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Category:    Home > Reviews > Horror > Thriller > Mystery > The Hills Have Eyes (2006/Theatrical Film Review)

The Hills Have Eyes (2006)


Stars: Aaron Stanford, Dan Byrd, Vinessa Shaw, Kathleen Quinlan, Ted Levine, Emilie de Ravin

Director: Alexandre Aja

Critic's rating: 7.5 out of 10


Review by Chuck O'Leary


If you're driving through the middle of the desert and a seedy, half-witted gas-station attendant with no front teeth tells you how to save a couple of hours by veering off the main road, you'd better stick to the main road.  That's the lesson learned too late by an ordinary American family in The Hills Have Eyes, a surprisingly very effective remake of Wes Craven's 1977 shocker of the same name.


Craven's original, which was quite brutal in its day, became a cult hit on the drive-in circuit, and spawned a far-less successful sequel, The Hills Have Eyes Part II (1985), that Craven also directed.  The original Hills, however, ranks with Red Eye as one of Craven's best and most suspenseful efforts.


The remake increases the gore factor substantially courtesy of Greg Nicotero's gruesome special effects, but thankfully director/co-writer Alexandre Aja stays close to the original's blueprint and keeps the suspense quotient high -- Aja previously showed some skill for sustaining tension in his High Tension before that film was completely ruined by a horrendous twist ending.


The basic plot and characters are the same, but the Hills remake gives us a backstory (inspired by 1950s monster movies) that wasn't provided in the original.  The villains in Craven's Hills were cannibals, but came across more as deranged inbreds similar to the ones in Deliverance.  The unusual-looking, chrome-domed Michael Berryman, a patient in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, portrayed one of the murderous inbreds and his face was front and center on the film's poster and print display ads.  But little makeup was used.


The remake, conversely, piles the grotesque-looking makeup on veteran character actors who specialize in heavies such as Robert Joy and Billy Drago, making them severely-deformed mutants who got that way as the result of radiation from nuclear testing the United States government conducted in the New Mexico desert from 1945-1962.  Apparently the residents of a mining town in the middle of the desert refused to leave their homes during the nuclear testing, resulting in horrific consequences for their offspring.  For decades, the deformed subsequent generations have managed to secretly survive in a remote section of the desert by turning to cannibalism, and killing any unfortunate soul who enters their territory.


The latest victims are the Carter's.  Bob Carter (Ted Levine) is a veteran police detective, so you'd think he'd be more world-wise than to take a shortcut through the desert at the suggestion of the aforementioned gas-station attendant (Tom Bower).  Bob and his wife, Ethel (Kathleen Quinlan), are celebrating their 25th anniversary and taking a long drive to a vacation destination with their family.


Joining them are their three children, son Bobby (Dan Byrd), who's about 20, teen-age daughter Brenda (Emilie de Raven) and oldest daughter, Lynne (Vinessa Shaw), her husband, Doug (Aaron Stanford), and Lynne and Doug's infant daughter.  The Carter's two pet German Shepherds are also present.


Patriarch Bob is a macho-type guy who's resentful of his bespectacled, mild-mannered son-in-law.  Doug is described as an anti-gun Democrat in a family of Christians who seem to represent Republican Red-State America.  As in the original, it's the son-in-law who's forced to unleash an animalistic side he never knew he had in order to save his child.  However, in the post-9/11 world, Doug's transformation can be taken as a metaphor with how America and the civilized West must reduce itself to becoming like animals to successfully fight a vicious, animalistic enemy that knows no rules or mercy.  Pacifistic politicians of the Ted Kennedy, Howard Dean ilk could afford to learn something from Doug's battle for survival and apply it to their approach to the war on terror.


Set in New Mexico, but filmed in Morocco, Aja's version of The Hills Have Eyes benefits from Maxime Alexandre's rich desert cinematography and a tension-enhancing musical score by tomandandy.  On the downside, there are a couple of big lapses in logic near the end, and I could have done without the obligatory ending that hints at a sequel when the more ambiguous way the original ended was so effective.  But despite these shortcomings, this is the most satisfying horror remake since Marcus Nispel's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), and like that film, it fills in some blanks the previous film did not.


The graphic violence and gore in the new Hills pushes the R rating to its limits, but unlike a quasi-snuff film like The Devil's Rejects, which offensively took the side of three homicidal maniacs, Hills is clearly on the side of the victimized family, and makes us cheer their revenge.  For those who can stomach such a film, it delivers a bloody good time.


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