Monday, June 26, 2006

The Hills Have Eyes (2006)

Creative films in Hollywood are a dying breed. Remakes and films based on old television shows are increasingly becoming the norm over the last decade, while original films are often relegated to limited releases. Filmmakers have even resorted to remaking films from other countries (like Japan's Shall We Dance? or Korea's The Lake House) because they're running out of material here in America.

While no genre has been safe from the concept of remakes, the horror genre has been hit especially hard. Whether they be remakes of Asian ghost stories or of classics from the '70s and '80s, many are unwanted, many are uncalled for, few turn out to be good. While these remakes often draw the ire of the horror devoted (and enthusiasm from a younger generation who have yet to discover the originals), there is no stopping the horror remake juggernaut.

However, genre legend Wes Craven seemingly decided to take a cue from George Romero's 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead and organize a remake of one of his own films, namely his 1977 sophomore film The Hills Have Eyes. If your movie's going to be remade, why not redo it yourself? Teaming with Hills Have Eyes producer Peter Locke, Craven recruited High Tension director Alexandre Aja and his writing partner Grégory Levasseur to adapt Craven's film for more modern audiences. And guess what? It's not a bad remake.

Our tale of terror opens in a lonely, isolated spot in the hills of the New Mexico desert. The area appears to be populated by one solitary gas station, so remote that the sign out front advertises that it's the only gas station for 200 miles. It's obvious that the station doesn't get many customers, so the station's lone attendant (Tom Bower) is surprised to see a truck hauling an old Airstream trailer pull up for some service.

As the attendant refills the truck, we are introduced to the all-American Carter family, who are making this pit stop while on a road trip to San Diego. Family patriarch Big Bob (Ted Levine) firmly believes the road through the desert is a shortcut despite all greater logic, much to the chagrin of his wife Ethel (Kathleen Quinlan), their bored teenage children Bobby (Dan Byrd) and Brenda (Emilie de Ravin), married daughter Lynn (Vinessa Shaw) and her dorky liberal husband Doug (Aaron Stanford), and Lynn and Doug's infant daughter Catherine (Maisie Camilleri Preziosi).

With the gas tank full and everyone ready to go, Big Bob is just about to drive off when the attendant stops him, telling him of a quick side road not on the map, about two miles from the station. The Carters are already lost, so if that road can take them to anything resembling civilization, why not? It's not like listening to a suspicious old codger in a horror movie ever got anyone into trouble, right? Right? So the Carters take that little side road, but end up running over a row of spikes conveniently placed across the middle of the road before crashing headlong into a rock.

Their cell phones don't work and Big Bob doubts their CB radio will get any kind of signal, so they're stranded. The Carters need help if they're going to get out of this predicament. But as night falls, they find not help, but violence, bloodshed, and carnage as they learn that they are at the mercy of a band of mutated, cannibalistic psychopaths that call the desert hills their home.

The original Hills Have Eyes is considered by many to be a landmark in '70s grindhouse horror, and this remake is faithful to its roots. The movie is an unrelenting venture into madness, a wonderful callback to when horror movies were meant to horrify. While admittedly the remake is much more polished than its source material (thus losing some of the original's "rough around the edges" charm), the movie still manages to improve upon the micro-budgeted, almost amateurish nature of the original. The grainy look of the original makes it look almost like a home movie (despite its cheap effects), while the remake's glossy sheen makes it seem as if it has something of a dreamlike quality, like it were floating along the boundaries between fantasy and reality.

I was really amazed with Alexandre Aja's work on High Tension, and he continued to impress me with The Hills Have Eyes. Aja is an extremely capable filmmaker, and I believe that with a few more movies under his belt, he could become the next big horror auteur. He utilizes relatively shaky cinema movements (wonderfully done by cinematographer Maxime Alexandre) and smooth yet fast-paced editing on order to pull the audience into the world the movie occupies. While the quick edits and fast camera movements would be annoying and distracting in other movies, they work to create an unnerving, unsettling atmosphere that the movie benefits from.

With the exception of a few changes, the exemplary screenplay penned by Aja and Grégory Levasseur maintains a high level of faithfulness to Craven's original film. The movie could have alienated devotees of the original by either staying too close or straying too far from the source, but for the most part, I think they succeeded. However, unlike the original movie, there is no attempt to really get to know the antagonists. There is somewhat of an attempt to paint Laura Ortiz's character Ruby as "the good one" (akin to Ruby's 1977 counterpart played by Janus Blythe), but since the antagonists are not given much development at all, it all ends up seeming unimportant in the end.

