The seemingly never-ending string of horror movie remakes continues with French director Alexandre Aja’s modern re-telling of the Wes Craven 1977 low budget cult classic “The Hills Have Eyes.” While the new version features a faster pace and the superior make-up and special effects that more money can buy, it never quite commits to either the psychological terror or high camp of the original. What it does have is the requisite amount of gore and some strangely unfocused and awkward political commentary.
Last year, Aja’s gritty 70s horror tribute “High Tension” covered much of the same terror territory as “Hills,” but was completely derailed by a last-reel twist that undermined everything that came before it. For this new remake, Aja and co-screenwriter Gregory Levasseur stick fairly close to Craven’s original script, which thankfully means there is no twist. By moving the action to the present day, though, and expanding more fully on a nuclear mutation theme, this new “Hills” forces some messy attempts at relevancy, and comes off as more than a bit dated.
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On a summer cross-country trip headed out west, an extended family from Cleveland led by retired police detective “Big Bob” Carter (Ted Levine), breaks down in the middle of the desert. Macho, gun-toting Bob heads one direction searching for help, while ineffectual son-in-law and cell phone salesman Doug (Aaron Stanford) starts walking the other way. Meanwhile, back at the trailer, the rest of the stranded Carter clan begins to realize that they are not the only family out under the blazing New Mexico sun.
They say that the family that prays together stays together, but that doesn’t help the Carters as they are brutally attacked by a deformed group of freaks who have been stalking them since their arrival. Since audiences these days seem to want everything explained to them, we learn that that a group of stubborn miners refused to leave the area when the government turned it into a nuclear testing ground. The dangerous levels of radioactivity have turned them into deformed flesh-eaters and (go figure!) U.S. government-haters. The connection between this and the Carters being flag-sporting conservatives is tenuous at best. When one of the freaks starts singing the national anthem and launches into a “your government left us to die” speech, it is just plain overkill; and a misplaced notion at that.
Craven’s original film, as ridiculous as some of the make-up and acting was, had a leg up on this remake. By developing a clear heirarchy in both clans and detailing their breakdown, it resonated with 70s audiences dealing with a basic re-defining of the nuclear family (no pun intended). Aja’s movie concentrates almost solely on the tedious “normal” family, leaving the deformed group in the background as mysterious bad guys. There is a head freak named Papa Jupiter, but you’d only know that by reading the credits. The original movie’s campiness came mostly from these characters, so that element is completely missing. Unless, that is, you count the film’s conclusion, which was pretty funny, albeit unintentionally.
Again, with its silly caveman costumes and bad acting, the original “The Hills Have Eyes” is no masterpiece. But it did feature an air of creepiness and dread that the remake can’t muster, but instead seeks to replace with gore. In the remake, the killings have more of a standard horror “body count” feel, whereas its predecessor let the situation sink more. As the family unraveled, there was time for shock to be overcome and more time for grief to set in. The idea that the most reserved, normal human is capable of horrendous acts of violence if backed into a corner was a major theme. Aja, however, is less concerned with these matters as he is with pushing the limit of acceptable severed body parts and what you can stick in them. Granted, if graphic violence is what you go to horror flicks for, then this is your movie. The gore is disturbing for sure, but what’s the point? What good is shock value if there’s no reason for it?
Having mentioned all this, “The Hills Have Eyes” is still slightly better than most of the horror fare aimed at teenagers today. Aja falls back on a couple of classic corny scare techniques (like little brother suddenly jumping at a window), and there are silly plot contrivances (like Doug and a German Shepard magically teleporting to the hidden safety of a car before a mutant can turn around), but at least the film isn’t tedious and doesn’t stake its hopes on a stupid twist.
Horror movies work because they tap into some deep-seeded fear, and while “Hills” can boast some disgusting scenes, its effectiveness could turn on whether or not your darkest fear includes being stranded in the desert with no cell phone service. What is disappointing is that, given its source material, there was much room for improvement. It’s just too bad that the only things Aja could improve on were the makeup and gore.