Just a warning up-front here: there are tons of spoilers in this review, because, well… it’s a remake.
This is a tough one, folks. Because while Alexandre Aja’s remake of Wes Craven’s “The Hills Have Eyes” inarguably features some of the best thrills, gore, and flat-out insanity of the past few years, overall it’s still a great premise with some serious execution problems. Sure – there are about 15 minutes or so of this film that were so intense that my balls hurt, and that’s certainly something to regard with due respect. But sadly the rest of the film is a shambling, poorly-paced, and occasionally ridiculous mess – a dull walk in the desert littered with half-assed attempts at social commentary and spotted with moments of hilariously bad melodrama. In short, it’s basically the same as the first film, only with more blood on the walls.
A “typical American family” (if you don’t have a very high opinion of American families) takes a shortcut through the desert on its way to California, and is attacked by a clan of cannibalistic mutants whose reluctance to leave the area during the nuclear tests of the 50’s has left them horribly deformed (file that one under “Bad Ideas in Family Welfare”). The “normal” family is basically a bunch of passive-aggressive assholes, led by the pig-headed Big Bob Carter (Ted Levine) and his batty wife Ethel (Kathleen Quinlan), whose children barely tolerate them. The youngest, Bobby (Dan Byrd, who also stars in Tobe Hooper’s latest, “Mortuary”), is clearly the most sensitive and intelligent of the bunch – oddly, though, his reticence to act when things go strange is kind of what gets half of his family killed. Oops. Brenda (Emily de Ravin) is a pretty hateful blonde bimbo who is basically defiled from start to finish, and new mother Lynne (Vinessa Shaw of “Corky Romano”) tries to balance dealing with her nutty family with babysitting both her newborn and her whiny snark of a husband, Doug (Aaron Stanford of “X2”).
But before we even get to the annoying Carters, we’re treated to an opening scene that’s so violent and nasty that what follows really can’t hope to live up to it: a group of scientists in creepy “Crazies”-type hazmat suits are scanning the desert for radioactive activity – thank God they aren’t scanning for bad CGI fish, because they’d find what they were looking for in the first awkward shot. Ugh. Anyway, out of nowhere a bloody guy in rags comes flying out of the rocks begging for help, and before you know it a pickaxe – a very large, heavy-looking pickaxe – has become pretty well-acquainted with each of the scientist’s skulls. If you ever wondered what it would look like for someone to swing an axe with the previous victim still impaled on it, look no further. The point is clear: this invisible killer is very strong, very vicious, and has been spending way too much time in the batting cages.
After this promising opening and a lazily sardonic opening credits sequence (someone’s watched his “Doctor Strangelove”), we fall into some standard middle-class melodrama as the Carters bitch and moan their way through the desert. When their truck is smashed to shit after driving over a road trap (thanks to the intentionally misleading directions of an opportunistic gas station owner), they bitch and moan some more and decide to send the two men out to look for help. It’s no coincidence that Doug happens to be a cell-phone salesman – themes of technological futility run through the film – and seems utterly hopeless against the elements compared to Big Bob, who welcomes the challenge of “roughing it”. When Doug gets to the end of the supposed “road” and finds a crater filled with cars (still packed with vacationing gear), he brings back teddy bears and fishing poles as if he had just found an abandoned Target in the middle of the fucking desert. Hey, pal – anything seem a little, well, odd about this? Meanwhile, Bobby has discovered something somewhat disconcerting: he follows their German Shepherd, Beauty, through the hills and finds her brutally murdered and gutted, obviously the work of a human. But afraid of scaring his sisters, Bobby doesn’t reveal his findings with Doug and the family goes to sleep, waiting for Big Bob to get back with help.
