"Don’t tarry, and don’t take no shortcuts." - Price Marshall, surviving member of the Donner Party
The Hills Have Eyes may be set in the sprawling, wide-open and lightly radioactive spaces of the American West (and shot in Morocco), but it actually occupies narrow territory. It's a remake of a film that lies in a sub-genre of a sub-genre of horror. Back in the '70s, films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Dawn of the Dead and Last House on the Left (along with an army of lesser imitators) combined low budgets and high body counts; full of lifeless performances and life-like (or, more accurately, death-like) makeup, they formed a sub-genre to themselves: Snuff-horror. Made in 1973, The Hills Have Eyes (the follow-up film for Last House director Wes Craven) also shares the same settings, look and feel of Texas Chainsaw and even Steven Spielberg's Duel, where the blazing desert sun shows the way to dusty death.
So, a snuff-horror desert-setting flick, with doom in the dunes and blood on the sand. The Hills Have Eyes, in its newest iteration, is actually helped substantially by the fact that very few people have seen the original. Directed by Alexandre Aja (Haute Tension), this version of The Hills Have Eyes is a creepy, jumpy gore-fest that should please horror fans – and, bluntly, it's hard to imagine the circumstances under which someone who isn't a horror fan would want to see it.
On a cross-country trip for their 25th anniversary, Bob and Ethel Carter (Ted Levine and Kathleen Quinlan) are taking their entire clan with them: eldest daughter Lynn (Vinessa Shaw), her husband Doug Bukowski (Aaron Stanford) and their daughter baby Catherine. Also along are younger Carter daughter Brenda (Emile de Ravin) and the youngest, Bobby (Dan Byrd). They are encouraged to take a shortcut through New Mexico by a friendly gas station operator; they are enjoying the scenery (or not) and working out various family issues (or not) and are set upon by the local hill-dwelling radioactive mutant cannibal community.
There are a few weird dialogue moments in The Hills Have Eyes; when handing out the guns 'n' ammo, Bob says to not worry about giving Doug a gat: "Leave Doug alone; he's a Democrat." Or, before the menfolk march out in different directions to look for help, Ethel says ""I think we should pray before you go." Someday, very boring academic papers (or, possibly before that, very inept politicized screeds) will be written about this film, fraught with phrases as "The Carters and Bukowskis can be seen as a microcosm of America; cop and capitalist, mother and hedonist, old and young." Are the politics a joke or thick commentary? It could be either with Aja – he is, after all, French, and the French are notoriously tricky – but later in the film, when someone is stabbed through the throat with the broken staff of a small-scale American Flag, all you can think is Oh, come on. This is obviously a put-on. It may look like The Hills Have Eyes wants to have a deep political reading, but it's really just as shallow as a pool of blood.
The Hills Have Eyes is like that all the way through, though -- stupid in smart ways, or vice-versa. The Carters are armed, and competent, which makes a nice change from the usual wide-eyed sacrificial lambs of horror film plotting. Later it becomes apparent that the clan of local hill-dwelling radioactive mutant cannibals is competent in their own way as well, and I actually felt like Aja and his co-writer Gregory Levasseur had put a little craft into re-writing Craven's 1973 (I was going to type original, but that feels like the wrong phrase) script.
Aja also has a capable hand at the cheap, clumsy jolts of horror filmmaking. He doesn't have Craven's graceful touch – but then again who does? One of Craven's signatures was (and is) to have a elegant, utilitarian scene and then have something dart through the scene, against the visual grain of it, in a completely unexpected way that made you feel like you just had a cockroach skitter across your eyeball. Aja tries to craft similar moments, whether out of tribute or because they work, but it's like watching a kid clump around in their parent's clothing and too-large shoes.
And while the local hill-dwelling radioactive mutant cannibal community is shown shooting, looting and working together to meet shared goals, they're not exactly well-drawn or especially deep characters. (The hill-dwelling radioactive mutant cannibal community has never – really – gotten a fair, nuanced portrayal in film; it's just the stereotypes you see in the movies coming out of Hollywood. ...) And yes, I know it's silly to want to know about the motivation of the gentleman with the pickaxe in any horror film, but the few glimpses into the inter-family rifts and traditions in the local hill-dwelling radioactive mutant cannibal community we do get makes you wish there were more of them.
But then again, when Bobby says early in the siege that "There are people … or something … living in those hills …", you realize that you don't really need to know much about the local hill-dwelling radioactive mutant cannibal community. They are other. They are jealous. They want things. Before the cannibalism is made explicit, Aja paints the baddies as fierce, feral sensualists – craving textures, scents, shiny objects, new stimulus, things to call their own. It's more interesting than the flesh-eating, but not as visceral. Literally. They have reasons for what they do, which they croak or grunt as they kill or die. And no matter how unlikable, shallow or badly-acted a character may be, all it takes is one hill-dwelling radioactive mutant cannibal in pursuit with a long knife to get you on someone's side. (The look and struggle of the film's ultimate-and-unlikely hero may even be a nod to Peckinpah's Straw Dogs. Or it may not.)
The Hills Have Eyes isn't as grindingly, unpleasantly tense as Haute Tension was; at the same time, it's not as broken or confused as Haute Tension was, either. The Hills Have Eyes is for horror fans only, but the passion and verve of it makes it worth seeing for anyone who likes a good, unsavory scare– as well as the fact it's the one of the few horror films of recent memory where the studio had enough confidence in the finished product to even screen it for critics. In contrast, Hostel and When a Stranger Calls were released earlier in 2006 by their parent studios with the same forced nonchalance traditionally demonstrated by people who walk away from something they just broke while looking away and whistling. The Hills Have Eyes is unexpectedly good, unabashedly gory and unashamed about wanting to scare you.