Judge Bill Gibron never considered the original creepfest a macabre masterpiece, but thanks to this exceptional remake, he now has a greater appreciation of Wes Craven's efforts, as well as Alexandre Aja's "re-imagining."
The lucky ones die first.
As remake fever continues to overtake the horror genre, it's important to note how approach and attitude are utilized in the whole "re-imagining" process. If you have a full-fledged zombie epic, yet feel the need to draw back on the blood to gain a demographically friendly PG-13 rating, you're more or less undermining the living dead before they even have a chance to attack. Nothing is less scary than a cannibalistic corpse that can't delight in a disemboweling—at least, not on screen. Similarly, if you take it upon yourself to modify the elements that made the first movie popular, you run the risk of pissing off the very people you hope to lure. Then again, a shot-for-shot redux of a favored film is kind of pointless (right, Mr. Van Zant?). No, the best combination is a deference to the past with enough difference to intrigue both new and old interests. The Hills Have Eyes (2006) appears to have the proper combination of traditional and tangential. Wes Craven's desert Deliverance was a disarmingly dark dissection of two competing family units—one a bunch of blasé suburbanites, the other a clan of flesh-craving creatures. Thanks to the efforts of new director Alexandre Aja, the battling brood element remains. Still the question remains, are the new tweaks enough to transcend Craven's concepts or is it just another example of a revisit for no good reason? It turns out to be a very interesting enigma.
Facts of the Case
In celebration of the parents' 25th wedding anniversary, the Carter Family—consisting of Big Bob (Ted Levine, The Silence of the Lambs), Ethel (Kathleen Quinlan, Event Horizon), young son Bobby (Dan Byrd, Salem's Lot), teenage daughter Brenda (Emilie de Ravin, Brick), and eldest child Lynn (Vinessa Shaw, Corky Romano), who has brought along nebbish husband Doug (Aaron Stanford, X2) and their newborn child—are traveling cross country to California. Tagging along a vintage Airstream trailer, this decidedly modern clan isn't necessarily interested in roughing it. Big Bob just seems to be desperate to recapture his youth. When they breakdown on a back road shortcut, they face the sweltering heat and isolation of the Nevada desert. They try to make the best of it, with Big Bob and Doug heading out to find help. Little do they know that in the surrounding mountains lives a family of mutants, genetic aberrations from the various nuclear tests in the area. As they stalk the family one by one, their brutal sense of self-preservation guarantees that many of the Carters won't see daylight. As a matter of fact, only these foul freaks seem completely cognizant of their surroundings. Apparently, The Hills Have Eyes.
Wes Craven has always been a tough call, at least critically. He either knocks them out of the ballpark with his combination of massacres and moralizing or he fails completely and utterly. He is one of the more unique voices in horror in that his films seem to act as catharsis for the various sinful thoughts inside this spiritually unsure man. Raised by fundamentalist Baptists, Craven was taught to see transgression in everything. This dogma dictated the way he contextualized events. In college, he finally discovered the joy of cinema and yet he was still influenced by his corrupting creed. While watching The Virgin Spring, he focused on the revenge more than the rape. Thus he begot his own take on the material, the heralded and hideous Last House on the Left. As he got older, he let politics plot his ideas (The People Under the Stairs was his assault of Reaganomics—really) while various stories he stored in his brain became the basis for classics (A Nightmare on Elm Street) and crap (Deadly Friend, Vampire in Brooklyn). One of his most problematic pictures was 1977's The Hills Have Eyes. While many find it a masterful second effort after House, others were disappointed by its lack of drive and blatant brutality. In essence, Craven was being called out, asked to decide where he stood on the nature of good and evil. It is interesting to note that he never quite comes up with a solid answer. Now, nearly 30 years later, a new version of Hills has hit theaters and, believe it or not, the same dichotomy arises. This time, however, it's not a question of right or wrong; it's a matter of repetition vs. reinvention.
There are actually two movies inside this version of The Hills Have Eyes, each one battling for ultimate genre supremacy. One is the exact same film that Wes Craven already made all those years ago. It's a taut, tricky thriller where a family must face an unseen but deadly presence bent on killing them all. The other is reminiscent of the newly-named "horror porn" that critics have been complaining about since Hostel hacked open some tourist's Achilles tendon. Filmed in the same flat, desaturated design of 2003's Texas Chainsaw Massacre redux, French filmmaker Alexandre Aja (perhaps best known for his heralded Haute Tension) does successfully redefine what Craven couldn't achieve with his low-budget ideals. Starting with a backstory which uses the numerous nuclear bomb tests from the '40s and '50s as the basis for our murderous mutants, Aja and his co-writer Gregory Lavasseur are out to make a clever combination of traditional suspense and balls-to-the-wall slaughter. They want to try for a tonally tripwire production where at one moment we're on the edge of our seat and the next we are witness to some of the most gory Grand Guignol moments ever captured. Unfortunately, such a structural conceit causes the film to stumble, even with all the fan-fancying last act freak-show frights.
