Now that the second Happy Death Day film is out in theaters – and includes a mid-credits scene that sets up a Part 3 – it appears to have carved out space as a legitimate horror franchise, and has claimed the “Babyface” mask as modern slasher iconography. It’s an effective costume and the films in which it appears are fun, but it has had the unfortunate side effect of eclipsing another memorable slasher named Babyface: the one from director Dave Parker’s 2009 meta slasher, The Hills Run Red.
Whenever some website or blog publishes a list of “Underrated Horror Movies of the 2000s” – and there is no shortage of them to be found on the internet – The Hills Run Red continually shows up across many of them. Whether it’s a film that’s underrated because it doesn’t get the credit it deserves or if it’s simply underseen remains open to debate; what is less debatable is that it’s a movie with a fervent cult following, one that has only grown as the years have gone by and horror fans have had a chance to discover it. This is a movie that grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. It’s brutal. It’s bloody. It’s badass.
Released as part of Warner Bros.’ short-lived direct-to-video “Warner Premiere” line, The Hills Run Red remains one of the best DTV horror films ever made – one that should have received theatrical distribution at the very least, and, at most, should have launched a franchise with its instantly iconic killer Babyface almost a decade before Happy Death Day and Happy Death Day 2 U. The character design is the stuff of nightmares; his backstory appropriately messed up. (As Freddy and Jason have taught us, never underestimate the value of a good slasher backstory). It’s not just the creation of a new villain that makes The Hills Run Red so memorable, though. It’s the way Dave Parker orchestrates the descent first into Hell, then into madness, that gives the movie lasting power.
The screenplay by splatterpunk legend David J. Schow (The Crow, Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part III) tells the story of Tyler, an obsessed film fan (Tad Hilgenbrink) who learns of the existence of a “lost” horror film, The Hills Run Red, rumored to be the scariest movie ever made. After locating a woman (Sophie Monk) who turns out to be the daughter of Hills’ reclusive director Wilson Wyler Concannon (William Sadler), Tyler coerces her to bring him into the woods to find Concannon and the film. Instead what he finds is that Babyface, the hulking, silent killer in The Hills Run Red, isn’t just a fictional character. He’s very, very real, and what awaits Tyler and his friends in the woods is scarier than any movie.
The Hills Run Red reimagines Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness for the horror geek set, sharing a commonality with works like Marisha Pesl’s novel Night Film, John Carpenter’s Masters of Horror episode “Cigarette Burns,” or even his 1994 feature In the Mouth of Madness, in which the protagonist becomes obsessed with finding some elusive figure and goes on a nightmare journey to get there, only to discover upon finding them that the nightmare is really beginning. In its way, The Hills Run Red is a self-reflexive story about our own relationship with the horror genre. Like Tyler, we want to see something evil, something dark, something “fucked up” when we watch horror movies. This is what we wanted, right? This is what we came here for. But Hills is about having that bluff called. Are you sure that’s what you want, Parker asks his characters – and, by extension, the audience. Then he proceeds to give us something so dark and evil that we regret having asked.
Coming as it does from Parker and Schow – two guys with a long history in the horror business – there’s a good deal of critique inside the movie, too. As The Hills Run Red enters its third act, as character motivations are revealed and things grow more and more nightmarish, the film also becomes a meta conversation about the genre itself. That’s probably inevitable when making a movie about movies, and to Hills’ credit, it never gets too far up its own ass so as to take away from the horror elements. In fact, it makes a point against doing just that, with one character explicitly stating “Nobody cares about that subtextual shit! Get to the kill!” One spotty CG-enhanced death aside, the violence in The Hills Run Red is glorious and brutal. The movie gets to have its cake and kill it, too.
Despite both properties using a masked killer called Babyface, The Hills Run Red couldn’t be more different from the Happy Death Day movies. The latter are fun, lively, PG-13 outings with a thick streak of sentimentality running through them. The former is a nasty piece of work – one that looks at Ugly straight in its blood-smeared face and refuses to flinch. And, yet, hopefully the popularity of one will lead to a rediscovery of the other. After a decade of flying under the radar, The Hills Run Red deserves it.