We learned many valuable life lessons from Wes Craven’s 1977 horror classic “The Hills Have Eyes.” Among them: never leave the main road, especially if you have a baby in the car, and always travel with dogs. Preferably big ones.
Now, because every movie filmed before 1990 is going to be remade at some point in the next ten years and you might as well stop bitching about it, there’s a new version of Craven’s classic hitting theaters. Directed by “High Tension’s” Alexandre Aja, the story is essentially the same: a hapless family takes an ill-advised short cut through the desert, where there car breaks down and they are set upon by cannibalistic hillbillies, the added bonus in this case being that they’ve been deformed by nuclear tests. That oughta make for a good Burger King tie-in.
As far as plot goes, that’s about all you need to know. As in “High Tension,” Aja builds an effective sense of dread early on before releasing the hounds, so to speak. “The Hills Have Eyes” is pretty unflinching in its depiction of violence, which sets it apart from most of its PG-13 brethren. And unlike similar efforts such as “Saw” or “Hostel,” the brutality on display occasionally advances the plot.
That said, there are some pretty serious flaws. Aja torpedoes any sympathy we have for the Carters by making them behave in incredibly stupid ways: armed characters drop their guns near characters that “couldn’t possibly have survived,” or run from unarmed assailants, for instance. In another scene, an elaborate deathtrap is unnecessarily constructed for the sole purpose of killing a single mutant, never mind that it destroys the family’s shelter and – from what I could see – their food and water as well.
Sure blowed up good, though.
There’s also much more exposition about the cause of the mutants’ deformities than we need. Between the opening newsreel footage of mushroom clouds and babies with fused digits, the newspaper clippings in the gas station, and one of the mutants expounding on the subject at length, we get it. Really. Radiation bad.
“The Hills Have Eyes” is 2/3 of a decent movie. There’s an appreciable sense of anxiety through the first two acts, and the mutants – when they do show up – are exceedingly nasty. As with Craven’s original, the more recognizable characters aren’t necessarily guaranteed survival, and after the recent torrent of toothless Hollywood horror movies, there’s nothing like a close-up of someone’s head getting blown off with a shotgun or a dog ripping out throats to give you that warm, Christmas-y feeling. Atmospheric horror has its place, but so does gore, and Aja lays it on pretty thick.
Unfortunately, and as anyone who saw “High Tension” can attest, Aja also has a tendency to shoot himself in the foot. The ending of that movie pissed on everything that came before, and while the final act of “Hills” isn’t as ludicrous, it’s definitely frustrating. What starts as a creepy and violent exercise in isolation and desperation turns into an almost fascistic revenge fantasy, where bad guys are killed with American flags (seriously) while heroic music swells in the background. The protagonist in question, a somewhat geeky cell phone salesman, is mocked early on for his distaste for guns by his detective father-in-law. Yet when push comes to shove, he has no problem picking up a shotgun (or pickaxe, or American flag) and taking care of business. The moral? Even the most limpwristed Demmy-crat will turn into a steely-eyed killing machine when the chips are down.
If I’m being unfair, well, tough s**t. The crap ending aside, I thought “High Tension” had a lot going for it, and I hoped Aja might be able to produce that rarest of animals; a remake as good as or better than the original. Unfortunately, while he gets a lot right in the beginning, things eventually fall apart. “The Hills Have Eyes” may be a better movie than most in its genre, but as the couple decades have shown us, that isn’t saying a whole lot.