As some faithful readers may recall, director Alexandre Aja’s big studio feature film debut, 2003’s High Tension, had me bug-eyed for several days after the screening. I cautiously rounded the corners of my apartment, as if I was waiting for the guy with hamburger meat for a face to attack me with a circular saw. The film undoubtedly lived up to its name and still stands as one of the most unsettling films I have seen in the past ten years. But there was that dog-gone twist that had to go and ruin an otherwise straightforward horror story that didn’t need such décor. Regardless of such a misstep, a new hero was born virtually overnight for the grind house horror crowd: 27-year-old Alexandre Aja.
Director Wes Craven spotted the talent of Aja and hand-picked him to direct this remake of Craven’s own The Hills Have Eyes (1977). The original film, while noteworthy in its own right, just doesn’t play too well today. The makeup effects and music are laughable by today’s standards, so for the first time in a long time I actually found myself getting ramped up for a remake. After all, Craven’s supervising the project, so how wrong could it go?
The good news is that this is actually a superior film to the original. The story is deceptively simple, but fleshed out much more effectively here. Set in the present, we quickly meet the Carters, a typical American family driving to California for Bob (Ted Levine) and Ethel’s (Quinlan) wedding anniversary. Along for the ride are bickering siblings Brenda (de Ravin) and Bobby (Byrd), as well as newly married Lynne (Shaw) and Doug (Stanford). After a run-in with an unsavory loner (Tom Bower) at a local gas station, the clan soon find themselves on a deserted back road (and it’s not on the map!). Spikes emerge from the sand, popping their tires and stranding them. It doesn’t take long before they realize they are not alone; severely disfigured cannibalistic mutants, victims of government nuclear testing back in the 50’s and 60’s, roam the hills in search of prey.
After what is at times a slow buildup, Aja lets loose for the film’s second half and delivers the kind of carnage that impatient gore hounds have been pleading for throughout the recent lot of PG-13 abominations. Very few directors out there right now can build up tension and dread like Aja, and it’s that very element that pushes this film past the others who have done the same thing (2003’s Wrong Turn, for instance). The infamous trailer scene is almost unbearably disconcerting in this incarnation and will likely have unsuspecting moviegoers peeking through their palms.
Also propelling the film are all-around excellent performances. Aaron Stanford gets the lead and is very believable as the peace keeper that must eventually resort to the same type of savagery as his enemies, particularly when his child is abducted. The always underrated Kathleen Quinlan adds nice depth as the hippie-turned-Christian conservative mother. Emilie de Ravin (of Lost fame) and Dan Byrd are also solid is their very emotional roles. The screenplay by Aja and Grégory Levasseur develops these characters and actually makes them human beings instead of merely chopped liver.
The Hills Have Eyes is a solid horror film; it seems like a diamond in the rough compared to the innumerable god-awful remakes of late. Led by an unexpectedly involving human element, top-notch makeup effects, and several scenes of raw power, the film easily soars past the competition of late. Alexandre Aja proves that he’s no one-hit wonder, and his next project, The Waiting (2007), is to be eagerly anticipated by the horror community.
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Length: 100 Minutes
Rating: R for strong gruesome violence and terror throughout, and for language.
Theatrical Release: March 10, 2006
Directed by: Alexandre Aja
Written by: Alexandre Aja & Grégory Levasseur. 1977 screenplay by Wes Craven.
Cast: Aaron Stanford, Kathleen Quinlan, Vinessa Shaw, Emilie de Ravin, Dan Byrd, Ted Levine