On a road trip through the New Mexico desert on the way to San Diego, the Carter family (including Kathleen Quinlan, Ted Levine, Aaron Stanford, and Vinessa Shaw) find themselves in the middle of nowhere. Asking directions from a local gas merchant, the family is purposefully sent into hell where a macabre band of irradiated mutants (from government nuclear testing) attack the clan, leaving the few remaining survivors to spend the next day fighting to stay alive when certain doom is all around them waiting in the hills of the blazing wasteland.
French director Alexandre Aja made a glorious debut with the 2003 Euro chiller "High Tension." Admittedly, he screwed up the ending with worthless twists and turns, but the core of the experience was pure dread, and promised a bright young talent who has respect for the art of the fright, and is fascinated with the power of the genre to disturb. That promise was kept for his Hollywood fat-cat debut.
An update of Wes Craven's 1977 film, Aja's "The Hills Have Eyes" (IMDb listing) is eager to thicken the trauma inflicted by Craven almost 30 years ago. I wouldn't call the earlier film a classic, but it has a strong following, and Craven worked wonders with a non-existent budget and a screenplay geared toward pummeling drive-in entertainment. Aja has more tricks up his sleeve, along with more coin and wonderful make-up work from KNB to viciously and extensively realize the mutants. Craven was looking to simply scare some folks with blunt violence and a subtle lecture on the primal nature of man. Aja's film is an absolute declaration of war.
First and foremost, Aja isn't afraid to creep out his audience, and "Eyes" might upset some with its extreme splatter violence. Like Rob Zombie's "Devil's Rejects," the new "Hills" is a robust genre concoction, twisting the MPAA's limits with ferocious depictions of murder and torment. The movie doesn't shy from showing the shocking menace and greasy strength of the mutants, nor does it turn a blind eye when the Carters try to even the score with guns, baseball bats, axes, or whatever they can get their hands on. Since Aja has the benefit of hindsight, his "Hills" is much more claustrophobic in locations (it was shot in Morocco) and story design. The film drags the viewer by the hair, kicking and screaming into doom, where Craven was simply summing up the gumption to suggest it. A lot has changed over the years.
While given ample opportunity to muck around with the original script, Aja plays his version fairly close to Craven's film. There is a greater expansion on the mutant family, who live in a ghostly, neglected mannequin community once used to gauge how nuclear weapons would affect 1950s suburbia. While we meet more of the "family" in this outing, their dialog is cut down severely from Craven's script, thus elevating their scare factor while emphasizing their horrifying deformities and thirst for blood. Sure, it's hard not to miss the magic of Michael Berryman, but what Aja dishes up here is terror, not a parade of oddities. These cannibals are fierce creatures, and Aja makes them into a substantial threat.
Not tickling me quite as much is the insistence that Aja has on cheap scares for the first half of the film. Clearly, the story doesn't need such counterfeit jolts, but Aja trots them out with an unmistakable amount of pride. The rest of the film has enough nightmare imagery for an entire orphanage, which promptly ends the need to keep the audience percolating, but the damage is done. Perhaps Aja isn't confident enough behind the camera yet to ditch these needless speed bumps in the pace.
Lost in Aja's interpretation is the character arc of Doug (Stanford), who in Craven's film was "the larger idea": the quiet pacifist turned into a blood-thirsty killer. Aja still plays around with those contradictory ideas, but he pushes the character into more brazenly iconic realms. Here Doug is given the best Sergio Leone encouragement, complete with rattling Morricone guitars on the soundtrack (part of the tremendous score by Tomandandy) and some minor heroic moments. It provides a needed thrill in the final act of the movie, and while it scrapes the sour taste of lunacy, it does so in all the right ways.
It's always tough to get behind a remake, but Aja has chosen a film that was ripe for a second chance, and I feel he's made a better piece of cinema as a result. "The Hills Have Eyes" might not have the sneak attack appeal of Craven's film, or the moral questioning, but it cooks in ways Craven has always missed in his own work. I'm positively itching to see what Aja has planned for his audience next.
Filmfodder Grade: A-