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Editorial - Wednesday, April 19, 2006
"Would ya' believe 'The Hills are Alive'? - A Look at the theatrical release of Alexandre Aja's The Hills Have Eyes"

Let me get something out of the way before I launch into my full-blown review of the remake of The Hills Have Eyes; I’m going to proceed as if the vast majority those reading this are at least vaguely familiar with Wes Craven’s 1977 original, or at least with the basic plot and storyline. I’m also going to assume that you, dear reader, are somewhat familiar with the “real life” case that supposedly served as Craven’s inspiration for his movie; Scotland’s notorious “Sawney Bean” case. Also, there are loads of spoilers in this review, so if none of the previous factors apply to you, consider yourself warned. So…

There is a moment late in Alexander Aja’s The Hills Have Eyes when nebbish, Jewish son-in-law Doug Bukowski (Aaron Stanford), bloodied and beaten, crouches to pick up his mostly shattered eyeglasses, and semi-triumphantly places them on his hardened face. It’s a moment that so clearly echoes Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, which featured Dustin Hoffman in the nebbish Jew role, that it borders on homage. Here is an ordinarily peace-loving man…a self-avowed liberal whom, under normal circumstances, would eschew guns and lively beatings in favor of talking things out…trying to rationally solve the problem at hand.

These aren’t normal circumstances, of course. Bukowski is a man faced with several choices during the course of the film. First, he’s faced with whether or not to “stand up” to “Big” Bob Carter (an almost unrecognizable Ted Levine), who so clearly dominates the Carter family as to force a nearly sheep-like devotion and unquestioning loyalty to Bob’s decisions. Bob makes a couple of highly questionable decisions, given that his entire extended family, including his new infant grandchild (Bukowski’s daughter), are literally “in tow” in his newly-renovated camper/caravan. Bob makes the decision to stray off the main road in the middle of an unfamiliar landscape, at the suggestion from Creepy Old Redneck Gas Station Attendant # 237 (whom, lets face it, might as well be wearing a big flashing neon sign that says “Don’t Trust Me, I’m Highly Suspect!”), ostensibly to shave a couple of hours off their trip time to California…San Diego, I think. Bukowski clearly wants to say something…to try to persuade Bob to stay on course, if only for the sake of comfort and safety, but he bites his lip…chokes back his pride, knowing that Big Bob will only poo-pooh him and tell him to get the fuck back into the caravan like a good little boy. Later, after Bob’s tires blow out and the vehicle crashes irreparably into a rock, Bob passes out firearms. Rather than give a weapon to Bukowski, who is, after all, a responsible adult, Bob shrugs and gives a gun to teenager Bobby (Dan Byrd). Bobby is at that age where he wants to rebel…wants to talk shit to his big ol’ grumpus of a Dad…but he’s his dad’s son. He takes the gun and joins his Dad in a bit of “Doug’s such a liberal pansy…he’d probably just shoot his foot off anyway” hilarity. Again, Doug bites his lip. He wants to be strong for his wife Lynne (Vinessa Shaw), but he wants to remain rational, too. So, Doug isn’t about to compromise his anti-gun beliefs just because Bob and Bobby are teasing him. These might seem like paltry, insignificant issues and decisions, but they are clearly at the core of what ends up happening to the Carter family throughout the course of the movie. Doug should’ve stood up to Bob, of course, but that’s no easy task given that he’s the Son in Law, a Jew, and a Liberal. Thus, Doug is an outsider in a family of Red-State Republican W.A.S.P. gun-lovers, and “standing up” or even “being noticed” isn’t always an easy thing for a little mule in a room full of elephants, as it were.

