Within five minutes of The Hills Have Eyes starting, I considered walking out. Now, this is something I have only ever done once before and vowed never to repeat. But I had a feeling that I knew exactly what I was in for. The film opens with an unsettlingly gory prologue that indicated this would be another in the long recent line of sadistic horror films like Saw, Wrong Turn, Cabin Fever and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, among others. In those first moments, I realized that I am completely and utterly sick of on-screen sadism. Horror is all well and good, but two hours of watching people get tortured or brutalized is not my idea of entertainment. Why should I put myself through this? Feeling a strong sense of critical duty, I nevertheless stayed in my seat, reminding myself that if I had endured these kinds of films before, I could endure this one as well.
Wes Craven’s original 1977 hit has been blatantly ripped off so many times that this remake already has some strikes against it. Yes, this is yet another movie about a vacationing family traveling through a remote area. They stop at one of those grungy, only-in-horror-movies gas stations, where a predictably creepy-looking attendant tells them that there’s a shortcut up ahead. The family takes the shortcut, only to unknowingly have their vehicle sabotaged, leaving them stranded in the middle of nowhere, with no cel phone reception. The car sabotage has been done by a group of deformed psychos, who terrorize the family and kill them one by one.
The psychos of The Hills Have Eyes are the victims (and, apparently, descendants) of America’s atomic testing back in the 50’s. Refusing to leave their homes when the tests began, these people hid in underground mines and suffered severe disfiguration and mutation from the radioactive blasts. Because society would never accept them, they live in the desert hills and eat innocent families sent their way by that creepy gas station worker. I always wonder how these kinds of “business” arrangements are made but no one ever tells us.
For the purposes of this film, the family consists of retired cop Bob Carter (Ted Levine), his wife Ethel (Kathleen Quinlan), and their three children – teenaged Brenda (Emilie de Ravin) and Bobby (Dan Byrd), and adult Lynne (Vinessa Shaw). Lynne is married to Doug Bukowski (Aaron Stanford), who is also present, and they have a newborn daughter. At first, they all think they’re just the victims of bad luck. Then the rules of horror films start to apply themselves. The first sign of trouble (as always) is the murder of the family pet. The second sign is the actual appearance of deformed psycho cannibals. Some members of the family are murdered immediately, while others escape and fight back – at least temporarily.
The Hills Have Eyes remake does exactly what I thought it would do: it revels in sadism. The movie doesn’t just show you gore, it rubs your nose in it. Somehow, the last two years has seen a radical shift in the horror genre. The ability to witness acts of brutality seems to have become reason enough for many films to exist. (Witness Hostel or Wolf Creek or The Devil’s Rejects, although I kind of liked that last one.) There is one particular moment here that really signifies the emptiness of it all. A certain character gets locked in a bloody freezer filled with dismembered limbs. The camera soaks in the carnage of it, lingering on it in an almost pornographic way. Is this scary? No, it’s just sickening and unpleasant. Where have the concepts of suspense and tension gone?
It’s really a shame that director Alexandre Aja (High Tension - another sadistic romp) chose to take this approach because there is potentially some merit to The Hills Have Eyes. The idea that survivors of an atomic blast could hide in the desert is potentially interesting. I was intrigued by the way the screenplay takes a somewhat sympathetic attitude toward some of them, especially a kindly young girl named Ruby. And even if one psycho didn’t get an American flag jammed through his skull, we would get the point that people suffered from our country’s use of the bomb. Someone once said that horror films are essentially political. The collected works of Wes Craven and George A. Romero prove this. The genre can effectively be used to address issues or even just spew outrage. Craven himself has said that Last House on the Left was borne from his anger over the Vietnam War.
I had some admiration for the prosthetic work, which was done by the great KNB EFX Group. The deformed people are creepy to look at, and they generate some menace. This is especially true late in the film, when they snatch the baby and Doug sets out to rescue her from a “home” they live in. Aja gives The Hills Have Eyes an undeniably disconcerting visual style that reeks of danger and isolation.
The truth is that my short-lived desire to walk out was an over-reaction. It would be more useful to say that my feelings varied back and forth as I watched The Hills Have Eyes Parts of it are nauseating, others are genuinely effective. Certain scenes are brutally unpleasant to sit through, while still others have an appealingly silly monster-movie appeal. Over the course of 107 minutes, I alternately felt disgusted, sickened, amused, bored, tense, excited, and revolted. This thing is all over the map.
Put another way, there was probably a good movie in here somewhere. Would it have worked as a creepy cautionary tale with some scares thrown in? Yes. Would it have worked as a tongue-in-cheek creature flick? Absolutely. The elements are all here, it’s just the approach that’s wrong. Aja sabotaged himself by indulging every sadistic moment he could find in the story. It pushed me away from the story rather than pulling me in. The fact that he’s such a talented visual stylist only makes the sadism more vivid and therefore more offensive. We’ve all heard of movies being “so bad they’re good.” The Hills Have Eyes may be the first recorded case of a movie being so good it’s bad.
( 1/2 out of four)
The Hills Have Eyes is rated R for strong gruesome violence and terror throughout, and for language. The running time is 1 hour and 47 minutes.
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