Alexandre Aja and Gregory Levassuer have come a long way budget-wise since they made High Tension, their award-winning French horror-thriller. “The Hills Have Eyes” is a remake of the 1977 Wes Craven low budget film of the same name, but the now-legendary Craven acted as a producer throughout the entire conception of the remake. Despite Craven’s name being on the film, “The Hills Have Eyes” bears little outward resemblance to the first one. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Set in the bleak and unrelentingly hot American desert somewhere between California and Colorado, “The Hills Have Eyes” has a lot of the same gritty and tough edginess that made “High Tension” so much fun, but tries to make slightly more sense out of the story that Craven originally conceived with a better script and much better actors. There are some monstrously cool special effects and makeup by Gregory Nicotero and Howard Berger, and some interesting character developments, but, unfortunately the long drawn out beginning and unrelenting chase scenes didn’t get edited out of the story.
A very slow beginning sets up a family vacation in a trailer, from Ohio to California. The dusty roads, vultures, dunes of sand, and blaring sun are used so effectively that you automatically feel uncomfortable and upset. And that’s just because of the annoying family and the insufferable heat. When Aja really starts in on the brutal slayings, he spares no one any comfort at all. From the moment that the “bad guys” appear, it’s onslaught after onslaught of vicious, cruel, and vile tortures by strange mutated desert dwellers who know no sense of humanity and who have long ago quit “civilization”. The poor family members are picked off in various horrifying ways, until eventually the few survivors must become just as horrifying and cunning in their escape.
Ted Levine (from the TV show “Monk”) gives a surprisingly good performance as the patriarch of the unsuspecting family. Massive props to the beautiful Emilie de Ravin (“Lost”) who gets raped by a mutant in a very risqué scene and comes out looking quite believably disheveled and near suicidal. Dan Byrd is the teenager-who-learns-to-become-a-man but, despite this cliché, is the most talented actor in the entire film.
“The Hills Have Eyes” will hit you over the head with a pickaxe to make a point. The much-needed explanation is that the mutations in these desert folks occurred because of radiation poisoning that destroyed their town when the military began doing atomic testing in the desert some 50-60 years ago. The miners who lived there refused to leave their town, so they were forced underground into the mines where they succeeded in breeding mutated progeny year after year. Now, these people live off of the flesh of passersby and various unlucky travelers who happen upon their old dusty back road. Interspersed with formulaic shots of black and white atomic bomb test footage is American-pie, 1950’s perfect “Leave It To Beaver” optimism shown mostly through old commercials for kitchen appliances. Throughout the film, prop mannequins with Eisenhower-era dress and hair make a sharp contrast to the twisted mutants who live in sitcom-ready houses long ago abandoned to the desert. This very anti-war, anti-military-testing film tries desperately to condemn American Idealism and Military Aggression with lines like “You made us this way… We’re this way because of you”. In short, it’s a slightly outdated, and frankly, irritating message about America’s shallow consumption of the government’s right to decide the fate of the country. Perhaps it’s that Aja and Levasseur have a European view on the subject. Or, maybe they knew they were beating a dead horse (anyone seen Godzilla? Radiation = Bad) but didn’t care. Who knows? What I do know is that it’s just a little tedious, but, if it gives me an excuse to watch mutants rape and mutilate people, I’ll sit through it. (But I won’t take it seriously. How could you?) People aren’t really worried about nuclear radiation anymore. It’s not really a modern fear. The original “The Hills Have Eyes” didn’t make too much of a huge deal about that aspect of the plot; it has even less of an impact thirty years later. The character of Ruby, the young girl who decides, mysteriously, to help out the victims and betray her clan of fellow mutants, is the most human looking of all the misshapen monstrosities. Of course. Billy Drago makes an appearance as one of the mutants, but unfortunately he has no real lines. (Die-Hard horror fans will remember that Drago had many lines in “Mirror Mirror III” and “IV”, and it didn’t really help those films, so no great loss).
Anyone who loved “High Tension” will be pleased to notice a very similar banister scene, and some very fun over-the-top gore involving body parts. There are also some terribly heroic and cheesy scenes, especially at the end, where the music sounds more appropriate for a film about winning the battle at Gettysburg rather than defeating a group of cannibal desert rednecks. All in all though, it’s quite fun.