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The Hills Have Eyes Review

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by Chris McEneany Aug 19, 2006 at 12:00 AM

    The Hills Have Eyes Review
    “That's not my Bob ... that's not my Bob!

    And so the plundering of horrordom's illustrious back-catalogue continues with Alexandre (Switchblade Romance) Aja's re-working of Wes Craven's seminal 70's shocker. Very much the blueprint for America's fear of its own lost population deep within its vast inner wilderness (see also Texas Chainsaw, Deliverance, Southern Comfort etc), Hills was, and still is, an incredibly potent mix of social conflict, the survival ethic and bone-splintering violence. It made a horror icon out of malformed poster boy Michael Berryman, who played cannibal gut-muncher Pluto, and introduced the delectable Dee Wallace Stone to the world. But whereas remakes of many controversial classics are often blasphemies right from the initial concept, an upgrading of this desert-set nightmare was always something that, under the right supervision and taken as seriously as the original had been, could work. Hills doesn't actually need contemporising that much, as the basic template, unaltered, could weather any time, any era. It's a pared-to-the-bone survival of the fittest scenario that is blissfully simple to concoct and set up. The template need only be changed in its actual execution.

    And whilst Hills 2006 sticks fairly rigidly to the brutal dot-to-dot format scrawled in blood in the desert sand by Wes Craven all those years ago, Aja fashions a darker and more explicit journey into depravity by virtue of his hardened gore-lover's approach to the material. And you won't find any complaints about the level of red stuff splashing around from me, that's for sure. I always felt that the original, which is a classic in my opinion (check out the separate review), could have done with a bit more gore.

    “Thank God no-one's watching us ...”

    Guess again, Brenda.

    The set-up is identical - the bickering extended Carter family are trekking across America on their way to California, when a few unwise turns take them, and their motor-home, well and truly off the beaten path. After being brought to a standstill in the middle of nowhere they become easy pickings for the tribe of cannibal mutants living rough in the radiation-filled wasteland of a former nuclear test site. After a night of savage butchery that leaves the good guys either shot, cooked or raped by the hideous lunatics, the only choice left is to fight the berserkers on their own terms. So, turning the tables on them with a primal rage, the surviving members of what was once a blue-collar, all-American family resort to measures just as vicious and vindictive - but altogether more desperate. Aja does take a few detours, though. For a start, these hillbilly weirdos aren't just in-bred cave-dwellers praying on passers-by like a modern-day Sawney Bean clan, they are the remnants of a mining community that refused to relocate when the US Government began bomb tests in the isolated region. Together with their much-mutated offspring they continue to survive in the dusty ghost-town of what resembles a dreamy locale of yesteryear's show houses and mod cons. But, taking a sly pot-shot at the fantasy of 50's Americana, Aja's saga reveals the sick, chromosome-tainted reality of such a hollow rural idyll, the most normal inhabitants of this estranged community being the army of mannequins propping the place up - check out the sordid acts that pizza-faced Lizard has them performing in the background of some shots. Thus, his cannibal bad guys are not merely the deviously depraved other end of the spectrum from society's respectable working-Joes, they are the fantastical by-product of a nation's defensive paranoia. Birthed from a science gone savage, they have no option but to feed off the irresponsible mother that spawned them. A new-fangled prologue sees a scientific team suited and booted in white Crazies-style biological smocks and masks taking Geiger readings from the arid, almost alien landscape - actually Morocco standing in for New Mexico. A wacky pick-axing or two later and we're steering back towards more familiar territory, characters even quoting their ancestors word for word at times.

