THE HILLS HAVE EYES (2006)
Director: Alexandre Aja
Cast: Aaron Stanford, Kathleen Quinlan, Vinessa Shaw, Emilie de Ravin, Dan Byrd, Ted Levine, Tom Bower
MPAA Rating: (for strong gruesome violence and terror throughout, and for language)
Running Time: 1:47
Release Date: 3/10/06
Review by Mark Dujsik
Ho hum, another horror flick. Look, don't get me wrong. I love a good scare as well the next person, but I'm starting to get bored with the modern horror genre. As evidence, I present The Hills Have Eyes, Alexandre Aja's remake of Wes Craven's second horror feature, and my less-than-thrilled reaction to it. Aja directed High Tension, one of the scariest films I've seen in years, and from that film and this one, he is clearly adept at the genre. He manages to balance that very fine line between examination and exploitation. Cross it, and a film about depraved acts becomes depraved in and of itself. Give the man the right material, and he might well make a great horror film. The Hills Have Eyes is more than competently made and frightening in its own right, but certain elements of the plot inherently cross the aforementioned line. My problem is not with those aspects but with how apathetic I am with the movie as a whole. I admire certain aspects from a distance and despise certain elements from the same distance. Horror is the cinema du jour it seems, and this movie is simply a casualty of that trend.
The movie's prologue features a title card telling about nuclear testing and the government's denial of its adverse effects. Cut to a group testing the New Mexico desert for levels of radiation, who are subsequently killed and dragged away on the back of a truck. Nearby, a gas station attendant (Tom Bower) has just collected some valuables from the recent victims he sent to their deaths but apparently wants to end his part in the scheme. A family taking the long way to California comes along, and after filling up and exchanging pleasantries is about to head out. When the eldest daughter Lynne (Vinessa Shaw) happens into the attendants office to find the family's dog, the attendant is convinced she noticed the items. He tells family head Bob (Ted Levine) there's a shortcut down a side road. Upon heading down the road, the tires blow out by no accident, and Bob heads back to the gas station for help while Lynne's husband Doug (Aaron Stanford) goes out to look for the end of the road. Young son Bobby (Dan Byrd) is left to watch over his mother (Kathleen Quinlan) and other sister (Emilie de Ravin), but he discovers the carcass of one of the dogs—it's been eaten.
Turns out, the desert is inhabited by mutated miners, who were asked to leave their homes and chose not to, only to fall victim to nuclear tests the government conducted in the area, and they don't take too kindly to folks wandering onto their land. Or, more suitably, they see it as an invitation to kill and consume. In terms of generating a sense of despair, the scenario is spot on, and Aja's panoramic shots of the surrounding desolation only add to it. The family is trapped in the trailer and the truck pulling it with no help for miles, and while Bobby knows something is horribly amiss, he doesn't want to scare anyone. While the female characters are relegated to the role of victim (only one survives the initial assault), the male characters have a bit more bite than should be expected. The character of the young boy is typically given to stupid actions and a resulting death, but Bobby is resourceful, taking an inordinate amount of time to establish an elaborate alarm system. Then there's the semi-stunt casting of Ted Levine as an ordinary family man instead of a psychopath.
The movie ultimately becomes a hunted-becoming-hunter piece as Doug goes off to find his missing baby daughter. Here's where the movie get uncomfortable. If there's a line, having two scenes in which a character points a gun at a baby certainly must cross it, and honestly, in any other case, I'd be mad. With this movie, though, I'm simply worn out. Horror films now seem to indulge completely in the concept of hopeless despair, and there will certainly come a time when the simple act of entering the theater to see a horror film will elicit the same result (if it hasn't already). Yes, Aja is clearly a skilled director, who takes the time to create mood and atmosphere before sending his victims off to their gruesome deaths. His violence is effective in that guttural, unsettling way without reducing it to wanton gruesomeness for the purpose of entertainment. The movie's violence feels natural to the material, because Aja establishes his hero's actions in saving his daughter as the uncharacteristic result of extreme circumstances. The violence itself is upsetting but so is the fact that it is necessary.
All of this I understand, but—forgive me the esoteric, touchy-feely foundation of the argument—I simply did and do not feel it. That is my problem and not the movie's. The Hills Have Eyes is problematic, though, and this is not simply a case of missing the boat. The boat was long gone before this came around.
Copyright © 2006 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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