This movie is all about Doug’s struggle…his transition from awkward family guy to full-blown angel of vengeance. Along the way, some pretty horrific things happen to Doug’s loved ones, but trust me…Doug has a lot of fight in him, and he gets to do his share of bloody ass-kicking. If the original film was about two families warring for survival, then Aja’s Hills is about one man caught between those two worlds. Clearly, he’s not part of the mutant, inbred hillbilly clan, but he’s not really part of the Carter clan, either. That he is ultimately faced with the opportunity to destroy one family and clean up the remnants of another seems inevitable, especially given the familiar storyline. When that opportunity comes, Doug’s transition is as tense and awkward as was Dustin Hoffman’s in Straw Dogs. From mild-mannered cell-phone salesman to bat, axe, and yes, gun-wielding defender/avenger over the course of 24 hours may seem like a stretch, but really…what man wouldn’t at least want to do these things? His wife molested and murdered, his mother and father in law slaughtered, his sister in law raped, and his infant child kidnapped, Doug’s actions seem to be almost noble, don’t they? I’m not 100% sure, but it feels right…

So, that’s what is really going on in The Hills Have Eyes…at least the remake. Yes, it’s a horror movie, and yes, horrible things happen, but the whole time I watched Hills, I could not help but be totally conscious of the social, socio-economic, and political underpinnings at work. Unlike many films, where reviewers are damn-near forced to come up with deeper meaning and significance to justify the film in question, The Hills Have Eyes needs no coaxing. It wears its stance on its blood-soaked sleeve, making it one of the most fiercely political movies I’ve seen in a long time, and from a Frenchman, no less…

But, is it scary? That’s the real question, isn’t it? Is it a good horror movie? Does it shock, beyond its politically-charged exterior? Well, not to put too fine a point on it, yes. This movie is certainly horrifying, with all the shocks and thematic sucker punches of already brutal original amped up to “eleven” as it were. It’s got all the ingredients of a successful horror movie, doesn’t it? Reasonably stupid but reasonably likeable “main” characters? Check. Creepy old guy? Check. Stupendously hot chick? Check…two of ‘em, in fact. Milquetoast protagonist-turned-avenger? Yep. Hideous monsters threatening ‘em all? You betcha’. Isolated setting? Of course. All this is pretty much expected from a remake. It’s all familiar. But, Aja takes all of those ingredients and balances them out.

Sure, some of the dialog in the original was, at least, clunky and goofy. The same holds true here. The cliché’s are rife, including a few exchanges that only serve to punctuate the types of characters we’re dealing with, and to underscore how sad it’s going to be when those characters start inevitably buying the proverbial farm. We are told not once, but at least three times that Big Bob and Ethel (Kathleen Quinlan) are celebrating their silver wedding anniversary. Big Bob is given lots of chances to demonstrate that he views Doug as a nuisance…an outsider in his tight-knit family unit…and a big ol’ girly-man at that. It is established several times that, despite Doug’s status as a cell-phone salesman and thus an “expert” in cell-phones, no one can get any cell-phone reception. People open their cell-phones, hold them up to the sky, and gaze at them in a concerned fashion. It’s goofy, but at least it serves to conveniently eliminate the one device that could so easily have prevented the situation to begin with. Bobby and his hot teen sister Brenda (Emilie de Ravin) are given ample opportunity to say things that their parents…especially Ethel…just can’t grasp, given that they are, after all, old farts. The “chronic” reference is downright stupid, as is Brenda’s accompanying eye-rolling “my Mom is soooo lame” expression. So, some of the dialog and dialog-driven, character and/or situation-establishing sequences are pretty weak. Still, one has to realize that in order to transplant a movie into the modern era, one has to make the characters modern, including their dialog and choice of cell-phone plans. I would contend that the minute you prominently feature cell phones or other technological ephemerae in a movie, you instantly date the movie, but whatever.