    But, as if to announce some form of dislocation from the original, Aja finds it necessary to enforce a visual re-imagining that sees the mutants this time around truly repulsive to behold, each one a KNB effects showcase. Mingling good, old-fashioned prosthetics with a smattering of CGI - check out the disturbingly altered visage of the new-look Ruby - the tribe have more in common with the freaks from Wrong Turn than they do with their immediate predecessors. Now, whilst this allows for some grisly creativity with each individual's appearance, it also mangles a lot of their credibility as well. Even with lopsided faces, stretched mouths and, in one quite ludicrous case, a bloated, sagging brain-sac, these ne'er-do-wells never come close to equalling the original desert pride of bald-bonced Pluto, fang-toothed Mercury or Zack (Emmmerdale) Dingle look-alike Jupiter in the scare-stakes. The old bunch had the benefit of being not too far removed from reality - freakish, certainly, but hardly monstrous. And it was this quality that made them all the more terrifying. Aja having his motley crew resemble orcs or Uruk-hai from The Lord Of The Rings just places them further into the realms of fantasy, I feel. And his version then compounds the error by being utterly unclear as to the mutants' relationships with one another. We're never sure how many of them there are and, barring the most active of them - the virtually un-killable Lizard and the axe-wielding Pluto substitute (who, sadly, reminded me more of the deformed brother from The Goonies than Michael Berryman's cult villian) - we are never given the opportunity to get to know any of them. The huge advantage of the original was in allowing us insight into the personalities of the cannibals, letting us see them as the family unit that they were. Their motives and desires may have been abhorrent to us, but at least we understood their reasons and saw ample evidence of their affections for their own kith and kin, actually spending as much time with them as we do the Carters. We get to understand the pecking order of the clan and become familiar enough with the mechanics of their horrible way of life and their relationships with each other to, rather ironically, care what happens to them. Oh, don't get me wrong here, folks - we sure do want them to die, and to suffer like hell beforehand, but we've spent enough time with them to have developed a strange kind of rapport with them. The feral mob this time around are just a mismatched assortment of warped-faced delinquents, pitched heavy-handedly into the movie without much coherence. The only scheme revealing a bond between the tribe at all is the celebrated attack on the camper, necessitating the gruesome decoy of an incinerated victim to lure the men-folk out from the good guys' base, whilst the main pair goes on a hit-and-run raid. From that point on, their tactics are thrown to the wind - the terrifying use of animal-sound mimicry, the taunting over the airwaves and the almost Native Indian-style strategies that made a more potent and sinister foe first time round largely ignored in favour of haphazard set-pieces that can, at times, feel like a Hills Greatest Hits compendium. Also jettisoned is the social comment that Craven was making, a similar sacrifice that Zack Snyder's Dawn Of The Dead rehash made.

    But where Aja succeeds is in atmosphere. He immediately creates a grim tone of remorseless barbarity and almost total futility in the face of it. Securing a palpable sense of dread ensures that the viewer is acutely uncomfortable throughout, especially those already familiar the original who know that there is worse to come. Even with the recent glut of so-called horror-porn (honestly, folks, there's absolutely nothing getting made these days that qualifies as anything more than a nosebleed when compared to the true days of cinematic uber-violence during the mid 70's to mid 80's) peddled by the likes of Eli Roth or our very own Neil Marshall, Aja's Hills run especially red with blood. Yet, wisely, despite the abundant spraying around of claret, it is the escalating paranoia that sets his film apart from the rest. He may be re-enacting a virtually foolproof template of fear, but he still manages to crank the tension with expertly modulated nudges that get the breath faltering - Doug watching as a cage-faced giant hauls an unidentified carcass through the dirt, his attempts the spirit his baby daughter from the ghouls' clutches and Bobby's inept shooting as Billy Drago's Rob Zombie-inspired Papa Jupiter hurtles after him, for examples. And it is true that he keeps most of the action occurring in the daytime, just like Craven did before him, knowing that subverting the normal horror scenario of nocturnal nightmares can actually make them far scarier when unapologetically illuminated with the unblinking sunlight of the desert.

    “You set off your bombs ... and turned everything to dust. Boom ... boom ... boom.

    The cast do a fine job, especially those portraying the ill-fated Carter family. Aaron Stanford (Pyro from X2 an X-Men Last Stand) is remarkably assured and mature in the role of the vengeance-fuelled Doug, a man who truly suffers the worst - not only losing his wife but having his baby snatched for the mutants' cooking pot. I'll come back to him later in more detail as it is he that truly carries the movie. As Big Bob, Ted (Silence Of The Lambs) Levine is large and imposing, quite a good facsimile of Russ Grieve in the original in his bull-headed approach to the situation. Aja fudges the scene when he returns to the gas station, though. Whereas Craven managed to feed the story via some eerie exposition, add major shock via a heart-stopping smash 'n' grab through a window and then toss in a sickening taunting session as Bob is introduced to Papa Jupiter, Aja drops the ball with a massively watered-down confrontation between these patriarchal lords. Sadly, Levine's contribution is then relegated to the infamous Joshua Tree crucifixion and immolation - that most gruesome display of overkill from the original painstakingly recreated for the remake. Kathleen Quinlan as the saintly mother really should have known better than to journey out into the desert, having suffered a not-too-dissimilar experience in the film Breakdown, opposite Kurt Russell. Again, we have a good performer in a role that was really more memorable back in Craven's dusty old independent days. Emilie De Ravin (Claire from TV's Lost) acquits herself well, chalking up a fair bit of scream-time before laying her hands on one of those trusty axes that seem to be lying around everywhere in this movie. But Dan Byrd, who plays Bobby, is a woefully hum-drum incarnation of Robert Houston's traumatically-believable original. Who can forget his snot-flinging outburst when he tells of poor Beauty's demise? But, as I said, it is Aaron Stanford's powerfully intense performance as Doug that raises these Hills beyond the height of mere sand-dunes. His stunned incredulity at the carnage back in the camper, his pushed-beyond-all-limits bravery and resilience throughout the protracted payback reels and his sheer maturity at convincing us that angsty-teen mutant Pyro could ditch his X-persona so effortlessly to become a skull-splitting Cert X hero is a revelation in itself. Although stuffing him in a freezer filled with body parts is actually a time-wasting excuse to just throw in some more offal - I mean it's hardly even been locked has it? And we're supposed to believe that no-one has heard his demolition routine to get out. But Stanford is engaging enough to have us feel that we are paddling about in the limb-soup right alongside him. Plus, just as we did with Martin Speer in the original, he makes us really feel the soul-eviscerating transformation he undergoes from loving husband and father to rampaging avenger. Although fuelled with righteous venom, he is still physically no match for the mutants and will, thus, have to dig much deeper into his base instincts to survive. His battles may drag on for a bit, but Stanford's struggle will still shake you to your core, viscerally recalling Dustin Hoffman's cracked-spectacles worm-turner from Peckinpah's classic Straw Dogs.

