by JAMES BRIGHAM
MIGHT WANT TO SKIP THE DESERT
Here’s some advice for travelers who might be considering taking a trip to sites near Horror Movie Land. 1.) Bring several spare containers of gasoline to avoid having to stop at out-of-the-way fuel stations. 2.) If for some reason you forgot to stock up and need to refuel, do the complete opposite of whatever the creepy old man working there suggests. He’s not salt of the earth and he’s not charmingly eccentric, he’s a psycho. 3.) In general, just avoid vacationing to spots that lie within ten miles of primeval forests, abandoned amusement parks, or arid wastelands – especially arid wastelands. That’s the primary lesson I’ve taken from Alexandre Aja’s The Hills Have Eyes, a remake of Wes Craven’s evocatively titled 70’s horror classic. The latter I have not seen, but I’m divided about whether it’s something worth tracking down after watching this well made but brutal and depressing update.
Alexandre Aja’s last film, the French language High Tension, was an edgy throwback to the often maligned slasher genre of scary films. It was a nerve pinching game of cat-and-mouse between a desperate young woman and an amoral killer that suffered from a terrible, gore filled twist ending. I could tell that the writers thought the surprise was going to be ca-razy, but it was a mind-fuck movie by a mindless person. It was like looking at one of those picture puzzles from Highlights magazine and being told that the two scenes are similar but different. Can you spot the differences? Yes, Mr. Aja, everyone watching the movie can point out the disparities; is my dentist ready for me yet?
In spite of those failings, High Tension was an expertly paced, glossy achievement that stuck with me and I was looking forward to Aja’s subsequent feature, the aforementioned Craven remake. Now bear in mind, I’ve never seen Craven’s picture but I have often heard it thrown about in conversations on and off-line as being one in a string of great horror offerings during his prime between the late seventies and early eighties; the others usually being cited are The Last House on the Left and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Aja’s film takes its predecessor’s inventive premise for terror (family terrorized by frontier mutant clan) and runs it ragged with heavy emphasis on violent FX, gruesome makeup, and wanton, unsubtle cruelty. The picture’s story is bleak and has huge gaps of time where you desperately want an escape, for the characters as well as yourself.
The sad part, literally, is that Aja and co-writer Grégory Levasseur’s screenplay does a fine job of fleshing out the Carters and establishing their family unit as a believable entity in its own right and not just a figurative “victims” coat rack for the mutants to pull prey down from. I wasn’t expecting to actually get to know any of these people very well, which made it all the more difficult to stomach their ceaseless fear, dwindling numbers, rape, and mutilation. Ironically, I don’t think I reacted as the filmmakers expected when certain heroes finally got clued into their situation and began fighting back. By that point in The Hills Have Eyes, I was just tired of the bloodletting in general and found it difficult to get pulled easily into these obvious “audience cheers” moments. This was made even more problematical by that old scary movie cliché of characters doing completely idiotic things. Some of the worst examples include: not informing everybody about a reflection of light in the hills, “protecting” one’s mom and sisters by neglecting to mention that a family pet had been mutilated, and running while shooting wildly at the man chasing you from behind (done by a person with firearms training!).
The casting agent did a great job of assembling the actors for this road trip to hell, elevating its cast quality above what similar plots draw. The Carter family’s patriarch and matriarch, ex-homicide detective Big Bob (the excellent Ted Levine) and the religious, progressive Ethel (the divine Kathleen Quinlan), are a loving couple with decidedly different philosophies. Along for the ride are a variety of family members and miscellaneous pets. Lost fans will likely recognize Emilie de Ravin playing youngest daughter Brenda (who probably would’ve preferred crash landing in Australia) and X-Men devotees should know Aaron Stanford as Pyro, here playing the technology oriented foil of a son-in-law to Big Bob’s gung-ho, blue collar attitude. The various members of the mutant clan are also nicely individualized and, like the Carters, each doesn’t necessarily act like you’d expect.
Visually, the film looks amazing. Aja’s got an eye for framing shots to ratchet up tension and the decision to shoot in Morocco was a wise one; the craggy surroundings are rife with caves and ambush points and might be considered beautiful in better situations. Art direction by Tamara Marini is superb, helping to deliver major creeps when one character starts exploring a car filled blast crater and later an ash covered, dummy house leftover from the military’s fallout tests. Hell, even the crows flying around look emaciated and sickly. It may not have that authentic low budget grit that Craven’s original had, but for the completely uninitiated like myself, it’s effective.
Still, I wish it wasn’t so blatant from beginning to end. A subtle hand directing the scares could have given me a movie experience that truly chilled my heart as opposed to just overwhelming me with a fairly random assortment of choppings, chases, and chittering. The casually curious would benefit from avoiding The Hills Have Eyes; its cross-genre appeal is nil. Members of the Tom Savini fan club or Fangoria subscribers should be quite happy giving this movie a home on their DVD shelf. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have an informal class reunion in the Louisiana bayou to start planning for.
2 1/2 stars
Note: This review refers to the unrated version of the film.