There also seems to be no real attempt to give the cannibals a family dynamic as seen in Craven's earlier version. In the 1977 film, the characters were an evil, inbred version of a normal family, with the father, the kids willing to please their parents, and the rebellious black sheep of the family. But 29 years later, the villains in the new Hills Have Eyes are merely monsters hideously mutated by years of radiation fallout, with a lust to kill any outsiders that dare stumble across their humble abode. While making the villains more akin to a maniacal family unit akin to Leatherface's brood from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre series could have been more frightening than what Aja and Levasseur gave us, the villains still manage to be quite frightening and intimidating.

The score composed by Tom Hajdu and Andy Milburn (credited as "tomandandy") is not so much music as it is a horror story told through sound. Their score is absolutely perfect for the movie, and without becoming overbearing, it goes against the grain of the overproduced, nonchalant scores many horror movies have nowadays. The movie also boasts incredible special effects (supervised by Gregory Nicotero and Howard Berger from KNB EFX Group), along with a cast whose abilities far exceed those of the original's cast. Each of the protagonists are believable and non-offensive (and I must say that I really liked Ted Levine), but unfortunately, the cannibals don't really stand out because they aren't given any time to individually shine.

However, I must say that Desmond Askew's short performance as "Big Brain" (a wheelchair-bound freak with a frighteningly oversized cranium) is too creepy for words. His hoarse, wheezing voice alone is unsettling, but when combined with his appearance, Askew's one scene becomes one of the movie's most memorable set pieces. And I must ask: am I the only one that couldn't believe that the Ted Levine from The Hills Have Eyes is the same guy that played Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs? If it weren't for the name and voice, I'd believe you if you said they were two different people.

When it comes right down to it, both the original Hills Have Eyes and its remake assert that humans are animals by nature, but it's all a matter of how that animalistic side is embraced. Yeah, the antagonists are violent, deformed, lunatic cannibals, but once pushed to the edge, the protagonists are as equally insane and quick to resort to violence in dire circumstances. And like its predecessor, Aja's interpretation of The Hills Have Eyes is nothing short of unsettling and borderline disturbing, and it's sporting a both a vicious mean streak and a pitch black heart. So in short, those of you with weak constitutions or an aversion to depravity in horror cinema, you might want to skip it. However, it is not only a remake that actually manages to improve upon its source material, but a well-crafted piece of nihilistic horror art, I give the 2006 version of The Hills Have Eyes four stars and a seal of approval.

Final Rating: ****

Thursday, June 22, 2006

The Hills Have Eyes (1977)

The horror genre has always been about breaking the boundaries of both the imagination and good taste. If a horror movie hasn't frightened you or pushed you out of your "comfort zone," then it hasn't done what it's supposed to. Very few horror filmmakers nowadays are willing to truly horrify audiences, while many are willing to work within the constraints of a PG-13 rating in order to make more money at the box office.

With less offensive horror seemingly becoming more and more prevalent, many horror fans are yearning for a full-fledged return to the gritty, rough-around-the-edges horror movies from the '70s that have become today's influential cult classics. One such film was The Hills Have Eyes, the sophomore film of genre legend Wes Craven. His follow-up to Craven's equally abrasive debut movie The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes has amassed a large cult following and has become an influential part of the genre since it was unleashed upon the world three decades ago. Though I do wonder this: has The Hills Have Eyes been deserving of the kindness time has bestowed upon it?

The movie opens in a lonely, rural spot in the mountains of the southwest United States. The area appears to be populated by one standalone gas station, which itself looks mere moments away from crumbling. The station's sole employee, Fred (John Steadman), is ready to remove himself from the barren wasteland and join civilization, but has trouble when a young girl named Ruby (Janus Blythe) shows up at his doorstep, offering to trade stolen whiskey and radios for food. When he mentions he's preparing to leave, she implores him to take her with him. He laughs her off, but before their conversation can continue, they are interrupted by a car pulling up outside.

It is here that we are introduced to the Carters, a family passing through the area on their way to California. Family patriarch and retired police officer Big Bob (Russ Grieve) asks Fred for directions, but he recommends that they stay on the main road and not take any shortcuts. But since nobody ever thinks to listen to the harmless old coot's good advice in movies like this, the Carters immediately take the first "shortcut" they find. They also seem to have paid no mind to Fred mentioning that the Air Force uses a particular stretch of the desert as a testing range, because a number of fighter jets pass over their car as soon as they turn down the narrow road. In all the confusion, the car swerves off the road and ends up breaking an axle, leaving them stranded in the middle of nowhere.

