The Hills Have Eyes (2006) Review

Note: This review contains some spoilers concerning the plot…

For much of its running time, the “new and improved” Hills Have Eyes is something a remake should never be - a scene-by-scene reconstruction of the original. Director Alexandre Aja sticks doggedly to the structure of Wes Craven’s grind house classic; a film that terrorised unsuspecting audiences upon its release in 1977. The set-up is the same, the characters familiar, and the antagonists faithful to Craven’s picture. At first glance, Aja’s update seems lazy. But it’s nothing of the sort. As the second hour kicks into gear, the film becomes a relentless, terrifying fright machine; using its high budget to produce a tighter, more focused film. Aja and co-writer Gregory Levasseur also offer a few new twists to the formula, incorporating a bleak social-political commentary, and considerable shock value…

Although the original is a bona-fide cult classic (and a personal favourite), it had some notable flaws, making it a viable target for Hollywood treatment. Its technical limitations and amateurish acting give it an air of camp these days, although the gritty production values awarded the violence a startling immediacy. With cutting-edge technology, good-looking actors, and style-up-the-wazoo, The Hills Have Eyes 2006 fails to recapture the same raw edge. Instead, Greg Nicotero and the boys at KNB deliver a succession of plasma-drenched encounters, that push the 18 rating to its limits. Originally given an NC-17 in the States, there’s no denying that Aja’s film packs a wallop. Perhaps that was to be expected - Craven hand-picked Aja himself, after seeing the director’s ludicrously violent debut High Tension.

The plot hasn’t changed one bit. After a particularly grisly prologue (and an opening credits sequence recalling Dr. Strangelove, of all films), we are introduced to the Carter family. There’s “Big” Bob (Ted Levine), his wife Ethel (Kathleen Quinlan), and their three children; younger siblings Bobby Jr. (Dan Byrd), Brenda (Emilie de Ravin), and newlywed Lynn (Vanessa Shaw). Along for the ride, is Lynn's husband Doug (X2’s Aaron Stanford), their baby daughter, and the family dogs, Beauty and Beast. Bound for California, the family take an ill-advised trip through the desert, stopping at a gas station for directions. Unfortunately, the creepy attendant leads them into the middle of nowhere; placing them at the mercy of cannibalistic hill-dwellers. Horribly disfigured, the group launch an attack on the Carter’s trailer, taking Doug’s baby in the process. The remaining family members are forced to fight back, in order to survive…

For seasoned Hills fans, there’s little here that will surprise you, yet Aja introduces a deeper back story for the cannibal clan. Forced into the mines by the US government when they began testing nuclear bombs on their turf, the family emerged as deformed monsters; preying on passers-by for food and resources. With such potent material, the French filmmaker lays on the anti-American sentiment rather thick. At one point in the film, peaceful Democrat Doug offs one of the clan with a sharpened U.S. flag, as he attempts to save his child; an image that certainly sticks in the memory. The unusual soundtrack (by masters of the “hip score”, tomandandy), swells into a fanfare during these moments - making Doug somewhat of a hero. We’re supposed to cheer for him, but as with Craven’s film, I’m not sure that was the director’s intention. The original drew parallels between each family, with the Carter’s becoming just as vicious as the cannibals, in their fight for survival. The commentary might be a bit sloppy, but it’s still effective; although it’s likely the target audience won’t give a toss.

As a straightforward horror film, The Hills Have Eyes achieves what it set out to do - disturb the viewer. The first assault on the Carter’s trailer is particularly unsettling. Aja took so much time establishing the atmosphere (in fact, the films only true flaw is the uneven pacing), that the attack is jolting. Unspeakable acts are committed, and the blood flows like fine wine. The make-up effects are particularly memorable, especially on the cannibals, and the violence wince-inducing. Yet, it wouldn’t be so powerful if we didn’t care for the protagonists, so it’s wise that Aja enlisted a capable cast. Old reliables like Levine and Quinlan bring a believability to their roles, yet newcomers Ravin (from hit TV series Lost) and Byrd as the youngest character, are impressive. Even the villains are effective; among them, Land of the Dead’s Robert Joy. Why they couldn’t re-cast Michael Berryman (the odd-looking actor who portrayed “Pluto” in the original) is anyone’s guess, although it was reportedly Craven who vetoed that idea.

Serious horror fans are in for a treat, as the Hills Have Eyes is one of the better rehashes to come out of Hollywood. Aja’s strict adherence to the original plot might make it unnecessary, although it does improve on Craven’s film in several areas. It’s a downbeat picture, with something to say, although the excessive gore might be too much for some viewers. For horror purists however, it’s just the ticket…



out of 10
Category Film Review

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