March 14, 2006 12:00

The Hills Have Eyes (and mutant hillbilly cannibals)

In the interest of full disclosure, let me state right off that I have never seen the original version of The Hills Have Eyes. I know — I can't imagine for a second how I even begin to call myself a film critic.

And in the interest of keeping your attention, I'd argue that it doesn't matter. Think about it: how often are horror films remade for the benefit of the original audience? Approximately never, that's how often. Fans of the originals don't need new versions — they're already fans. So we return to that weather-beaten and enduring question: Who watches this crap?

Me. I watch it. And as much as I complain about the utter lack of new ideas coming out of major Hollywood studios, I even enjoy them occasionally, though I completely understand why someone who saw atrocious remakes like The Haunting would balk at having their favorite films pillaged.

But purists — and God bless them all — must understand that very rarely does anyone involved in a remake give a rat's ass about their fond memories. These films are made for people who might vaguely recognize the title, understand that it's been done before, and go see it anyway.

That's a dangerous proposition and it almost never works out, but sometimes a good movie will spring out of the unlikeliest places. And it happened with The Hills Have Eyes.

The film begins with a montage of footage featuring nuclear bombs detonating in the desert, mushroom clouds expanding for miles, and the resultant birth defects and deformities that crop up in the surrounding towns, set to a joyful, ironic honky-tonk melody. It's a pretty blatant rip-off of the terrific opening to the Dawn of the Dead remake, where the world ends to the sound of Johnny Cash singing “The Man Comes Around,” but I wonder if the rules for this kind of plagiarism haven't changed a bit in a Hollywood studio system so drunk on resurrecting old properties. But anyway….

The story centers on a disastrous trip through the New Mexico desert, in which a bickering family en route to San Diego finds themselves ensnared and terrorized by a group of mutated cannibals, the progeny of a mining town that, back in the 1950s, refused to evacuate when the US government moved in to do nuclear testing. One by one the family members are lured away from the group, at which point they are kidnapped and tortured in a variety of graphic ways. Superfluous gore ensues.

The only reason I recommend this film is that, judged on its own merits, it's unbelievably suspenseful. I might not have seen the original, but I've seen a lot of Wes Craven films, and my honest opinion is that, while he has produced some gems, I've never found any of them particularly gripping — not A Nightmare on Elm Street, not The Serpent and the Rainbow, not even his magnum opus Vampire in Brooklyn. I even found all the hoopla surrounding last year's Red Eye universally undeserved, the collective excitement of a film-going public relieved they weren't watching Scream 4 (even though, by the end, they essentially were).

It's a different story with the director of this film, Alexandre Aja, who just recently scared the crap out of me with his French blockbuster, 2005's High Tension. In one film Aja managed to get more gasps out of me than Craven has in his entire career. Call me short-sighted, but the gut reaction speaks for itself.

Aja, making a stylistic choice many modern horror directors either don't make or can't get away with, keeps his monsters off-camera for a long time, ratcheting up the tension slowly with well-orchestrated sound effects and sinister moving shadows. Consequently, when the audience finally stares evil full-on in the face about an hour into the film, the payoff is excellent.

This is facilitated in part by the make-up artists and visual effects designers, who have forged some truly grotesque creations in the film's mutated hillbillies. For pure shock value, it's hard to beat a snaggle-toothed, drooling cave dweller wielding a pick-axe, and The Hills Have Eyes has placed its mouth-breathing cannibals right behind zombies on my all-time list of personal favorite nightmares.

The gore will probably turn off some viewers, which is completely understandable — in the course of this two-hour movie, one character loses his entire head to a shotgun blast, another gets burned at the stake, another locked in a refrigerator full of dismembered body parts, and on and on. Aja's camera doesn't flinch for a moment of it, but even the most iron-stomached viewers will. Another byproduct of the drawn-out exposition is that these characters, while on the whole disposable, are at least likeable, and it's hard to delight too much in their slaughter.

So while many devotees of the original could be predisposed to write this one off, I think there's a decent horror film here. Don't misread me — Hollywood's obvious lack of new ideas is as disheartening as it ever was, but at least some of the old ones are being redrawn by talents like Aja, who has infused his American debut with real tension and horror. These hills have eyes, and they've got a few brains, too.

Are you a mutant hillbilly, and feel this film has misrepresented your values, way of life, and thirst for man-flesh? E-mail your demands of recompense to glen.baity@gmail.com.

Also from Glen Baity

EVENTS CALENDAR

FACEBOOK FEED

STORY COMMENTS