They need help if they're going to get out of this predicament, so Bob decides to walk back to Fred's gas station while his son-in-law Doug (Martin Speer) goes in the other direction to find someone. This leaves Bob's wife Ethel (Virginia Vincent), their son Bobby (Robert Houston), their daughters Lynne (Dee Wallace-Stone) and Brenda (Susan Lanier), and Lynne and Doug's baby daughter Katherine (Brenda Marinoff) high and dry in the desert as the sun sets. Their only means of protection are their pet German shepherds that they've brought along, but a pair of dogs won't protect them from what the monsters that call the desert mountains home.

And once nightfall arrives, the monsters in the mountains strike, as one by one the stranded family is raped, murdered, and mutilated by Ruby's psychotic father Papa Jupiter (James Whitworth) and her equally insane brothers Mars (Lance Gordon), Pluto (Michael Berryman), and Mercury (Peter Locke, credited as "Arthur King") until the survivors strike back to exact bloody vengeance.

Loosely inspired by the Scottish folk tales of Alexander "Sawney" Bean and his clan of cave-dwelling cannibals, The Hills Have Eyes is widely considered to be a masterpiece of exploitative '70s horror. There is no arguing its influence regarding the genre, but much of the time, the movie seems cheaply done. The Hills Have Eyes was filmed for 230,000 dollars, and even when adjusted for inflation, the movie's budget would be right at 760,000 bucks today. Although it may prove that you too can make a legendary horror movie for less than a million dollars, The Hills Have Eyes is hindered by its meager budget.

While I don't think Wes Craven really hit his groove until he made A Nightmare on Elm Street seven years later, he definitely shows a talent that made him one of the most respected names in horror. Admittedly, some shots look like they would have been better suited for cheap made-for-TV movies, but Craven and cinematographer Eric Saarinen make the most of it and I admire their efforts.

I must mention while I'm here that there are some instances where the screen goes almost completely black. I don't know if that was intentional or just a case of poor lighting, but the movie benefits from it. There is a particular scene in which the Doug character charges out into the desert after their first encounter with the cannibals in the middle of the night. The camera slowly tracks out, and all that can be seen is Doug surrounded by pitch black darkness. Regardless of intention, the moment really works as a metaphor for the isolation, loneliness, and confusion that I'm sure the character had to be feeling.

Unfortunately, Craven's script isn't half as good as his direction. Frankly, I thought the script sucked. The Carters are self-centered, annoying, and so downright stupid that if anything bad happens, they had it coming. They split up every time they get the opportunity, and absolutely fail to communicate on any level even when their very survival is on the line. Hell, Bobby doesn't bother to tell anyone that there's some kind of sick killer in the desert until right before the sick killer and all his buddies pounce on them. And even when Bobby does tell someone, he interrupts Doug and Lynne during a rather intimate moment so he can tell them. Did he even think that maybe he should have said something 20 minutes earlier so they could have prepared?

However, making the Carters such an awful family may have been Craven's intent from the start. Papa Jupiter's clan may not be the greatest family out there, but at least they're more of a family than the Carters. They're continually in communication with one another, they're far more modest, and they truly do seem like they care about one another. They might be crazy baby-eating psychopaths, but at least they're not egotistical morons like the Carters. As one reviewer put it, The Hills Have Eyes is "like The Grapes of Wrath, but with dog evisceration." And I think he pretty much hit the nail on the head with that.

Perhaps the worst thing about the entire movie is the acting. If the Carters are actually supposed to be likeable, the actors playing them do not help matters at all. With the exception of Dee Wallace-Stone, every member of the Carter family fail to show much acting talent at all. However, with the exception of Janus Blythe, the cannibals are all wonderful. They're equally frightening yet fun, with James Whitworth and Michael Berryman as the standout performers. Also frightening yet fun is the score composed by Don Peake. Reminiscent of the music from the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Peake's music is a bizarre, surreal experience that suits the movie well.

While The Hills Have Eyes may be a torchbearer for the ultra-violent grindhouse horror of the '70s, it's just not very good. I didn't feel that it lived up to the reputation it has amassed over the years, and because of that, I was left feeling somewhat disappointed. I went in expecting something, and the movie delivered something else. But to be fair, The Hills Have Eyes does have a message hidden beneath its rough, crude exterior. That message is that even the most civilized or "normal" denizens of society can snap if pushed too far. Perhaps beyond those breaking points, we may be crazier than what has caused that.

Unfortunately, I cannot justify giving The Hills Have Eyes anything higher than two and a half stars. The movie is worth watching if you are interested in Craven's work before he was known for A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream, or if you're into this style of movie, but I don't know if I'd recommend it to anyone outside of those people. Though as always, your mileage may vary.

Final Rating: **½