelligent horror film that isn’t afraid to leave the viewer rattled to their core. If Hollywood insists on remakes, they should all be as good as this.
The Hills Have Eyes is available on Blu-ray and DVD.