a critiQal film review The Hills Have Eyes (2006)

Plot: On a road trip to San Diego, a family breaks down in the middle of the desert. With no one around, it looks like they're going to be stuck there for awhile. As the father (Levine) hikes back to a gas station for help, the rest of the family begins to realize they aren't alone...

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Before becoming a big name in the horror movie biz thanks to films like A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and Scream (1996), Wes Craven directed a grittier horror flick back in 1977 called The Hills Have Eyes. With horror big business once again, the movie studios are looking to remake seemingly any and all horror films. The recent resurgence of remakes – The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), The Omen (2006), The Amityville Horror (2005) and House of Wax (2005) included – has finally come knocking on Mr. Craven’s door.

While most of the horror remakes are somewhat pointless, remaking smaller, less popular films like The Hills Have Eyes may bring them to a wider range of audience than they ever had before. While very few hadn’t seen the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Omen, I hadn’t yet had a chance to check out the 1977 version of The Hills Have Eyes, so had no idea what to expect.

Would Craven’s talent at horror writing transfer through another director, or is Craven behind the lens as needed as Craven with a pen? On the other hand, could The Hills Have Eyes, being one of his earlier works, be so bad that it should never have been redone? With those questions in mind (and remembering the disappointment of the last horror film I saw in theaters, Saw II (2005)), I gave the film a pass during it’s theatrical run, deciding to wait until it hit DVD.

While most of the actors in The Hills Have Eyes aren’t immediately recognizable to viewers, one most certainly is: Ted Levine, whose gravelly voice instantly reminds viewers of his performance as the creepy Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs (1991) (“It rubs the lotion on it’s skin or else it gets the hose again.”).

Thankfully, he doesn’t try to compete with that performance in The Hills Have Eyes, as he portrays one of the good guys set on but a family of mutants. Surprisingly (at first), he isn’t in a whole lot of scenes in the film, so the viewers are left trying to connect with one of these less recognizable characters, who all do a very good job of stepping up to the plate, acting-wise. While horror films aren’t really known for the acting skills it’s characters possess (especially since most of them are dead quickly – or hide behind a mask), The Hills Have Eyes showcases how creepy a movie can be if the viewer is able to connect with the characters first.

With that connection firmly established in The Hills Have Eyes with a surprisingly long build-up (for a horror movie), the filmmakers have the viewers much more interested in the film once the grisly stuff starts to occur. Director Alexandre Aja’s previous experience with High Tension (2005) serves him well here.

While The Hills Have Eyes does move slowly in the beginning, the first grisly encounter between the stranded family and the mutant family stalking them is so shocking it will leave most viewers short of breath and almost thankful for another long storyline and character-building period that follows. While the long waiting periods (especially at the beginning of the film) may discourage viewers at first, the film really begins from that first grisly scene of carnage and, despite a second waiting period, manages to keep tension high right up until the last shot.

Of course, as with most horror films, the atrocities that have turned the villains into who they are float somewhere between reality and fiction. With the War on Terrorism looming strong, and the World Trade Center disaster still on everyone’s mind, man-eating mutants due to nuclear fallout don’t seem as far-fetched as they used to. It’s a crazier world we live in these days, so the impossibly bizarre yesterday seems just a bit more feasible today.

That being said, most viewers aren’t quite up to accepting nuclear fallout as the reason behind the madness (despite Chernobyl), but Aja does a good job – through good use of the beginning credit sequence and some locales later on in The Hills Have Eyes. By the time the movie truly gets underway, however, the disbelief will fade, as viewers will find that they simply don’t care how the mutants became who they are. Instead, they are more concerned which characters are going to make it out alive – if any.

The Hills Have Eyes paints a much bleaker vision of good-guy survival than almost any horror film of recent memory. With this atmosphere hanging over the viewer’s head, the viewer wonders if any of the characters are really going to survive. Or, if the bad guys will win in this film, just as they’ve begun to do more and more often in recent years. Years ago, it was a given the good guys would win, the bad guys would die. These days, more filmmakers are stretching the envelope, more and more bad guys are getting away with murder, literally…even if it’s only to come back in a sequel.

The special effects are top-notch, a must for any horror film worth it’s salt. And The Hills Have Eyes definitely gives it’s special effects team numerous jobs, from creating the mutants themselves to injuries from a variety of weapons, and cannibalism. Thankfully, the special effects team was ready for the task set before them, and created impressively realistic effects shots throughout the whole film. They went the extra mile – or added the extra-chunky gore if you prefer – to make each effect as disturbing as possible.

Be warned: The Hills Have Eyes is not for the fainthearted. It’s grisly and horrific, and with it’s ability to immerse the viewer within the film, extremely frightening. It’s a horror film in the classic sense – it pits good vs. evil in a struggle for survival.

Sure, some reviewers will go off on how horror films reflect society today, and how we as a culture are disintegrating thanks to the recent resurgence of the horror film genre. Not me. I watch horror movies to be scared. Sadly, however, world news has affected how I watch horror films. Since our newscasts are overrun these days with murders, suicide bombers and possible terrorist attacks, a horror film has to really go the extra mile to scare us – and most don’t even try.

The Hills Have Eyes, however, has stood the test of time, and Aja has given us a remake worth watching. While some of the scenes do include some of the obligatory horror cliches, The Hills Have Eyes manages to keep it’s fright level high, and is worth a rental by any fan of the horror genre.

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