Frankly, it's difficult to say if The Hills Have Eyes (2006) would be any better had the two opposite genre ideals been completely meshed into one. The entire first half of the film is weird and disconcerting. Aja—following the first film's family dynamic to the letter—is still unable to find a single character with an emotional core for us to connect to. Everyone here is a stereotype, a simp, or simple plot fodder. The father, Big Bob, is a red-state know-it-all, his wife an unrelenting yenta. Their three kids run the sensitivity gamut from spoiled (slutty daughter) to stunted (toadying teen son) to stupid (eldest child, married to a man who obviously hates her). The sour son-in-law is Bob's ideological opposite, confusing his martial unease with permission to stare at his sister-in-law's bikinied body. He seems to have tagged along to complain a lot, only to suffer through a last-half-hour hero transformation. Add in an infant for instant biological and situational sympathy and a pair of dogs that keep asking to die, and you've got a pack of faded cardboard cutouts as a cast. The minute they start spitting up blood, one by one, we realize just how much we really don't care. Without the numerous body parts spattering along the trailer walls, these cruel killings would barely register.
On the monster side of the equation, things are much better, if equally unappealing. Greg Nicotero and the guys from KNB have done a dynamite job of manufacturing realistic creature effects (though why anyone would be afraid of Sloth from The Goonies is a topic for a later discussion). There are a lot of unanswered questions about the film's physically deformed brood, few of which are addressed with any kind of certainty. We never know why they've resorted to cannibalism. Craven suggested in the original that it had something to do with being completely cut off from the rest of society and we do get a scene here where our hopeless he-man stumbles across a mineshaft graveyard, which may or may not suggest isolation and desperation. Still, just like the Sawyer's love of long pig in the original Chainsaw, resorting to eating human hamburger is a pretty frantic step. Readily available people (in part through the efforts of their gas station accomplice) isn't a justification for the decision, however. In the case of our corrupted clan, it seems like a lifestyle choice. Then there's the familial dynamic. We see a bald momma, a few malformed men folk, and some facially fudged-up kids. We don't know how they function as a unit, why they remain together, or how they manage the many emergencies that must arise. Granted, this is probably asking far too much from a standard slice-and-dice, but the original idea here is so intriguing (radiation victims get violent) that to waste it on a selection of stunning make-up pieces is just unfair.
There is something else that has to be said upfront—this is an incredibly brutal movie. This unrated edition does contain additional gore and gratuity, but an extra gaping wound or two does not necessarily signal cruelty. No, the new The Hills Have Eyes (again, like the original) celebrates violence for its own vile, vomit-inducing sake. Staying within the realm of the primal and the perverted, the filmmakers' answer for any and all conflict is unmitigated mayhem. There are more pickaxes through skulls, sharp objects stabbing limbs, and farm tools to the torso than in a dozen other derivative horror romps. Aja and Lavasseur have obviously obsessed over the Craven canon, since they have boiled down his auteurism to various acts of nonstop, numbing nastiness. Certainly one can categorize The Last House on the Left as such an unrelenting excursion into malice, but this director has long since redeemed himself—somewhere approximately after Freddy faced the Dream Warriors. That being said, the real issue for the film is that such an unseemly scenario is just not very scary. Unsettling would be a much better word. If Aja was trying for substantive sadism, he's achieved it. If there is supposed to be a message to this kind of madness, it gets lost in the vein-spurting shuffle. You can read a few thematic notions in The Hills Have Eyes (a pacifist resorting to war tactics to win, the least likeable character as the champion), but they don't resonate in a manner that stays with us.
Indeed, The Hills Have Eyes (2006) is far from perfect. You are assaulted by Aja's style with its obvious bows to Ridley "Overcranking" Scott, mugged by the sheer lack of memorable characterization, and left slumped over in the grime and sludge before the mutant town shows up to play Good Bad Samaritan. The last act, though woefully underdeveloped, actually saves the film. Instead of a complete waste of time, a Psycho-style redo with sequences skimmed note for note, we are welcomed into a world which we've never seen before. Where the original film finished with a clear-cut cannibal/victims showdown, this new version goes off to explore its own powerful putrescence. Everything about the post A-bomb location, from its generic government style to its physically foul inhabitants is intriguing. Even the symbolism suggesting the death of the American dream in the post-millennial malaise of the USA is expertly realized. Paraphrasing Robert Ebert in his scathing negation of the title, the movie should have only been about the mutants. Again, had Aja found a way to work this material all through his The Hills Have Eyes, we wouldn't necessarily have a better film, just a more satisfyingly paced one. We grow so tired of the folks bickering and pushing those formulaic dysfunctional buttons that we all but welcome the eventual influx of evil. It's to Aja's partial credit that individuals we wish would bite the big one end up surviving—sort of—at the end. Slicing the narrative in two only exposes the shortcomings in each half. Craftily combining them into some manner of Hatfields/McCoys standoff would have been preferable to the random raids into each other's "territory."
