THE HILLS HAVE EYES

2006
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The Hills Have Eyes - 2006
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THE HILLS HAVE EYES - 2006
Craven-Maddalena Films / Dune Entertainment / Major Studio Partners / Fox Searchlight Pictures
Rating: Canada: 18A / Iceland: 16 / USA: R

Some movies reviews - of those which aren't of remakes in particular - can jump right into the review and explore. But this isn't a remake of just any movie.

In 1977, while America and the world were going gaga over a film called Star Wars, some fans, having enough of the SciFi fantasy and looking for chills, got more than they bargained for with Wes Craven's second masterpiece, THE HILLS HAVE EYES. With this film, Wes solidified his name in association with brutal, unrelenting horror; having already shocked audiences with his 1972 movie, THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT.

Wes' original vision is nearly 30 years old and someone felt it was time for an update. French director Alexander Aja (HAUTE TENSION), who wasn't even around when the original came out, knew what he was up against. To take on a Horror classic, by a respected major director who is STILL directing, you are walking a very fine line indeed. 20th Century Fox was leery about showing it under their main imprimatur, so they stuffed it off into their Searchlight banner - which usually means damn poor distribution.

But then the advance word!

Regular critics hated it but hardcore fans were loving it!

And why?

Aja starts off the film with a small mention of nuclear bomb testing in New Mexico and the miners and other folks in that area that the Army tried to clear out, but who hid among their tunnels in the mountains. The Army, thinking they were gone, went ahead.

The bombs went off.

Next, Aja intersperses in the opening credits, horrific images of real human adults and worse, babies, deformed and mutated (by whatever did it - many of these images are familiar to me and have nothing to do with radiation so much as inherited genetic deformity). These images are all the more disturbing, even to me, when flashed onto the big theater screen. It's only the opening credits and already people in the theater are gasping.

This lets you know what you are in for.

Then Aja gives you a violent punch in the face to hold the MTV audiences while he prepares you for a suspenseful slow build up. Aja knows his stuff not in the way of a professional director, but a passionate Horror director who loves the medium.

Aja re-wrote Craven's original screenplay but stayed damn close to the master. The story is the same, the way the family is brutalized and killed off is pretty close. Once the story begins, Aja refuses to cave in to the safety of jumping straight into the gore.

Because movies that do that don't scare you!

Let's get real! Nobody has ever been scared by FRIDAY THE 13th, the subsequent "Chuckie" sequels, and any other film that jumps straight into the gore. And there is a reason: If you don't give a damn about the characters, then you can't fear for them. It becomes a mere body count movie like all of those crappy A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET sequels. And that's a safety zone for many modern "horror fans" who prefer gory movies with blood on the screen and none in the story. They cheer their bloodthirsty monsters and all the inventive and ridiculous killings. People get killed with an unbelievable high-heeled shoe to the eye. They die via the cartoon violence of having a blunt chair leg shoved into their chest and out of their back – Give me a freaking break! Then they marvel in dainty ooey fan tones about how "cool" the special effects were and how fake the rubber prosthetics were.

Such inane crap! Horror entertainment is about facing your fear from a place of safety. It's not enough to simply look at the rollercoaster, you got to actually RIDE the damn rollercoaster!

In the new THE HILLS HAVE EYES, Aja, like Craven before him, takes you on a journey with the family – and he doesn't take the easy way out. You will get to know the Carters and Bukowskis.

Eventually you'll decide which characters you like and don't like.

The family is made up of Patriarch, Bob Carter (Ted Levine: THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, EVOLUTION, THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE). A retired police detective, Bob has taken his extended family, including his pregnant and married daughter and her husband, off on their last road trip. Bob, having agreed that he'll settle down and spend time with his family, wants to take all the scenic backroads on their cross-country trip, and get away from the speed of the main highways.

The matriarch is Ethel Carter (Kathleen Quinlin: NIGHTMARE IN BLOOD, TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE, WARNING SIGN, EVENT HORIZON). Having been a cop's wife for too many years, and with their children leaving the nest, she has put her foot down, insisting that Bob slow down and enjoy their last years together. This roadtrip is her one gift to Bob in exchange for the changes she demands from him.

Their children are Brenda (Emilie De Ravin: CARRIE [2002], SANTA'S SLAY, LOST [TV]) and Bobby Carter (Dan Byrd: FIRESTARTER 2: REKINDLED, 'SALEM'S LOT [2002], MORTUARY [2005]), who get along in ways you'd expect a middle sister and a baby brother to do.

Aja's screenplay, co-wrote with his long time writing partner, Gregory Levasseur (FURIA, HAUTE TENSION), restrains the friction between these two so it's never cartoonish standard sitcom bicker, like we're used to seeing in American Horror. Their tensions are not so much with each other as with the lousy trip. Their father, Bob, knowing that this will be his last trip ever with his family before his children all go their separate ways, becomes so driven with the trip itself that he ignores the discomfort of his family that he's supposed to be enjoying this vacation with in the first place.