Other than the inherently goofy plot and sometimes questionable dialog, there is an awful lot to like in The Hills Have Eyes. Certainly, the cast is generally pretty good, especially Ted Levine and Kathleen Quinlan. Emilie de Ravin is suitable as the hot blonde, but she doesn’t have much to do except (in the beginning) roll her eyes and make snarky comments, and later, to scream and weep a lot. Vinessa Shaw seems a bit more accomplished as Lynne, and she’s probably the least annoying person in the whole family, making her one of the most sympathetic victims. Her death scene is among the most brutal, shocking, and downright sad death scenes I’ve seen in a movie for a long time. A lot has been made of this scene, for numerous reasons. Lynne’s little sister Brenda has just been raped, and one of the hillbilly mutants starts to focus her attention on Lynne. People interpret what happens next a few different ways, but here’s what I think is happening. Brenda is sitting on the bed crying, while one mutant hold her down, forcing her to watch while another mutant points a loaded revolver (stolen from Big Bob, of course) at Lynne’s baby. Helpless and fearing for her child’s life, Lynne must hold still for a few minutes while the mutant rips open her blouse, pulls down her bra, and appears to fondle and kiss her breasts. Notice that I said “appears” to fondle and kiss her breasts. What he’s actually doing, I think, is fairly non-sexual, but is much, much creepier nonetheless. The mutant recognizes that Lynne has recently given birth, so he’s nursing from Lynne’s breasts. He’s actually drinking the mother’s milk straight from Lynne’s breast. All while pointing that loaded gun at the baby whose rightful position he’s usurped. I would personally challenge Alexandre Aja to respond to this…to verify that that’s what is actually going on. If that really is what’s happening, it’s one of the most disturbing, ingeniously shocking moments I’ve seen in a “mainstream” horror film for at least 10 or 15 years. The gauntlet has been laid down, Mr. Aja. You get credit for something that sheerly powerful if you just get in touch with me and verify that fact. I digress…

I’ve focused quite a bit on the dynamic between the various members of the extended Carter family. In Wes Craven’s original film, the mutant “hill people” were as solid a family unit as the Carter’s, possessed of the same kind of petty bickering and infighting inherent to a family unit. Despite their “monstrous” status, they were a family nonetheless. They lived, died, ate, and bred, though their methodology was called into serious question. The result was that Craven’s film was at least partially a story of two warring tribes…one tribe had the unmitigated audacity (or just plain bad luck) to stray into the other tribe’s territory, with violent results. In Aja’s vision, the hill people aren’t given quite the emphasis as in Craven’s film. They are less a family unit than a group of individuals thrown together by a common fate. Just how these folks managed to survive…much less mate with one another…is left pretty vague. Certainly, their survival was in no small part due to their savage ingenuity and efficiency. But, where did they learn those skills? From whom did they receive their animal-like cunning? These details are pretty much ignored, thus casting the mutants into a much more mysterious shadow-realm than their earlier filmic counterparts. Papa Jupiter (Billy Drago), a reasonably important character in the original film, is here reduced to scant seconds of actual screen time, and he seems less like the patriarch of an organized, if brutal, family than a “senior member” of a cannibal club. His motivations, and those of his “family”, seem to be food, equipment, and revenge.

Revenge for what? Well, late in the film, a new character called “Big Brain” (Desmond Askew) takes some time to wax philosophical about how the rest of mankind is responsible for making the mutants into what they are. That much seems true, at least on the surface. Many throw-away shots of newspaper clippings (and indeed, the whole opening sequence) suggest that these folks are the products and offspring of miners who refused to leave their encampments during the extensive nuclear testing in the New Mexico desert during the 1950’s. But, looking at “Big Brain” as a character, he’s got a grossly oversized and misshapen head, and is therefore unable to walk. Other than that, he’s pretty well spoken and “together” for someone who’s ostensibly a cannibalistic savage who’s had minimal contact with “normal” human beings, except when he’s about to eat them, I suppose. So, since when did being handicapped…even severely handicapped and deformed…turn someone into a bloodthirsty cannibal? Who knows. The point is that this “family” is out there…killing, maiming, raping, and eating everyone that strays onto their path. So, they’re more “monsters” this time out. The only vaguely sympathetic “mutant” is, of course, “Ruby”, who plays as significant role in the “survival” of the Carter clan as she does in the original, though here, her role is a silent one. Whatever…

I could go on and on and on (and I already have, ad nauseum) about the social significance of the wacky goings-on in The Hills Have Eyes, but ya’ know what? I’m not gonna’ do it anymore. No, I’m going to encourage you to see this flick. It’s well made, fairly engaging, brutal, unrelenting, and most important of all, it’s scary. In many ways, it’s a vast improvement on the original, but it’s faithful enough to the source that purists and die-hard fans of the original won’t be crying “foul” too much. Go see it.

Post script: there is one other thing I should warn you about The Hills Have Eyes. About halfway through the film, there’s a shot that contains perhaps the worst, most ridiculously fake-looking “crow” in the history of cinema. How that shot got past everyone is beyond me. There, I feel better. It’s the only significantly negative thing I can think of about the flick, so take that how you will…

- Matthew Dean Hill

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