Review: “The Hills Have Eyes”

A visually striking and at times very intense remake of the early Wes Craven classic, “The Hills Have Eyes” essentially ends up being much like another recent remake of a 70’s horror classic – “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”. Like that 2003 effort, the movie takes a very low-budget and somewhat sadistic indie film from the 70’s and delivers the same tale with contemporary high gloss studio sheen, some slick and superb cinematography, and violence as gratuitous if not more so than its predecessor.

Unlike Tobe Hooper’s ‘Texas’ though which has always held a high position in the horror pantheon, the original ‘Hills’ was never considered one of the real classics like certain other Craven efforts such as “A Nightmare on Elm Street” or “The Last House on the Left”. Added to that were the various major problems that come with the territory of low budget filmmaking and a director’s early days behind a camera.

Thus a remake is in practicality a good idea, and essentially this does succeed at not only sticking to the spirit of the original film, but actually improving on it in many ways. The end result is a remake that’s at least justified in existing, something that can’t be said for many remakes of late whether they be utter crap (“The Pink Panther”) or even Oscar-nominated (“King Kong”).

Another good move was bringing in French director Alexandre Aja who delivered last year’s atmospheric and visually striking “High Tension” which in itself was very successful at paying homage to these old 70’s horror films. In many ways it would’ve been considered right up there with classics if it weren’t for its stupid last act twist and bumbling script issues.

No stupid last act twist here in this though, the simple concept of mutant hillbillies attacking a vacationing family stuck on the backroads of New Mexico is still intact without much deviation from the original film’s story. Aja and writing partner Gregory Levasseur have added some layers as well ranging from a creative context for the mutants existence, to even political subtext about such issues as gun control, the right to privacy, and the Republican conservative agenda.

The more populated and issue-plagued family still comes off as quite real and natural in their behaviours towards each other and the unfolding horror around them. Keeping this grounded approach but upping the production values (a lot of people in makeup this time, whereas the original just used assorted actors with odd facial features) has both its strengths and downsides.

The upside is New Mexico never looked so flash – Aja makes various desert wastelands and canyons into places of creepy foreboding, the opening sequence involving radiation testers is truly a frightening and shocking sequence that starts the film off with a real bang, and the deaths have a refreshing sense of unpredictability and shock to them that makes it hard to guess who’ll be around by the end.

The downside though is the studio gloss approach does allow one to stand back a little from the horror shown – like it or not those low budget flicks like the original “Hills” & “Texas” or the recent fare like “The Devil’s Rejects” I find almost too hard to watch because you feel like you’re really there watching events unfold. Whereas here as much as I felt rather ‘ick’ about certain scenes (most notably the opening and the trailer scene), others came off as so cheaply gratuitous it was almost laughable.

For example the already infamous trailer scene, easily the film’s biggest horror set piece, is difficult to watch and has some rather gruesome things happening. Yet the original version was quicker, more visceral and more realistic. Here it goes on forever and leaves nothing to the imagination, yet the result of that is something that’s more just disgusting than frightening.

Not helping is KNB’s mutant makeup which is simply so elaborate that it takes away from the realism, and then there’s the stupidity of the good characters who up til that point were coming across as quite credible. The scene does end on a strong note with two high impact and unexpected deaths, but it lacks the frightening punch that the opening had.

From that point on the gore and action gets even more ridiculous with Aaron Stanford’s bland sales manager character essentially turning into Bruce Willis’ “Die Hard” persona – most of the last act consists of him getting beaten down and punched to a bloody pulp and yet always getting up again and killing mutants left and right to the point of boredom.

Similarly Emilie de Ravin, a good little Aussie actress in her own right, spends most of the film either bitching or screaming which does her no favours. Quinlan & Levine turn in decent takes as the loving and somewhat conservative parents, but its Vinessa Shaw as the young new mother and rake thin Dan Byrd as the young brother forced action who are the film’s strongest performers.

The open ending after all the repetitive gore-soaked brutality also sadly feels like a cop out. The end result is thus a mixed film, much like Aja’s “High Tension”. ‘Hills’ does stand on its own over its predecessor. Its a very good looking film without question, and is both brutal enough to shock and yet polished enough to know where the line should be drawn and serves to stretch it rather than break it.

Yet it suffers from the problems that hit last year’s better Aussie horror flick “Wolf Creek” – despite an interesting concept there’s very little meat to the story. It takes time to establish the characters in the first half, and then falls into gratuitous horror cliche formula in the second. Ultimately whilst it serves its purpose on an immediate level, it never tries or works at becoming something greater.

Certainly one of the better horror films of recent months and one of the better films in this always dull early time of the year, one can’t help but feel though that if it had its violence and suspense focused more on impact rather than simply visual gratification, this could’ve been so much more.