Forget "Saw." Forget "The Devil's Rejects." If it is pure gore and torment you want, there's finally a winner in "The Hills Have Eyes," a deeply disturbing and grotesque story of murder, cannabilism and mutated freaks. While far from perfect, it is a thrill ride from minute one, and horror fans who have missed the extreme violence that is rarely found nowadays will not be disappointed.
A remake of the low-budget but surprisingly good 1977 Wes Craven film of the same name, "The Hills Have Eyes" is directed by Alexandre Aja, who helmed the French carnage flick "High Tension," which also pushed the bounds of what your stomach could handle (and then some). Aja seems to rejoice in ultra-gore, and so thus this film is quite fitting. The plot is simple: a family takes a short cut, gets stranded in the middle of the desert, and is slowly picked apart by a family of nuclear-mutated hillbillies who like to eat flesh.
Aja's version is about on par with Craven's, but for different reasons. There are several elements that are better, and several that are worse. All in all, while the plot developments are almost identical, the 2006 version is a completely different experience that is worth enjoying - as long as you don't mind watching horny, mutated freaks murder, eat and possibly rape a bunch of innocent bystanders.
Craven's version succeeded even though it had a noticeably low budget, mostly thanks to Craven's talent with the genre and his ability to develop suspense by keeping it simple. Craven's "Eyes" was gritty and equally disturbing, but not nearly as gory. His version examined the mutated family's dynamic more, but the family wasn't nearly as frightening.
What is improved in the new version, first and foremost, is the family of killers. Whereas in the original there was a hint of mutation, the family was more than anything else just a bunch of hermits who preyed upon unsuspecting travelers. In the original, the protagonists crash because of a rabbit; here, the killers directly cause the crash, perhaps much more adequately setting the stage for what is to come. Aja's killers are mutated to the extreme, a vile group of monsters who are, in fact, human.
Both films go into more detail on the killers, but in different ways. Craven focused on the family dynamic and had several scenes where they are at their camp plotting their next move. Aja shows very little of their interaction, which indeed makes them all the scarier, but at the same time neglects their intelligence that Craven was so careful to point out. Aja's killers are psychopaths who have a questionable amount of intellect. Unfortunately, while Aja ups the ante by elaborating on where the killers live and how they became they way they are, he never really develops a relationship between any of them the way that Craven did.
As for the protagonists, things are pretty comparable to the original. Every plot point is all but identical to that in the original, and the characters are much the same. The one thing that really dated Craven's version was that the characters were noticeably from the 1970's, and also very, very annoying. While they still bicker way too much, all of the protagonists are much better in almost every single way. After half of them are butchered, the other half fights back, and this is when things get really messy. Doug (Aaron Stanford) is much more of a hero in this one, whereas Brenda (Emilie de Ravin of "Lost") is unfortunately no more improved. When one of the killers is trying to rape her, she hits him with a pillow. When her brother is trying to calculate a way to deceive their hunters, she is crying and screaming. Only at the end do things finally click for her, but it is too little too late.
One thing I liked much more about Craven's version was the protagonists' strategizing to save themselves. Aja never really develops their thinking abilities very much; while the elements are there, he never pieces everything together. When Doug goes off to save his baby and the brother and sister remain behind to lure in some of the killers, you really never get the sense that they are working together the way you did in the original. It seems as though Doug just goes off on a rampage by himself (after telling his brother-in-law not to be stupid and go off on your own), leaving the other two to fend for themselves.
Still, Aja's version of "The Hills Have Eyes" is a force to be reckoned with. It is extremely bloody, disturbing, disgusting and shocking. It has plenty of scary moments, although I only jumped once - as good horror movies should do, it scares more with its plot than with its shock moments. Elements are worse - neither the good guys nor the bad guys are as smart as they were in the original, and we never really get to understand how the killers interact with one another - but other aspects are better - the gore, the back story of the killers, and... the gore.
The one thing that really stands out poorly in this new version is the score, which is just God-awful. In the third act especially, Aja has laced his film with triumphant music you'd expect to hear in some cheesy sports movie; the score makes the film almost laughably corny in a few parts that otherwise would have been much more effective.
This new version of "The Hills Have Eyes" has taken Wes Craven's original and blended it with elements of modern day gore flicks like "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre." The result is not perfect, but if you're looking to be excited and disturbed all at the same time, this is a picture worth seeing.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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