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.