Directed by: Alexandre Aja
Starring: Aaron Stanford, Emilie de Ravin, Ted Levine, Kathleen Quinlan
About halfway through Alexandre Aja's remake of Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes, I was convinced that the film's tag line, "The lucky ones die first," must be referring to the viewers of this entrails-festooned entry in the Inbred Hillbilly Cannibal sub-sub-genre. True enough, this remake is less repellent and more coherent than Aja's previous film, High Tension (or, to give it its full measure of Gallic goredom, Haute Tension).
Aja's newest is also more than just a standard splatter flick than are such recent torture-athons as Hostel and the Saw franchise, which is frankly in Hills' favor. People die in various grisly ways, sure, but there's not so much business of dwelling lovingly on the inflicting of pain for its own sake -- and, surprisingly, no puke scenes. This lack of emetic action will perhaps consign Aja's film to oblivion, since judging by Eli Roth's Hostel, nothing spells horror like a good bout of regurgitation. (It's just the sort of thing that makes you proud to be a part of Western civilization.)
I will also not deny that there's a fair amount of unintended humor in Hills. There are moments when new heights of imbecility have to be scaled by the victims in order to keep the plot going. And while the original 1977 version looked like it was made for $1.75, this new one looks like it cost at least 10 times that much. The problem here is that horror movies of this sort are rarely helped by throwing money at them; Aja's film may be slicker than Craven's rather grubby original, but something got lost in the process.
The original is hardly a classic. Even in Craven's uneven filmography, The Hills Have Eyes is no great shakes. Having made his mark with The Last House on the Left, such as it was, by turning Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring into ultra-sleazy and ridiculously amateurish drive-in horror, it took Craven five years to come up with Hills, which was essentially Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs set in the desert with inbred mutants standing in for inhospitable British rubes.
This wasn't an improvement, but it had a certain lower-depths power as a slap in the face of our own beliefs in our level of civilization. The film also worked on a personal level for Craven as an indictment of the failings of his fundamentalist Christian upbringing.
The remake attempts to emulate this tone, but it falters under the weight of its own budget and an attempt to broaden its themes by making some sort of really late-in-the day anti-nuclear-testing tract out of the story. No longer are these hills just populated with inbred cannibals, but mutated inbred cannibals (the worst kind, one supposes), the result of miners who insisted on not abandoning their land when it was used to test nuclear weapons. The penalty for this stubbornness appears to be seriously deformed inbred hillbillies -- an effect tastelessly achieved by intercutting photos of Agent Orange-deformed Vietnamese children into the opening credits, and laughably achieved via some of the cheesiest make-up effects in the last 30 years.
The story has been alarmingly dumbed-down. In the original, the family find themselves at the mercy of the cannibals because they ignore warnings not to stray from the main road. Here it's a setup, with a gas-station attendant deliberately sending them into a trap. This gag was old when George Zucco's filling-station owner lured hapless single female motorists into Bela Lugosi's clutches in Voodoo Man in 1944.
The stupidity factor is here increased, since it beggars the imagination that anyone with two brain cells to rub together would ever accept directions about a shortcut from the unwashed, unkempt, unfriendly, unabashedly shifty owner of this last-gasp gas station/convenience store. (I'm still puzzling out how this store that seems to thrive on pancake syrup and pickle sales -- there aren't even any Vienna sausages in sight -- stocks designer water next to the RC Colas.)
Oh, well. In any event, it serves to get the embattled family -- the script attempts to cram a microcosm of red and blue states into a 20-foot Airstream trailer -- onto the menu at Maison Mutant, which is the real purpose of the movie. In essence, Hills breaks down into little pockets of over-the-top bloodletting mired in a morass of uninteresting dullness that sets out to skewer American imperialism, while simultaneously asserting the idea that even the most liberal among us will resort to wielding a pickaxe when his wife and in-laws are murdered and his infant is slated for the hors d'oeuvre tray.
The big rape set-piece is about as tasteless as is claimed, but Aja undermines it by including a ridiculous bit where an apparently thirsty mutant mistakes a lovebird for a refreshing beverage with a screw-off cap. The even bigger showdown in the model town that was set up by the government to test the effects of a nuclear blast has a couple of creepy moments and some pretty impressive gore, but it bogs down in the movie's supposed message and the silly mutant makeup (of which we spoke), while providing all the cliches. (Can anyone tell me why inbred hillbillies -- mutant or otherwise -- invariably boast housekeeping skills that make mine look like Martha Stewart's?)
As for the acting ... well, when one of the rampaging mutants actually keeps crying "Rawrrrr" like some animated tiger hawking a breakfast cereal, it transpires that easily the best performance comes from Morocco playing the part of the New Mexico desert. Rated R for strong gruesome violence and terror throughout, and for language.
-- reviewed by Ken Hanke