Movie Reviews That'll Put Yer Eye Out, Kid!
The Hills Have Eyes
Published Friday, March 10, 2006 by Brian | E-mail this post
The Hills Have Eyes (2006)
Inarguably, the 1970s was a very good decade for cinema. For many horror film fans it is also a decade distinguished by the release of some of the horror genre's best and most influential films. From what I can gather, for a lot of these fans, Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes falls somewhere into this category of 70s horror classics. All the same, I must confess that I've never been entirely certain what all the hullabaloo was about. In defense of the film and its many shortcomings, The Hills Have Eyes has often been cited as being influential. Regardless of these claims, it really seems to have been more impressionable, following most closely, and clearly, in the sizable footsteps of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Consequently, when I heard that The Hills Have Eyes was going to be regurgitated for what some are terming “today's cinematically illiterate audiences,” I just rolled my own eyes (which is the cinematically literate thing to do of course) and figured this was just a sign that the remake-rabid studio monkeys were steadily climbing their way towards the proverbial bottom of the barrel.
Believe it or not, and despite all of my bellyaching, when going to see this new version of The Hills Have Eyes, I had a pretty positive outlook. First, if Wes Craven (who is one of the film’s producers) is okay with his movie being remade, then really, who am I to bewail the decision? Second, I actually liked High Tension quite a bit and was curious to see what that film's director, Alexandre Aja, was going to do with material which I didn't exactly hold in high regard anyway. This being said, there will be more bellyaching later.A family traveling through the dirt and dust of the desert with San Diego as their destination stops at a rickety, rundown gas station to stretch their legs, empty their bladders, and fill up their fuel tank. The grizzled old owner of the gas station chats with Bob and his road-weary wife Ethel, while their hormonally-saddled teenaged children, Bobby and Brenda, bicker in the distance. One of the family's dogs - there are two, Beauty and Beast - runs inside the gas shanty and Bob and Ethel's eldest, Lynne, chases after the dog. Last but not least, there is Doug - Lynne's husband - and thorn in Bob Sr.'s side - who tends to his and Lynne's infant child (and never mind the damn baby's name).
Finally catching up to her canine on the loose, Lynne finds the dog sticking its nose where it doesn't belong - namely inside a suspicious-looking tote bag. The gas station owner startles Lynne when he finds her inside, and believing she has seen the bag, becomes watchful of her. Lynne apologizes for the dog and hurries back to the motor home. As Bob Sr. starts up his vehicle, the gas station owner knocks at the window and suddenly suggests the family take a shortcut onto a less-traveled road that winds its way through the desolate desert hills. With everybody ready to get the hell out of the desert, Bob decides to accept the old man's advice, taking a short cut that will eventually cut short his family's travel plans... and maybe even their lives (cue diabolical laughter)!
The "new" version of The Hills Have Eyes is remarkably similar to the old. Ignoring the film's third act, the plotting is basically the same - although this version manages to smooth over a few of the rough spots in Craven's original - and some of the dialogue (which wasn't very good in the first place) is even repeated verbatim. Many might thump their chest and proclaim that this is being faithful to a classic, but I felt it was completely redundant, reducing nearly two-thirds of the film to nothing more than a flashier, bigger-budgeted imitation.
This largely paint-by-numbers affair exists at the opposite end of the remake spectrum from a movie like Cronenberg's The Fly. The latter is a prime example of a remake which takes a premise and then inventively re-imagines it and possibly improves on it; the "new and improved" The Hills Have Eyes is basically an example of artless appropriation, recycling, and expensive repackaging. Like the original, the remake may feature monsters with a hunger for human flesh, but unlike its predecessor, I think the movie’s real cannibals can be found eating their own tails at a bank near me.So, what is new? The film features a brand new, violent, bloody opening that really grabs your attention - even if this is its sole purpose. The drawback of this opening is that it creates expectations which are never realized, and also makes the many redundancies that follow all the more laborious to watch. Nevertheless, as previously mentioned the final third of the film again takes us into some unfamiliar "territory" by incorporating a new locale into its final act - a place aptly described as being "like something out of the Twilight Zone." The addition of this eerie location was an inspired idea, and the one element I liked most about the film, so I'll leave it at that and let those who still want to see the film (ensuring that more crappy remakes are greenlighted, unfortunately) discover it for themselves.
As for the characters, I went to the trouble of mentioning all of them in my synopsis simply because with a large cast of characters, certainly there must be a likable one in the bunch. Yet, somehow this is not really the case. Sadly, if it were not for the cheap inclusion of a baby and a dog, there would really be no one to care about.In keeping with the original, the family is essentially still lame and annoying - although some slight alterations and a few less than subtle additions alter the family dynamic a little. Anyone who has seen Straw Dogs will notice that the character Doug is now more than just a little reminiscent of the protagonist David Sumner in Sam Peckinpah's vastly superior film. The Hills Have Eyes has always had at its center the notion of a macho male, protector ideal - even the family's dogs reflect this - so it's easy to see how Aja could be tempted to fashion Doug in the mold of David Sumner and his eventual rise to violence. As a tip of the hat to Straw Dogs, this inclusion seemed okay, but its benefits to the film and the character were rather dubious as Doug's character arc, though now more clear and pronounced, is basically consistent with the original. As for those pesky cannibals, Aja and his partner in screenwriting, Gregory Levasseur, have elaborated on a backstory for the "hill people," which turns them into a clan of mutant miner cannibals. Despite how silly that may sound, I liked the changes Aja and Levasseur made here and felt it benefitted the film overall.