Of course, Big Bob isn’t coming back – at least, not with help – because after seeing the gas station man blow his head off in an outhouse, Bob was knocked out and dragged into an abandoned mine by the still-unseen marauders. All this leads up to what is unquestionably the centerpiece of the film (and its predecessor), the “trailer attack” scene. Combining clever distraction (everything from strange noises to Big Bob crucified to a cactus and burned alive 100 yards away) with brute force, two of the mutant nasties break into the trailer where the girls are sleeping, brutally gang-rape Brenda, blow a hole in Ethel, execute Lynne, and take the baby. It’s here that “Hills” really shows its hand: its world is a mean, unforgiving place that rewards nothing other than survival at any cost. Which is a charming message, if you really think about it.
After the attack we’re forced to sit through some excruciatingly bad drama (allowing both of the murdered women to live for another few minutes just so we can enjoy their deaths again is just greedy and self-indulgent), and then Dough sets out to get his baby back from the mutants. After some standard recon stuff (set in an old nuclear test site, with model homes and mannequins, a la “Kalifornia”), Doug kills a few of the uglies, gets the baby back, and returns to Brenda and Bobby, who have managed to kill the leader of the clan, Jupiter – only you’d never know it, because he only appears as a nameless blur near the end of the movie, without even having a line of dialogue. Whatever. Bobby, Brenda, Doug, and baby embrace, the New American Family – what that means, I have no idea, but it’s the obvious intention here – until it’s revealed they’re being watched by even more mutants and the inevitable direct-to-video sequel is cemented into place.
Sound like the original, only less focused and gorier? Well, it is. Aja excels at creating and maintaining feverish levels of intensity – in fact, no one working today at this level has the same chops (although even he could take a huge lesson from Neil Marshall’s jaw-dropping “The Descent”, which pulls huge intensity AND has serious character work to boot). So why give him a movie where what seems like hours go by where literally nothing happens? The problems that most people have with the original “Hills” are that the characters are unlikable and the pacing is atrocious – two problems that persist here. And while most people are willing to overlook the shortcomings of the 1978 film because of its sly commentary on capitalism and brutality and juxtaposing of the two clans, this film actually falls flat on both counts.
For one, there’s nothing “sly” about having the National Anthem play during an attack scene or sticking American flags into the heads of dummies in a nuclear test site. As for the differences between the families, the mutants don’t really seem to be one – they communicate by walkie-talkies, which is clever, but beyond that they certainly don’t seem like any sort of cohesive unit. We don’t even know how many of them there are, what their relationship is, anything – they’re not exactly a united front and are treated more like special effects than characters. And the “civilized” family is similarly muddled – they don’t seem to get along, but they do hug and pray together, which is certainly not a common sight in a horror movie these days. If the point is that the collective sins of Americans will always haunt us, that’s just fine and dandy, but despite the attempts to retrofit the original story to accommodate this rather snarky comment, it’s just not a tight fit. I’d have much preferred if there were no nationalist message at all and we just stuck with the old-fashioned “civilized vs. primitive” deal that the first film gave us, but all the flag-waving here makes it quite clear that Aja has other designs. Given that the mutant family loses its upper hand because one of its members kills another and dies in the process (a change from the original that I really hated), is the real message that family will make or break you in the end? It’s really all very slapdash and messy; not out-and-out anarchic and yet not concise enough to be making any kind of crackling commentary, the half-assed stew of pop imagery, gore, and aimless bitchiness is more content to wave a bloodied flag in our faces than make a clear statement on anything. And really, I think we all deserve a little better than that.
So while in some ways this is an improvement over the mediocre original, in others it loses the first film’s cool demeanor and smarts, and the result is pretty much a wash – a blood-soaked wash, but a wash nonetheless. It’s certainly on the better end of the remake spectrum, but with crap like “The Fog” and “Boogeyman” as benchmarks, that like saying that yours is the prettiest turd in the outhouse. Hyper-violent, mean, and more interesting in what it does wrong than what it does right, this “Hills” will surely thrill those of you who have been waiting for the perfect combination of an unabashedly misanthropic Lars Von Trier movie and a splatter pic, but will leave most others fairly unimpressed.