The Hills Have Eyes (remake) Review
An extended family of city-dwellers, headed by ex-cop "Big" Bob Carter (Ted Levine), run into a spot of trouble when their camper wagon breaks down while attempting to traverse the New Mexican desert. Set upon by a clan of hideously deformed cannibals, they find themselves having to use any means necessary in order to survive, and in doing so begin to reveal who are the real monsters...
Whenever the task of reviewing a remake falls into my hands, I always find myself wondering how best to approach it. Should it be taken on its own merits, a piece of entertainment produced for a specific audience at a specific time, regardless of any prior versions? Or should I measure it against its predecessor, comparing the two versions' strengths and weaknesses before passing judgement on which is the superior? The solution, I suspect, is a bit of both, and that's what I intend to do with the 2006 remake of The Hills Have Eyes. Directed by Alexandre Aja, the man responsible for Haunte Tension (also known as Switchblade Romance), a wonderfully taut slasher marred only by a contrived twist ending, the news of this remake was generally greeted with cautious optimism by a horror community growing increasingly tired of dull "reimaginings" by no-name hacks. The response to the final product was, however, typically divisive.
In a sense, one can understand the decision to "update" Wes Craven's 1977 work of exploitation horror. As big a deal as it was in its own time, the original was definitely a flawed effort (although in my opinion better than the director's earlier The Last House on the Left). Additionally, despite a whole generation of kids having accepted Craven as an undisputed master of the genre thanks to the popularity and influence of his 1996 slasher Scream, The Hills Have Eyes is, much like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Wicker Man and countless other horror films that have been remade in recent years, a film that a whole generation of filmgoers know only by name, if at all. The studio logic, therefore, at least makes sense: use a recognisable brand name to bring in the punters and then sell them a film that, for all intents and purposes, is completely new to them.
Regarding the actual mechanics of remakes themselves, two different formulae have emerged. One option, as exhibited with this year's remake of The Omen, is to produce a slavish copy of the original, retaining the plot but "updating" it to make it "relevant" to modern audiences. The alternative, used by the makers of the recent remakes of The Wicker Man and Dawn of the Dead, is to retain the same basic premise but wrap it around a completely different set of characters and develop the situation in a new way. The Hills Have Eyes actually falls somewhere in between. For the first half, it is a virtual Xerox of its predecessor, retaining largely the same structure and characters, tweaking the dialogue and personalities a little and developing a couple of subplots in slightly differing ways.
So far, so predictable. The changes made in Aja's version mostly revolve around the portrayal of the cannibals and their back-story. Whereas Craven's "monsters" were in-bred hill-dwellers, an idea repeated in the recent Wrong Turn, Aja and co-writer Gregory Levasseur make them the victims of chemical testing by the US military, creating, as Anthony Nield pointed out in his review, a rather amusing piece of satire on the whole "nuclear family" concept. Aja also moves the mutants from the hills to a decaying town a little like something out of a Western, this change of location impacting quite noticeably on the direction taken by the plot after Doug resolves to head into enemy territory to rescue his child.
The changes are interesting, but they really don't add anything fundamental to the plot, nor do they do anything to resolve the problems with Craven's original, namely the slow setup and less than engaging characters. Indeed, it's a shame Aja chose to retain the weakest aspect of the original - its first hour - word for word, while deviating from the elements that it got right - chiefly the characterisation of the mutants. In the original, the Carter family were fairly bland, while the mutants had unique personalities and functioned far more effectively as a family unit the holidaymakers. In Aja's version, the Carters are not only bland but also annoying, one-dimensional clichés, while the mutants, robbed of the distinct personalities of their predecessors, lack the spark of their counterparts in Craven's film. The highlight of both films, meanwhile, remains the initial attack on the Carters by the mutants, which, if possible Aja manages to make even more brutal than it was in the original: very few mainstream films would dare to feature a film in which a gun barrel is pointed at a baby.
Aja's version of The Hills Have Eyes is ultimately a remake in the most traditional sense: a contemporary "update" of an older film, with slicker effects and populated by prettier faces more "relevant" to today's popcorn-munching audience. As such, it's by no means a bad film, but it neither worsens nor improves on its predecessor in any significant way. Ultimately, the greatest disappointment of all is perhaps that such a promising filmmaker turned out something so unremarkable.
Note: the transfer review for this disc was written by David Mackenzie.
Like so many Region 1 DVDs, The Hills Have Eyes is presented in a video transfer that isn't outright unwatchable, but falls far short of what the format is capable of.
If you're looking for filmic "flaws" such as print damage, dirt or film grain (although grain is in fact part of the medium and not a flaw), then you won't find any here. However, if you're looking for detail, you won't find a lot that either. Right from the very first shot it's obvious that a heavy amount of filtering has been applied. The text on the opening credits shows a lot of obvious ringing around the letters, while ringing is constantly visible between the black letterbox bars and the picture area as well as around edges.
Any of the sweeping desert shots that appear throughout the film show how over-filtered the image is. In wide shots, even the smallest boulders in the distance appear incredibly "clumpy". Even close-ups of stubbly men show how disappointing this is detail-wise. On a really good DVD transfer, such as Criterion's version of The Rock, each grain of stubble would be as pixel-perfect as DVD's limited resolution allows. Here, the effect is a lot smudgier. As a result, there's almost no real depth to the picture at all. Isn't this meant to be a scary film that draws you in to the experience?
Having compared this transfer to that of the UK release, by the way, I'd have to say that there's very little difference between them, with the R2, if anything, coming off worse.
There are, however, no real problems with the audio. Presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, it's not particularly remarkable but has no major flaws. It's in turn loud and quiet at the appropriate moments, although it doesn't have a great deal to offer in terms of surround effects. An alternate Spanish dub, presented in Dolby Surround, is also provided, along with optional English, Spanish and French subtitles. The subtitles, unfortunately, cover only the film itself and none of the extras.
For a single-disc release, Fox have actually provided a rather impressive array of bonus features. First up are two audio commentaries, one featuring writer/director Alexandre Aja, writer/art director Gregory Levasseur and producer Marianne Maddalena, the other with Wes Craven and Peter Locke, who served as producers on the remake (Locke also produced the original, while Craven, of course, was the original writer/director). The former is definitely the better of the two, covering all the usual bases, from special effects to censorship. The producers' commentary, meanwhile, is considerably less relevant, with the two seemingly lacking for things to say about the remake and therefore spending far more time talking about the original instead. It's listenable enough, but rather meandering and directionless.
The main extra, it seems, is "Surviving the Hills: the making of The Hills Have Eyes", a 50-minute documentary that provides a great deal of information on the practical issues such as the make-up effects and general shooting concerns, but, for a fairly unremarkable film, is probably longer than it needed to be. 11 minutes' worth of production diaries are also included, consisting of a fairly unremarkable "home video" look at the production process, in addition to a music video.
Fox have put together a fairly effective, if visually disappointing, package for this unremarkable remake.