I have mixed feelings about the proliferation of remakes. On the one hand, there’s nothing wrong with taking a bad or average movie and remaking it as a good one (this is rare but it does happen). On the other hand, it gets boring seeing the same titles over and over again. What happened to originality? And let’s not forget poor Head Cheeze, who has to make sure that the link you just clicked goes to the 2006 version of The Hills Have Eyes, not the 1977 one. Will no one consider the poor web masters of this world?
I saw the original The Hills Have Eyes only recently, and while I wasn’t terribly impressed, I could see why it made such a splash at the time. It was gritty, harsh, and had a nasty, brutal edge to it. Mutant hillbillies decimated an all-American family and were even planning to eat a baby. That made drive-in audiences sit up and take notice back in 1977.
Alexandre Aja’s remake tries hard to make today’s audiences sit up and take notice. He tries a bit too hard, especially in the movie’s last third, but in many ways this remake is an improvement on the original.
The movie opens with a group of men in radiation suits testing the desert with Geiger counters, getting very scary readings, only to be made hash of by some local inhabitants. A creepy montage combines nuclear testing footage with pictures of people – many of them children – with genetic deformities caused by radiation.
We then meet a family en route to San Diego. Ex-cop dad (Ted Levine), long-suffering wife (Kathleen Quinlan), their three kids, eldest daughter’s husband and baby daughter, and two German Shepherds. The local gas station proprietor, who’s just received a batch of valuables (and one unsettling souvenir) from an unseen girl named Ruby, tells the all-American family to take the dirt road shortcut and they’ll get to the main highway faster.
The dirt road is booby-trapped with spike strips, the car is totaled, and soon the entire family finds itself under assault by the local mutants, who are looking for food and valuables to steal, women to rape, and people to kill and/or eat.
Anyone who saw Aja’s debut movie High Tension knows he’s no slouch at creating tense atmosphere. His version of Hills Have Eyes is most notable for his use of the desert locale to emphasize the isolation of the characters, something the original film never quite used successfully. (Side note: At the screening, Wes Craven told me that they’d gone to the location of the original film, in Victorville, California, only to find that the area was too populated and built up to use. The new Hills Have Eyes was filmed in Morocco.) Even if the all-American family does survive the mutants, it’s not clear how in hell they’ll escape the desert, which literally is as far as the eye can see. The characters have been made rather more likable and considerably less stupid, and the acting is strong all-around, with special mention going to Aaron Stanford as the wimpy husband who gets in touch with his homicidal side.
Aja has also fleshed out the lives of the local mutants. In one eerie scene, we see an automobile graveyard of past victims. And the mutants’ home, instead of a cave, is a model town built for nuclear testing.
What the new Hills Have Eyes also offers is mutants and gore. The mutant family in Craven’s film looked, for the most part, like skankier-than-usual hippies. The ones in Aja’s film are true mutants, with misshapen faces, deformed hands, and worse. The early glimpses of them are particularly unsettling. Likewise, the new Hills has much more gore, including a nasty shotgun suicide, splattery gunshot wounds, and flesh wounds galore.
Unfortunately, while Craven’s movie’s third act was too short (featuring one of cinema’s more abrupt endings), Aja’s third act is too long. It’s a repetitious sequence of drooling, deformed faces, stabbings and axe-choppings. Some of it is truly gratuitous – if travelers to prey upon are so infrequent, where did all those fresh body parts come from? By the end, I think all but the most ardent gorehounds would trade some grue and splatter for some genuine scares. I don’t know if Hills has been rated yet, but if it gets an R without any cuts, I’ll be amazed.
Still, the new Hills Have Eyes is, in most respects, an improvement on the original and should keep the gorehounds satisfied. Fright-seekers may want to look elsewhere after the movie’s first two thirds.