Over the years, Craven's original political parable (the us-versus-them mandate is strong in his original narrative) has gained a more or less undeserved masterwork label. Granted, the idea is reminiscent of several similar films (though it seems like Race with the Devil with a far sicker set-up). Just like Last House on the Left, which is all suggestion and very little payoff, the '77 Hills's iconic nature has carried it a lot further than its actual fear factors. It's a good movie, just not a great one. One imagines the same fame fate for the remake. There is an immediacy here that is hard to beat and when people are discussing it years from now, it will be the mutants and their fan-fiction imposed personalities that everyone will argue over. They provide the most intriguing element and due to the lack of other subplot substance, they also claim the highest curiosity factor. This guarantees that the geeks will be alert to any mention of their meaning in message board posts to come. Similar to the staying power of Bub in the unfairly dismissed Day of the Dead or the various Cenobites in Clive Barker's Hellraiser series, the context will be avoided while the creatures rule the convention floor. Granted, the desert's beauty can be deceptive. Behind its natural setting, it hides horrors both biological and man-made.
Fox releases this unrated DVD in a technically exceptional package. The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image is amazingly atmospheric. Again, Aja desaturates the colors, giving everything a wind-blown and arid aura. The contrasts are controlled with expertise and the artistry inherent in Aja's camerawork (constantly moving from perfectly-framed compositions to complete hand-held frenzy) is captured in a flawless fashion. Just the slightest step below full reference quality, the terrific transfer here is first rate. On the sound side, we are treated to an equally effective Dolby Digital Surround 5.1 mix. Utilizing the spatial and directional elements of the other speakers, this immersive aural experience really amplifies the terror tenets. Sure, the sound effects can occasionally overwhelm the channels, making chaotic and harsh what should be gently considered. Yet this is still an amazingly moody and highly ambient sonic situation.
As for extras, Fox heaps on some decent supplements, yet one can't help feeling that a double dip—perhaps tied to some manner of anniversary—or sequel is in the works. First off, we get a pair of perfectly engaging full-length audio commentaries. Like the true rabid horror fans that they are, director Aja, co-screenwriter Lavasseur, and producer Marianna Maddalena sit down to giggle and joke their way through a very detailed discussion. Dominated mostly by Aja and Maddalena, the entire production process, from post-Haute Tension attention to final editing woes, is discussed in depth. Next, the original production team of Wes Craven and Peter Locke plays clueless old coots as they reminisce and remark about the wonderful job Aja and the gang did with their movie. Self-deprecating, filled with funny anecdotes (they wanted the new production to film in the exact same desert location that they used, only to drive out and discover a slew of condominium developments), and honest in their feelings over performance and plot changes, this second conversation is key to understanding the remake process. Apart from the cash, Craven and Locke are generally interested to see what their ideas spawned. From the sound of this bonus feature, they are certainly not disappointed.
Next up is an hour long look at the making of the movie. No so much an overall behind the scenes as a set-piece-specific look at the film, Aja walks us through looks at the gas station setup, the trailer attack, Big Bob's burn, the mutant make-up effects, and the building of the nuclear town. Perhaps the most amazing fact about The Hills Have Eyes (2006) is that it was filmed in Morocco and yet nothing about the film feels false or foreign. The use of CGI is also highlighted, since a few of the mutants were realized via gigabites, not latex and greasepaint. From the concern over the stuntwork to Billy Drago's manic Method madness (this is one scary actor), the featurette fills us in on details and designs in the filmmaking that we otherwise might have missed. Add in some trailers, a collection of video production diaries (11 more minutes of amazing insight), and a pointless music video, and Fox has followed through with a solid, saleable release.
So in the grand scheme of scare remakes, where does The Hills Have Eyes (2006) rank? For this critic, the benchmark is still the Texas Chainsaw redux, since it figured out a way to be loyal to the source material while effectively managing its own mythology. Dawn of the Dead did something similar—honoring Romero while amplifying the Resident Evil. Obvious fumbles like The Fog don't count, since they mangled Carpenter's mean mythology to try and create a tween-friendly PG-13 shocker. Gus Van Zant's Psycho is shite, pure and simple. Aja and his European aesthetic do allow for a unique, if ultimately uncertain experience, meaning The Hills Have Eyes almost transcends its personality problems to become a genuine horror icon. Craven's version stands because it was first out of the box, among other reasons. This means that any attempt at recapturing its past glories needs that certain extra something to boast it beyond a clever copy. Alexandre Aja has his savior in the Radiation City storyline. While it's too bad that he decided to wait so long before showing it to us, it makes this revamp an essentially worthy successor.
Not guilty, by the narrowest of margins. The Court acknowledges Alexandre Aja as a rising star in the world of horror, and acquits this remake of any crimes against classicism.
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Scales of Justice
• Full-length Audio Commentary with Director/Co-Writer Alexandre Aja, Art Director/Co-Writer Gregory Levasseur, and Producer Marianne Maddalena
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