This becomes too much for his oldest daughter, Lynne Bukowski (Vinessa Shaw), who, as upset as she is finds herself running interference, trying to calm her husband, Doug (Aaron Stanford: X2), who is fed up with Bob's belittling attitude toward him. That and the unrelenting summer desert heat.

The heat of the desert is weighing heavily on all of them. While they are driving the off-beaten path and stumble across a lone dilapidated gas station (yes, the spooky out of the way gas station - the reason you fear it is because Tobe Hooper and Wes Craven made them so scary), they meet with a nameless gas station owner with a creepy rotting smile (Tom Bower: THE KILLING JAR). The gas station owner, flinching with a guilt that only we are aware of, sends the family off to their death with a smile. The family thinks they'll be taking a dirt road shortcut, and it's just that kind of unknown, least taken trail of "Americana" that Bob is craving in his pioneer soul.

These are the folks of the early part of THE HILLS HAVE EYES. You'll get to know them, mentally choose the ones you like, and watch them die in brutal, unforgiving ways. Aja and Levasseur will have the story, evilly, horrifically, kill them off one by one.

It doesn't matter which character you liked, which character reminded you somewhat of your sister, best friend, yourself, that person might die, or be raped, or be any number of other human cruelties. Part of being scared is the Horror, and the other part is the tragedy. The death of innocent people is tragic and Aja makes you feel it in distasteful gritty ways.

Aja's camera doesn't shirk from the horror, but he also doesn't give the audience a way of getting out of the movie, like showing nudity, for example. Nudity is a way to take male audience members out of the film, remember that they are looking an actress, and get a turn-on by seeing her undressed, even if she is going through a terrifying moment while you see her naked. Nudity is known to shift gears.

Aja doesn't do that, and he uses a real steady hand in separating what you are seeing, and what you can imagine. The audiences imagination will always conjure scarier things than what any film maker can show on the screen and the best directors understand this. It's what made THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE so great. It's what made THE EXORCIST so great.

In the original HILLS, the patriarch of the freaky hill family that terrorizes the Carters was a big hairy thug named Jupiter. But the one who stole the show was the hairless Michael Berryman, whose natural, unique features made audiences pause. Berryman, for a time, became a staple of Craven movies and has remained a fan favorite ever since. To Aja's credit though, Berryman, or anyone else from the original doesn't get a cameo. This is not a "Ain't we cute" for the fans film. Aja goes for the throat.

Lizard (Robert Joy: AMITYVILLE 3D, RESURRECTION, LAND OF THE DEAD) is the main bad guy this time around. He just makes it so damn hard to like him. He's vicious to outsiders and not much nicer to his own folks like Goggle (Ezra Buzzington) and Ruby (Laura Ortiz).

Like the original, the mutant cannibals of Aja's THE HILLS HAVE EYES feel that they should have, must have everything regular people have. That includes their possessions as well as their lives and bodies. The mutants have their own reasons for their violence. They aren't good reasons, but as I said, these folks is twisted. Their justification for violence to outsiders, like all criminals, holds their fractured dying society together in a way that only inbreds would understand.

What Aja does miss though, is Craven's sense of humor. People, regardless of circumstances, have a sense of humor. It's what helps us endure the worst of times. Good people have a sense of humor, even bad people have one. It gives dimension to people and having some funny moments between the Carters and the Bukowskis would have brought a better humanity to them than seeing them only in their worst, ever more desperate moments.

But this is the path that Aja and Levasseur chose so there you have it.

Outstanding special effects were created by Oscar winning artist, Greg Nicotero (DAY OF THE DEAD, EVIL DEAD II, PHANTASM II, A NIGHTMARE ON ELMSTREET, ARMY OF DARKNESS, FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, SCREAM, THE FACULTY, THE CELL, MINORITY REPORT, KILL BILL 1 & 2, THE AMITYVILLE HORROR) of KNB EFX, and his crew, to bring out nightmarish mutations like we've never seen on the screen before. I'm not kidding, I could hear the sounds of "Eww!" around me as Director Aja himself must have been quite impressed with the make-up. I can't think of another movie where the director was willing to bring the camera so close to the fabrications. Usually creatures are shot in full body shots, or quick half body shots. Aja gets right up to the eyes, daring the audience to pick apart the effect and see if it looks real. The make-up of Ruby, in particular, was flawless. Part of this is helped by a seamless synergy of prosthetic make-up and CGI effects, led by Jamison Scott Goei (THE PROPHECY movies, PHANTOMS, EQUILIBRIUM).

Maxime Alexandre's (HAUTE TENSION) wonderful cinematography will make you feel the barren desert heat even in a cool air conditioned theater.

If I was Wes Craven, I think I'd be honored that a youngblood came along to remake my film and didn't crap it up with pop teevee b.s. If anything, Aja and Levasseur flesh out Wes's original, bringing more dimension to the tale.

And I'm amazed that Fox, even through their Searchlight subsection, allows the kind of gore that Aja brings to the screen.

Alexandre Aja's THE HILLS HAVE EYES will punch you hard!

Four Shriek Girls.

Shriek GirlsShriek GirlsShriek GirlsShriek Girls
This review copyright 2006 E.C.McMullen Jr.

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