Apart from being more bland than their desert surroundings, the main characters also do things that should have audiences scratching their heads. For example, Doug makes it clear he isn't gun crazy like his in-laws, yet when he goes after the “hill people” who have slaughtered his wife and kidnapped his baby, he does so armed solely with a baseball bat. Now if Doug was the big, tough-guy type, this might be kind of fun. However, the fact that he’s just a nebbish cellphone merchandiser, makes it all seem just a little bit goofy. Prior to this, Doug also tells Bobby, the teenaged son with a gun, that they should only go after the hill people and attempt to rescue the baby once they have a plan. Despite his calm and collected response to little Bobby, there is never any planning, and I can only guess that a Louisville slugger is the extent of Doug’s strategizing abilities.
Furthermore, in the original the cannibals steal all of the family's guns and ammo, so Doug is forced to make do without. In the new version Doug doesn't take a gun because he doesn’t like guns and it goes against his principles, I guess. Okay, fine. But, this is also the transitional point in the story where Doug’s character embraces violence as a means of survival anyway - so in addition to finding it hard to believe that a person (even if they have issues with guns) would not arm themselves in such an extreme situation, it would also have made sense in terms of the character's arc for Doug to just take a damn gun with him.Don't worry, it gets worse: Bobby, who's itching to say bye to the B and the Y that are standing between him and manhood, is left with the gun, and like his retired detective father, doesn't seem to know how the hell to use it. Instead of utilizing the gun to kill those who are trying to kill him and his sister, in one sequence, he shoots aimlessly at his assailant, as if to lure said attacker with bullets toward the elaborate trap he and his sister have conjured up. Of course if used properly... say like a gun, the firearm would have ultimately had the same result as the silly trap they’ve built. So, apart from a desire to let the kids whoop it up with their little MacGyver moment, this made absolutely no sense. Additionally, the fact that these characters love guns and yet appear to have no idea how to really shoot one, is the closest the film comes to making a clear political statement (albeit unwittingly), which in this case would be a shotgun-hoisting cry for gun control.
It probably goes without saying that a film does not "need" to have political commentary or an agenda to be good. Even so, this new version of The Hills Have Eyes evidently yearns for some depth in this regard, but ultimately and pitifully flounders about in its muddled attempts. Aja's version of the film amplifies the nuclear testing angle hinted at in Craven’s original, commenting on the U.S. Government's willingness to sacrifice innocent citizens for the sake of nuclear science. However, the film really stumbles over what seemed like its initial approach to this material when it mutates into what looks like a violent advertisement for patriotism, and then thusly, falls flat on its disfigured face.
To elaborate, when "our hero" stabs one of the mutant miners - who serve as the film’s embodiment of, and warning against, a governmental lack of concern for its citizenry - with a U.S. Flag (planting it in its aesthetically challenged head I believe) it’s unclear what response this is presumed to evoke. Should I stand up and salute the screen, clap my hands approvingly, or just laugh at the silliness of it all? (I chose the latter) Surprisingly, by this point what was apparently one of the film’s themes (if I may be so bold) has been completely sabotaged.
Also, around this point, the film's score also suddenly loses any of its subtlety by becoming laughably over-the-top. If the film took itself a little less seriously, I wouldn't be reluctant to say instead that all of this was simply tongue-in-cheek; or, even that Aja is perhaps using a heavy-handed and over-the-top approach to, paradoxically, sneak in some subtly, subversive commentary. Personally, it would require a rather dubious leap of faith for me to wholeheartedly make or accept such a claim. In instances such as this, I think it's often easy to confuse complexity with what is in truth nothing more than an unfortunate lack of clarity.
Although Aja's previous film, High Tension, received many a mixed reaction, most would agree that the young director exhibited a visual prowess that belied his relative lack of experience. The Hills Have Eyes demonstrates that, at least in terms of the film's visual merits, Aja's early success was not merely a fluke. Collaborating again with cinematographer Maxime Alexandre, the film, though at times a little too "shutter-happy," has some striking compositions, and Aja makes good use of the drab desert locale. In addition, the great effects work by the ubiquitous KNB illustrates why they are in such high demand, and the film’s action and gore set pieces should please fans of the same. Nevertheless, despite the usual proficiencies and the film’s all too brief flashes of interest and originality, it should be clear that I did not like the film. While I’m certain it will have a following and might possibly please fans of the original, to put it frankly, if this remake of The Hills Have Eyes is seen as being a good movie, then thankfully, I must be blind.
Originally published at Horrorview.com