Writer-director Alexandre Aja and screenwriter Grégory Levasseur are two of the best people to spring onto the horror scene in ages. Their debut feature, "High Tension
," was 2005's best genre film, a blood-soaked, almost impossibly suspenseful masterpiece that reached an even higher plateau of success for revealing itself by the end to also be one of the most haunting love stories in recent memory. Their sophomore effort isn't quite up to par with "High Tension
" and isn't based this time on an original ideainstead, it is a decidedly faithful remake of Wes Craven's 1977 cult low-budgeterbut Aja and Levasseur nonetheless manage to vastly improve upon the flawed original in more ways than can be counted. As such, the brutal, nasty, gory, uninhibited "The Hills Have Eyes" is akin to a horror buff's wet dream.
When the Carter familypatriarch Bob (Ted Levine), matriarch Ethel (Kathleen Quinlan), teenage children Bobby (Dan Byrd) and Brenda (Emilie de Ravin), eldest daughter Lynne (Vinessa Shaw), Lynne's hubby Doug (Aaron Stanford) and infant daughter Catherine (Maisie Camilleri Preziosi)decide to take a shortcut through the desolate New Mexico desert on their way to San Diego, they become the latest targets of a tourist trap. With their Airstream's tires blown and stranded miles away from civilization, Bob and Doug decide to leave the family in search of help. The Carters are not as alone as they think, though. Lurking in the hills are a savage clan of deformed cannibalsvictims themselves of nuclear land testing by the government years ago.
The easily squeamish are advised to stay far away from "The Hills Have Eyes," a bravura slasher pic that would be considered painfully mean-spirited if that wasn't the very point to begin with. Throwing the genre's recent tendencies toward PG-13 fluff to the wind and embracing an R rating that is astonishing in its very NC-17 sensibilities, the film is marvelously directed by Alexandre Aja and intensely acted by a cast of brave actors who are put through the reddest of wringers.
Whereas the Wes Craven original is now distractingly dated in its costuming and music, this scarier, more technically polished redux captures a timeless feel that should stand the test of time. Furthermore, although Aja is working with a larger budget and major studio backing, the film turns its back on the safeness of mainstream cinema and remains steadfast (at least until the climax) as a gritty, uncompromising throwback to 1974's "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" and the like.
The level of apprehension and imminent danger built up in the opening thirty minutes segues into an abrupt and horrifying release of sheer terror as the family is besieged by the psychopathic mountain dwellers. Key to the lingering uneasiness Aja creates is not only his stark view of the fragility of lifeseveral of the family members are gruesomely offed at the start of the second act, and not exactly the ones viewers will be expectingbut also his naturalistic setup of the Carters themselves. By taking the time to develop their relationships with each other and their almost ignorant belief that nothing bad could happenbefore seeing her husband and son-in-law off on their trek to get help, Ethel insists on forming a family prayer circlethe characters' ultimate demises are all the most shocking and unsettling. And later, when the setting changes to a long-forgotten community on the nuclear testing site populated by the deformed, societally neglected killers, the countless display mannequins coexisting in their dilapidated homes disturbingly embody the American Dream gone awry.
The performances are first-rate across the board, although the participation of some, such as former Oscar nominee Kathleen Quinlan (2003's "The Battle of Shaker Heights
"), leaves one wondering how they could have possibly gotten involved in the project. In an ensemble where there virtually are no weak links, Dan Byrd (2004's "A Cinderella Story
") and Emilie de Ravin (TV's "Lost") prove to be the most dynamic and sympathetic as brother and sister Bobby and Brenda. Their journey, complimented by a similar one for black sheep Doug Bukowski, played by Aaron Stanford (2003's "X2: X-Men United
"), finds them digging up the emotional strength and physical courage they never knew they had even in the face of almost certain death. It's the perfect representation of the fight-or-flight theory, and Byrd and de Ravin are exceptionally believable as they go through hell before fighting for their lives.
If there is a misstep in the picture, it occurs during the last twenty minutes. Until this point, director Alexandre Aja had more than proven that he was willing to do whatever necessary to stay true to the dire situations depicted, leaving the audience nervously off-balance in the process. Unfortunately, there comes a point at the beginning of the final act in which this stops being the case and the script starts to rely on too many far-fetched coincidences in its plotting. One character in particular is put through so much that their survival is unbelievable; had they died, the film's ending would have felt as organic as the preceding 90 minutes. This debit luckily only puts a fleeting damper on the film as a whole, which is by and large an achievement of great power and unnerving tenacity.
"The Hills Have Eyes" is intentionally vile and sometimes disheartening, but that is as it should be for a movie that looks squarely in the eyes of humanity's darkest recesses and life's most unpredictable turns for the worse. Like 2004's "Dawn of the Dead
," the film ranks as that rare remake that not only stands on its own two feet, but is actually superior to the work on which it is based. For a cathartic escape into a purely nightmarish scenario only leavened by the end credits, "The Hills Have Eyes"and Alexandre Aja's instinctual, visually striking filmmaking prowessworks like gangbusters. His no doubt exciting next move within the horror genre can't come soon enough.