Film Reviews: Wednesday, March 08, 2006
Watch the windows! Vinessa Shaw tries to escape the denizens of the hinterlands in ‘The Hills Have Eyes.’
The Hills Have Eyes
Starring Aaron Stanford, Kathleen Quinlan, Vinessa Shaw, Dan Byrd, and Ted Levine. Written by Alexandre Aja and Gregory Levasseur, based on Wes Craven’s screenplay. Directed by Alexandre Aja. Rated R.

Move over, Saw and Hostel — The Hills Have Eyes is flat-out creepy.


Most slasher flicks have a touch of camp about ’em.

Take the handiwork of Eli Roth. In recent interviews, the writer-director described his recent sophomore effort, Hostel, as National Lampoon’s European Vacation for the macabre. The analogy’s apt: In his 2006 fright, three collegiate horndogs bounce around Eastern Europe in search of sexually liberated Slovakian babes. The boys get laid, all right, and then laid out and tortured by a bunch of psychos in an underground slaughterhouse.

Like a lot of other contemporary schlock-makers, Roth emits a good balance of funny and nasty, the kind of delinquency that has you waiting giddily for the next gross-out moment.

Not so Alexandre Aja.

The 27-year-old Parisian director takes a much less campy, much more serious approach, Last year, his intense murder-spree-on-celluloid, High Tension, proved unforgiving when it comes to shock and scare. With its swooning camera action and claustrophobic cat-and-mouse scenarios, the film doesn’t leave you eager to watch the next camped-up decapitation; it keeps you in an utter state of panic.

Aja’s ferocious remake of the 1977 freak show The Hills Have Eyes delivers more of the same. There is a bit of a Griswoldian plot at work here: On a road trip across the Southwest, the Carter family wrecks its RV in the desert, and for the remainder of the film, the seven of them struggle to survive both the blazing heat and several marauding mutant cannibals.

So if Roth’s Hostel channels European Vacation, then Aja’s Hills is the horror genre’s contemporary answer to The Goonies. Both Hills and Goonies take place above and below cavernous dwellings, but the real parallel is in the makeup department: Hills’ physically deformed humanoids — the bad guys — all bear an awfully close resemblance to The Goonies’ Baby Ruth-lovin’ Sloth.

With half-melted faces and hooves for hands, the Hills creatures don’t talk like Sloth, and they don’t have a hankering for sweets. Rather, they growl stuff like, “Kill the baby!” and pillage for any kind of food they can get their hooves on, including people. If anyone recalls the original Hills, not every creature was as elaborately grotesque. Granted, director Wes Craven (who takes producer credit this go-round) was working on a shoestring budget, but with the exception of the henchman mutant Pluto (played by character acting gem Michael Berryman), the rest of the original cast just came off as really dirty and deranged. Here, the hinterland folk are latex demons.

The 2006 story (co-scripted by Aja and Gregory Levasseur) stays pretty faithful to Craven’s original, except that Aja stretches the film to twice the original’s running time of a crude 89 minutes. Aja goes beyond the arid, mountainous crags to better explain the hill people’s proclivity for violence. Short answer: radiation.

We appreciate the enlightenment, but it’s sort of beside the point. Narrative logic should rank low on the priority scale in a bloodbath like this — and it does — because Aja focuses on the trauma, where he’s most effective. Suffice to say that people being burned alive and trapped with some strange meat in a cooler are among the thrills.

Aja also knows how to use music (Hills’ score is by Tom Hajdu and Andy Milburn). During the shock scenes, the silence is pierced by what sounds like a military alarm, like something you’d hear while approaching, say, an atomic bomb testing area — like, say, the very area that the monsters’ ancestors failed to evacuate during the Eisenhower administration. The music, the tension, the visuals — you may find yourself trapped in this nightmare alongside the Carters, whom you barely know, and crying “Uncle!” within the first 40 minutes.

In the past couple of years, a massive attack of sadism has risen to the fore in the slasher genre. Hostel, High Tension, Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects, the Saw series (a third installment opens later this year). Title by title, this movement in horror, helmed by a generation of 1980s pop-culture zealots, pushes the limits of sexual perversion, moral debauchery, and the tolerance levels of the Motion Pictures Association of America — a number of recent gore-filled films required multiple trips to the editing room to ensure R ratings.

With The Hills Have Eyes at the top of the heap, expect those boundaries to continue expanding.

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