Why do people in movies always ignore that old adage to always stay on the main road”? The Carter family takes this ignorance to new heights on their vacation through the desert Southwest. Lost on a back road in the middle of nowhere, they heed the advise of the creepy gas station attendant and take the left onto a dirt road to save time in “The Hills Have Eyes.”
Horror meister Wes Craven shook things up for the shock movie fans with his now-classic, 1977 gore-fest, "The Hills Have Eyes.” Frenchman Alexandre Aja, who made it ¾ of the way with his stylish but disappointing “High Tension,” takes on the task of updating Craven’s story to the new millennium. Utilizing the now-familiar story about cannibal mutants who prey upon lost travelers, Aja brings freshness to the gory suspense yarn.
The Carters – retired cop, papa Bob (Ted Levine), mama Ethel (Kathleen Quinlan) and their adult children Bobby (Dan Byrd), Brenda (Emilie de Raven), married daughter Lynne (Vanessa Shaw), her husband Doug (Aaron Stanford) and their new-born baby – are towing their vintage Airstream RV across the country. Dad decides it’s a good chance to experience the beauty of the Southwestern desert first hand and, despite everyone’s protests (they just want to get to their destination, California), heads off to parts unknown.
They stop to gas up at the last “civilized” place for 200 miles, Gas Haven, where a strange little man (Tom Bower), who just received a bag of booty from a mysterious figure, serves them. Bob asks him for directions and, just as he is about to set them onto the right road, one of the Carter dogs breaks loose and runs inside the gas station. Lynne follows after the animal, going into the back room where the bag, full of jewels and money, lay open. The station owner confronts her and, seeing that she sees the bag, offers Bob a new set of directions that will save them a couple of hours. They head down the described dirt road.
Adhering to the Craven original, Aja builds the tension as the Carters drive deeper and deeper into the desolate desert when their tires are blown out by an unseen figure. The resultant crash renders their SUV useless and strands the family miles and miles from help. This build up takes place slowly and deliberately as we get shadowy glimpses of humanoid creatures on the periphery. The site, we are shown under the opening credits, was used for nuclear testing years ago and a group of miners refused to leave. The result is a band of blood-thirsty, crazed, cannibalistic monsters that prey on the intentionally misguided families.
Bob and Doug decide to go for help with dad heading back to Gas Haven and Doug continuing down the road to see what lies ahead. Bob leaves Bobby in charge, arming the teenager with one of his pistols, and packs his oversized magnum, just in case. When dad finally gets to the station, the owner is hiding with a shotgun declaring that he won’t help “them” anymore. He, literally, blows his own head off. Then, the mutants bag Bob. Meanwhile, Doug finds that the road is a dead end and a graveyard for a large number of cars, trucks and trailers. When he arrives back at the crash site, the action ramps up to high speed and the gore fest begins, not letting up for the rest of the film.
Helmer Aja adds about 15 minutes to the runtime of the original (which was a trim 87 minutes) but this new "The Hills Have Eyes” does not feel bloated or padded. We know the story so the director has the job of making it new and interesting. He does this with the help of his well-acted cast, creepy makeup for the mutants and a knack for horror suspense. Blood and guts are de rigueur here and the imaginative makeup (by a big team of artists) is first-rate – you’re going to love, on a gag-me level, Big Brain (Desmond Askew), Lizard (Robert Joy) and the rest of the wacky mutants.
The Hills Have Eyes” never takes itself seriously and that is one of the reasons why it compares well to the original. The techs, besides makeup, are top shelf too with cinematographer Maxime Alexandre making the maximum use of the harsh, beautiful Moroccan desert as a stand-in for the American Southwest. There is nothing cheap looking about this production. Aja, with a script he adapted with his collaborator Gregory Lavasseur, hits all the right buttons that the horror fans should expect, including appropriately corny moments.
There is a little twist at the end that, if this proves as successful as I expect it to be for entertainment-starved filmgoers, may well spawn a sequel. In the meantime, if you are a horror movie fan, “The Hills Have Eyes” is quite satisfying. I give it a B.
Laura gives "The Hills Have Eyes" a B+.
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