Director: Alexandre Aja

Creative films in Hollywood are a dying breed. Remakes and films based on old television shows are increasingly becoming the norm over the last decade, while original films are often relegated to limited releases. Filmmakers have even resorted to remaking films from other countries (like Japan's Shall We Dance? or Korea's The Lake House) because they're running out of material here in America. While no genre has been safe from the concept of remakes, the horror genre has been hit especially hard. Whether they be remakes of Asian ghost stories or of classics from the '70s and '80s, many are unwanted, many are uncalled for, few turn out to be good. While these remakes often draw the ire of the horror devoted (and enthusiasm from a younger generation who have yet to discover the originals), there is no stopping the horror remake juggernaut. However, genre legend Wes Craven seemingly decided to take a cue from George Romero's 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead and organize a remake of one of his own films, namely his 1977 sophomore film The Hills Have Eyes. If your movie's going to be remade, why not redo it yourself? Teaming with Hills Have Eyes producer Peter Locke, Craven recruited High Tension director Alexandre Aja and his writing partner Grégory Levasseur to adapt Craven's film for more modern audiences. And guess what? It's not a bad remake.

THE HILLS HAVE EYES (2006)Our tale of terror opens in a lonely, isolated spot in the hills of the New Mexico desert. The area appears to be populated by one solitary gas station, so remote that the sign out front advertises that it's the only gas station for 200 miles. It's obvious that the station doesn't get many customers, so the station's lone attendant (Tom Bower) is surprised to see a truck hauling an old Airstream trailer pull up for some service. As the attendant refills the truck, we are introduced to the all-American Carter family, who are making this pit stop while on a road trip to San Diego. Family patriarch Big Bob (Ted Levine) firmly believes the road through the desert is a shortcut despite all greater logic, much to the chagrin of his wife Ethel (Kathleen Quinlan), their bored teenage children Bobby (Dan Byrd) and Brenda (Emilie de Ravin), married daughter Lynn (Vinessa Shaw) and her dorky liberal husband Doug (Aaron Stanford), and Lynn and Doug's infant daughter Catherine (Maisie Camilleri Preziosi).

With the gas tank full and everyone ready to go, Big Bob is just about to drive off when the attendant stops him, telling him of a quick side road not on the map, about two miles from the station. The Carters are already lost, so if that road can take them to anything resembling civilization, why not? It's not like listening to a suspicious old codger in a horror movie ever got anyone into trouble, right? Right? So the Carters take that little side road, but end up running over a row of spikes conveniently placed across the middle of the road before crashing headlong into a rock. Their cell phones don't work and Big Bob doubts their CB radio will get any kind of signal, so they're stranded. The Carters need help if they're going to get out of this predicament. But as night falls, they find not help, but violence, bloodshed, and carnage as they learn that they are at the mercy of a band of mutated, cannibalistic psychopaths that call the desert hills their home.

The original Hills Have Eyes is considered by many to be a landmark in '70s grindhouse horror, and this remake is faithful to its roots. The movie is an unrelenting venture into madness, a wonderful callback to when horror movies were meant to horrify. While admittedly the remake is much more polished than its source material (thus losing some of the original's "rough around the edges" charm), the movie still manages to improve upon the micro-budgeted, almost amateurish nature of the original. The grainy look of the original makes it look almost like a home movie (despite its cheap effects), while the remake's glossy sheen makes it seem as if it has something of a dreamlike quality, like it were floating along the boundaries between fantasy and reality.

I was really amazed with Alexandre Aja's work on High Tension, and he continued to impress me with The Hills Have Eyes. Aja is an extremely capable filmmaker, and I believe that with a few more movies under his belt, he could become the next big horror auteur. He utilizes relatively shaky cinema movements (wonderfully done by cinematographer Maxime Alexandre) and smooth yet fast-paced editing on order to pull the audience into the world the movie occupies. While the quick edits and fast camera movements would be annoying and distracting in other movies, they work to create an unnerving, unsettling atmosphere that the movie benefits from.

With the exception of a few changes, the exemplary screenplay penned by Aja and Grégory Levasseur maintains a high level of faithfulness to Craven's original film. The movie could have alienated devotees of the original by either staying too close or straying too far from the source, but for the most part, I think they succeeded. However, unlike the original movie, there is no attempt to really get to know the antagonists. There is somewhat of an attempt to paint Laura Ortiz's character Ruby as "the good one" (akin to Ruby's 1977 counterpart played by Janus Blythe), but since the antagonists are not given much development at all, it all ends up seeming unimportant in the end. There also seems to be no real attempt to give the cannibals a family dynamic as seen in Craven's earlier version. In the 1977 film, the characters were an evil, inbred version of a normal family, with the father, the kids willing to please their parents, and the rebellious black sheep of the family. But 29 years later, the villains in the new Hills Have Eyes are merely monsters hideously mutated by years of radiation fallout, with a lust to kill any outsiders that dare stumble across their humble abode. While making the villains more akin to a maniacal family unit akin to Leatherface's brood from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre series could have been more frightening than what Aja and Levasseur gave us, the villains still manage to be quite frightening and intimidating.

The score composed by Tom Hajdu and Andy Milburn (credited as "tomandandy") is not so much music as it is a horror story told through sound. Their score is absolutely perfect for the movie, and without becoming overbearing, it goes against the grain of the overproduced, nonchalant scores many horror movies have nowadays. The movie also boasts incredible special effects (supervised by Gregory Nicotero and Howard Berger from KNB EFX Group), along with a cast whose abilities far exceed those of the original's cast. Each of the protagonists are believable and non-offensive (and I must say that I really liked Ted Levine), but unfortunately, the cannibals don't really stand out because they aren't given any time to individually shine. However, I must say that Desmond Askew's short performance as "Big Brain" (a wheelchair-bound freak with a frighteningly oversized cranium) is too creepy for words. His hoarse, wheezing voice alone is unsettling, but when combined with his appearance, Askew's one scene becomes one of the movie's most memorable set pieces. And I must ask: am I the only one that couldn't believe that the Ted Levine from The Hills Have Eyes is the same guy that played Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs? If it weren't for the name and voice, I'd believe you if you said they were two different people.

When it comes right down to it, both the original Hills Have Eyes and its remake assert that humans are animals by nature, but it's all a matter of how that animalistic side is embraced. Yeah, the antagonists are violent, deformed, lunatic cannibals, but once pushed to the edge, the protagonists are as equally insane and quick to resort to violence in dire circumstances. And like its predecessor, Aja's interpretation of The Hills Have Eyes is nothing short of unsettling and borderline disturbing, and it's sporting a both a vicious mean streak and a pitch black heart. So in short, those of you with weak constitutions or an aversion to depravity in horror cinema, you might want to skip it. However, it is not only a remake that actually manages to improve upon its source material, but a well-crafted piece of nihilistic horror art, I give the 2006 version of The Hills Have Eyes four stars and a seal of approval.

Final Rating: ****