The Hills Have Eyes Review
The Hills Have Eyes, in its 21st century incarnation, has two films to live up to. The first is Wes Craven’s 1977 original, the second Alexandre Aja’s previous feature Haute tension (also known, variably, as High Tension or Switchblade Romance, the latter being the UK’s choice). Both were terrifically lean genre works of the kind which John Carpenter turned in during the early stages of his career (Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, Escape From New York), headlong rushes which concentrated on the machinery of delivering thrills and thus proved to hugely entertaining. As such Aja should make a fine choice for assuming remake duties (he also serves as co-writer). Indeed, his own take on the tale is of roughly the same duration and sticks to the same essentials – the extended middle class family stranded out in the desert and up against a collection of freaks. What’s more, most of our leading players are exact counterparts of those found in the original: the macho ex-cop (grand)father; the young couple of liberal husband and new mother; the wide-eyed clean-cut teen; etc. etc.
Aja does add a few doses of reality, however. He fills in some of the narrative wholes which blighted the original (not that they were wholly essential), allows some of the character motivations to be jus that little bit more palatable and creates a different backstory for the villains of the piece. Rather than have them as just a bunch of cannibalistic inbreds as they were in the late seventies, Aja reinvents the murderous clan as mutants resulting from years of nuclear testing, an aspect which highlights certain satirical underpinnings: the “nuclear family” versus the nuclear family, if you will. Likewise there also various pokes of the finger towards US politics and religion to nestle in amongst the gorier, more violent goings-on.
It’s an element which may lead to expect some kind of outsider’s view of America (Aja being French, of course), but sadly this never really comes to fruition. Rather The Hills Have Eyes simply feels like just another entry in the current wave of seventies referencing, grungy horror movies doing the rounds: Wrong Turn, Wolf Creek, Cabin Fever, that other remake, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Furthermore it also exists within a number of other subgenres. There’s the murderous redneck one (Deliverance, Southern Comfort, their UK equivalent Straw Dogs) and the yuppie nightmare one (The Last House on the Left through to Judgment Night and Unlawful Entry). Instead of providing his own stamp on proceedings, it seems best that we understand Aja’s latest movie solely through other movies around it.
Not that the results aren’t well mounted. Morocco makes for a distinctive New Mexico, tomandandy’s score is sufficiently “other”, plus there’s a clear love of both the gore and for that grungier seventies feel (though of course this Hills can’t help but look far, far sleeker than it the one made almost twenty years ago). What’s lacking is the energy which characterised both the original and Haute tension. At the close of the first act Aja offers us a subjectively shot entry into a mineshaft as though the rollercoaster thrills are about to start, but sadly they never really materialise. You could argue, perhaps, that this is partly down to a knowledge of the original, but then this would ignore the shifts away from his source that Aja actions in the closing third. We get a new location in the form of a mining town-cum-nuclear test side and seeming evidence that Aja has sat down to (and enjoyed) Chris Cunningham’s Rubber Johnny, but it never really gels or builds up to anything on a par with those two earlier pictures. Furthermore, we’re also lacking the ever-distinctive presence of Michael Berryman, a loss which can’t be glossed over by CG-enhanced mutations no matter how impressive the end results.
And yet, like that other seventies horror recently remade, The Amityville Horror, the original Hills Have Eyes was a film which did have room for improvement. Similarly the fact that Haute tension was arguably the best slasher movie since that particular subgenre’s heyday in the late seventies/early eighties made us expect that an improvement could, in fact, have been made. As it is we’re faced with a picture which is meaty enough and edgy enough to stand on its own (it’s a picture which quite happily points a gun at a baby, for example), it simply depends on where you’re expectations lie. Compare it to the majority of American horror movies and it’s probably far better than most. Compare it to either the original or Aja’s breakthrough and it can’t help but seem a little underwhelming.
Released by Fox in the UK in its “unrated” form, The Hills Have Eyes gets a decent, if slightly underwhelming DVD handling. In terms of its presentation there is little to fault. The original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 is maintained and anamorphically enhanced, the print is in fine condition and that yellowed, slightly hazy colour scheme is ably recreated. Likewise the DD5.1 soundtrack handles screams and score just as well, an element which is understandably vital in the film’s overall effect. All told, there’s little here which we shouldn’t expect: a new production from a major company getting an excellent transfer.
As for extras the disc is padded out with various cross-promotional pieces (for The Omen and The Sentinel amongst others), but does come with three main attractions. The first is a commentary from Aja, his co-writer Gregory Levassseur and producer Marianne Maddalena. It’s mainly the boys who do the talking here and they give us an admirably full (almost breathless) trip through the movie, discussing everything from the locations to the SFX work to the choice of actors. Sadly they touch only slightly on the original movie and their reasons for going through with the remake; certainly, it would be interesting to see just how influential Aja sees the whole seventies reinvigoration of the genre.
The second commentary is a far more relaxed affair and sees producers Wes Craven and Peter Locke recreating the duties they performed on Anchor Bay’s two-disc edition of the 1977 original. Given the chatty tone you’re going to learn far less than you will from the first chat track, but the two old men make for agreeable company even if longer pauses do appear as the film progresses. Again, there’s also little mention of the original, its influence and the reasons for remaking.
And sadly this oversight remains for the final addition, a 50-minute featurette entitled ‘Surviving the Hills’. Here we learn plenty more about locations, SFX, CGI and scene breakdowns (with participation from all the major players) – and over that length we should – but you can’t help but feel that the disc as a whole has missed a trick by not acknowledging what many fans will recognise as a key area of the film’s production. As with main event the disc finally proves itself to be solid enough without ever quite living up to expectations.