    But then ... he isn't alone on the warpath, is he?

    For, as anyone who has read my review of the original will know, the story also belongs to the German Shepherd dog, Beast. Or, at least, it should do. This is another vital element where Aja puts a foot wrong, in my opinion. After poor Beauty is gutted by the freaks, Beast goes on the rampage, cutting down the numbers of the cannibal punks with seriously rabid ferocity and evening up the odds stacked against the battered and bruised CartersThat's how it should be. Craven allowed his dog to take centre stage, becoming a fully-fledged character in his own right, and certainly a hero that we could root for as he pursues, harries and shreds his victims in a single-minded and fearless rout of the outback vermin. In this version however, even though Beast does exact some snarling, fang-filled retribution for the slaying of his mate, he often seems sidelined and underused, his main kill taking place off-screen and, even then, perpetrated on the least threatening mutant. The thought of Doug and his dog taking the fight to the bad guys is one of my favourite, and most enduring horror film themes, and whilst Stanford and this version's more robust Beast do cut a fine image of justified retribution, I'm afraid I still find their campaign of vengeance lacking the necessary, erm ... gristle. Fans of the original will know exactly what I mean.

    “Lizard ... kill the baby!”

    The bad guys may be remorselessly violent but they aren't particularly memorable. Ex-footballer Michael Bailey Smith is a huge, imposing guy, but his makeup as Pluto just doesn't feed the nightmares, I'm afraid. New cannibal Lizard (Robert Joy) is just a sneering wretch who looks as though he has just wandered in from the set of a zombie film and, whilst still a deadly threat, it is difficult to take him very seriously, as he comes across as way too pantomimic and feeble. And the rehashed Papa Jupiter is a complete and utter let-down. His bedraggled look, matter-of-fact insertion into the film and severe lack of brutal post-explosion survival is disappointingly perplexing when you recall that the original character was such a looming bogeyman. Newcomer Cyst, played by makeup maestro Greg Nicotero, is a little underused, but a colourful addition just the same, and Aja scores a hit with the creepy kids who just want someone to play with. Ruby, especially, pays homage to Nicholas Roeg's Don't Look Now, as she flits about the place in her bright red coat and hood.

    The soundtrack is an edgy delight, grungy, tonal and full of enough whining, hissing and buzzing to ensure that your skull is rattling like there's a dust storm whirling around inside it. The design of the whole soundscape, in fact, is vindictive and malevolent, creating a sense of desolation and helplessness. And I must make mention of this release's Unrated status. Yes, this is gorier than the theatrical cut. Delights include an extended swinging of a pick-axe-impaled body at the start, a slightly longer and more intense attack on the camper (though this sequence is still nowhere near as gut-wrenching as in the original, simply because the freaks just aren't that frightening), the horribly awesome sight of Big Bob's poached eyes turning white and lots more splashing blood throughout. You certainly won't feel short-changed with this juicier cut.

    Is it a good film, then? Yes, of course it is - one of the best horrors of the year without a doubt. But then, as I've mentioned earlier, it would be really hard to cock up such a simple scenario. However, Alexandre Aja manages to take a controversial old nasty and add his own stamp of approval to it. Perhaps he doesn't quite make good on the promise he showed with Haute Tension (Switchblade Romance), but I'm prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. For when he next unleashes something original of his own, I'll bet he more than delivers the goods now that he's got his Hills homage out of his system.

    The Rundown

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