While loyalists of Wes Craven’s cult pic “The Hills Have Eyes” will no doubt disagree about Gallic horror enfant terrible Alexandre Aja’s Craven-produced remake, the rest of the audience will feel bloodied and bruised by the end credits. More brutal and less ingenious than Fox Searchlight’s last horror venture, “28 Days Later,” pic feels more like a Dimension release and, in that sense, will test Fox’s specialized arm’s ability to milk every last dime out of a genre item. Opening frame multiplex mob scenes and ancillary gold seem assured.
Aja’s breakthrough French slasher pic, “High Tension,” has its supporters (including, of course, Craven), but its critics point to a cynical style-for-style’s-sake attitude, merciless and inhuman feelings for the film’s victims and a weakness for extremely manipulative narrative trickery.
Some of Aja and regular co-screenwriter Gregory Levasseur’s worst tendencies, however, are muted by their decision to stick to much of Craven’s original story, betraying an unabashed love of the 1977 cult hit.
Yet there’s a distinct letdown after an astonishing and unexpected opening section, as if the gravitational pull toward trash-kitsch horror was too much to resist. Surprising intro takes place in a present-day New Mexico (with Moroccan locales subbing) covered in radioactive dust from years of surface nuke testing in the 1940s and ’50s. Extreme dread looms as ghoulish killers scamper around the desert.
After a “Dr. Strangelove”-like title sequence that actually mixes nuke test images with Vietnamese babies deformed by Agent Orange, and a creepy few minutes involving a half-crazed gas station attendant (Tom Bower), more conventional action nearly matching Craven’s film takes over.
In keeping with new pic’s strategy of placing one foot in the nuke-obsessed ’50s and one in the present, a family led by retired Cleveland cop “Big Bob” Carter (Ted Levine) en route to San Diego in a Gulfstream camper is both slightly retro and a microcosm of post-9/11 Yanks.
While Bob is a gun-toting Republican, son-in-law Doug (Aaron Stanford) is a wimpy Democrat with a wife, Lynn (Vinessa Shaw), and a baby, Catherine.
Bob’s kids Bobby (Dan Byrd) and Brenda (Emilie de Ravin) are, respectively, nerdy and sexy-callow. Mom Ethel (Kathleen Quinlan) is a former “hippie chick” who’s now religious.
After stupidly opting for a back road shortcut that results in a tire blowout caused by spikes in the road, the family starts bickering. This delays the first encounter between the clan and the “eyes” in them thar hills–an extended multi-generational family of mutants. Unlike Craven’s circle of cave people, who resembled Flintstones intermarried with the Manson family, these horrifically damaged folk are polemically depicted as victims of U.S. Cold War policy.
Besides proving to be a faithful mimic of Craven’s filmmaking, Aja pours on the gore. But where Aja’s version really leaps beyond Craven’s both atmospherically and on the violence scale is in the second hour, which has Doug discovering his inner Rambo as he hunts down the mutants to their hideout in an old government testing “village” (a piece de resistance by production designer Joseph Nemec III), complete with mid-century modern homes, decor and eerie nuke-singed American family mannequins.
Big Brain (Desmond Askew),provides pic’s scariest and saddest image. The notion of drawing some sympathy to the savage family appears clever enough; but ultimately, it backfires when ? patriarch Papa Jupiter is seen munching on a battered corpse.
Stanford, a long ways from his “Tadpole” debut, seems to relish Doug’s transformation from peacenik to red-eyed revenger, as does the impressive Byrd in a scaled-down, teen version of Doug.
Moroccan-based lensing by Maxime Alexandre is considerably visceral, but it’s starkly deprived of New Mexico’s unmatchable piercing natural light. As the freaks come out of the hills, ace visual makeup effects artists Gregory Nicotero and Howard Berger take over the film with a cornucopia of anatomical extremities.
Composer team Tomandandy’s unnerving atmospheric score reaffirms their ability to create an alternative sound to standard Hollywood music recyclings.