Monday, October 6, 2014

The Hills Have Eyes / ** (2006)

The geographical features referenced in the title of “The Hills Have Eyes” are a barren and desolate entity, scarred by fierce desert winds and intense sunlight that stretches miles upon miles in all directions. A truck carrying a trailer clobbers across the rugged terrain, carrying with it a family of California-bound passengers, who have little to no curiosity in the stories that these hills may or may not have to tell. Never does it dawn on them that the New Mexico landscape has been wounded by nuclear experiments and top-secret government tests; nor, for that matter, does anyone in the foreground get the sense that such tests have left behind rather menacing remains. Those hills tower over them like giant blankets of serenity, but the eyes of those ducking behind them are of a different kind, a different breed, a different intention. Had the protagonists known about these prospects before venturing into the area, no doubt they would have been eager to find themselves in an entirely different movie.

We understand how they feel, although for decidedly different reasons. The heroes/victims of “The Hills Have Eyes” run amok in every which way they can in a span of 100 minutes, but audiences spend just as much time grappling with their own dilemma: why are we supposed to care? The film is a remake of a 1977 Wes Craven picture that in itself was both silly and campy, and impossible to take seriously even though it was, essentially, supposed to be that way. What has been added the second time around to this premise? Little other than a lack of restraint visually and thematically, and even by the standards of the most hardcore horror movie buffs, it all lacks finesse. There have been surprisingly effective ventures into this genre recently – the ones that match their intense violence and torture with narrative context and social intrigue – but this is not one of those endeavors. It is perhaps the most routine and uneventful of the recent “slice-and-dice-em-up” thrillers: not utterly dreadful, but by no means passable either.

The movie opens with the same routine outpouring of fragmented information that is commonplace in such movies: news clips and article headlines flash over the opening credits, and establish a reality of unfortunate – but ominous – details. Once upon a time, residents of a small town in New Mexico were not so eager to vacate their homes despite warnings about nuclear tests that were being conducted by the United States government, and rather than retreat in the face of life-threatening explosions, they hid in the mines waiting for the tests to pass. Unfortunately, the radiation exposure altered their molecular structure, and for generations the survivors have passed down their genes to a new assemblage of inferior mutant-like creatures that spend all their free time coaxing strangers into their hills before brutally doing away with them for sport. Right, because the first trait of human deformity is insatiable bloodlust.

The movie opens in that all-too-familiar run-down convenience stop out in the middle of nowhere that is inhabited by a questionable redneck. A family of six arrives there for a quick fill-up of gas before continuing a drive to California, and foolishly asks for directions. The attendant, the only one present in a small outpost of shoddy shacks and buildings, offers a suggestion that might as well become ingrained as essential vernacular in teenage splatter movies: “If you take a left at the dirt road, it will be a shorter drive.” The movie doesn’t bother making it a secret that he is in on the nefarious plot to sabotage them all, either; if the mottled southern accent or the mangled teeth were not clear indicators, a prior scene shows a hidden figure visiting his home to drop off a bag of random mementos that, we suspect, belonged to similar adventurers who wandered through the area just a short time before. Let’s not bother to question their whereabouts.

To the movie’s credit, it is not as eager to reveal its grizzly potentials too early on. The family, celebrating the 25th wedding anniversary of their parents (one of them played by Ted Levine, of Buffalo Bill fame), are cheery and likeable sorts who don’t surrender to panic when the plot contrives a scenario in which their truck crashes and strands them out in the hills. The son, the comical but inquisitive Bobby (Dan Byrd), is the first to suspect alarm; when one of the family dogs wanders away from the crash site, he discovers her dead and mutilated a short distance away (the movie foreshadows the horror further, no less, by spying a mutated face feasting on the dog’s remains while perched on the top of a cliff). Big Bob (Levine) and Doug (Aaron Stanford), his whiny son-in-law, set out in opposite directions in search of help; Doug’s journey will eventually have him dead-end right into a crater containing the mangled remains of dozens of motor vehicles, and Bob’s path will lead him straight back to that little gas station where all of their misfortune began.

This all comes to a head when the family is sabotaged by an assemblage of horrific monsters who rape, molest, threaten and brutally do away with several members of the family, all while a select few are left alive to witness the horror unfold. Like “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” this is the kind of story that gets its jollies by emphasizing the brutality in enclosed passages; the centerpiece of the movie is one isolated scene where most of the murdering occurs inside a trailer, and the faces of others are reduced to hysterical sobs that have submitted to the shock of impossible tragedy. In the hands of the loftier types – such as the filmmakers of the “Chainsaw” remake – such calculations tend to be exercises in overkill. “The Hills Have Eyes” does not aspire to be that desperate. But it does, unfortunately, fall into the trap of delivering its relentless arsenal of painful images with almost sedated enthusiasm. The movie has no venom. And when one considers that the director, Alexandre Aja, once helmed the extremely horrific (but effective) “High Tension,” that comes as a bit of a surprise. Was there not something resting in the fabric of this premise that could have stirred him to at least approach the material from a higher sense of purpose?

The movie does have one effective impulse. In the final act, after bodies have piled up and survivors have been reduced to emotional shells, the Doug character takes on a personality shift that would have been more at home in a Tarrantino vehicle; driven by revenge – and the impulse to save his infant daughter from being kidnapped – he wanders into the lair of his enemies and lays waste to their vast population against nearly all odds thrown at him, eventually emerging covered in blood and painful wounds. The soundtrack briefly winks at the nature of spaghetti westerns by emphasizing a chord or two in the soundtrack, and for one shining moment, “The Hills Have Eyes” actually does something rather entertaining: create the sense that an act of vengeance is a legitimate character impulse rather than a checkpoint in a formula. Just think: had the writers utilized such nerve throughout the earlier portions of the picture, we could have been talking about something a little more substantial here than just a run-of-the-mill retelling.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Author's Note: This review was originally started in the Fall of 2007; in keeping with recent traditions, it has now been completed and published.

Horror (US); 2006; Rated R for strong gruesome violence and terror throughout, and for language; Running Time: 107 Minutes

Aaron Stanford: Doug
Kathleen Quinlan: Ethel Carter
Vinessa Shaw: Lynn
Emilie de Ravin: Brenda Carter
Dan Byrd: Bobby Carter
Ted Levine: Big Bob Carter

Produced by Wes Craven, Frank Hildebrand, Samy Layani, Inigo Lezzi, Peter Locke, Marianne Maddalena and Cody Zwieg; Directed by Alexandre Aja; Written by Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur; based on the 1977 screenplay by Wes Craven

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