The Hills Have Axes, Too

Washington City Paper | March 10, 2006
Nearly 30 years have also passed between Alexandre Aja’s remake of The Hills Have Eyes and Wes Craven’s 1977 original, but the update is far less surprising than Farrell’s tale. Aja, who made his American debut with last year’s grisly High Tension, has outfitted Craven’s classic in state-of-the-art horror style, giving it (1) a better story and (2) a lot more blood. As for the sense of campy fun that should arguably accompany a slasher flick, well, I guess that’s what Scream 3 is for.

Working with High Tension collaborator Grégory Levasseur, Aja follows Craven’s story pretty faithfully—after getting a quick scare/bloodletting out of the way, in which some poor dude with a Geiger counter ends up joining a few other bodies that hang from the back of a car like post-wedding-reception tin cans. Then Ethel and Bob (Kathleen Quinlan and Ted Levine) are celebrating their anniversary with a road trip to California, on which they insist their less-than-enthusiastic children accompany them. Eldest daughter Lynne (Vinessa Shaw) needs to placate both her newborn and her husband, Doug (Aaron Stanford), who doesn’t get along with his father-in-law. Teenagers Bobby and Brenda (Dan Byrd and Emilie de Ravin) pretty much do nothing but take care of their two dogs and complain.

Especially after the family takes the shortcut advised by a creepy gas-station owner (Tom Bower) —followed, naturally, with a “Have a safe trip!” and a greasy grin—and ends up stranded in the desert with a couple of blown tires. “This is so fucked,” Brenda keeps repeating. Of course, at this point she has no idea how right she is.

Aja ever so gradually reveals to the audience who’s lurking in the hills, with a grunt here or a malformed hand or foot there as the residents first case their new guests. Meanwhile, the scripters’ spin on the original is also slowly developed: A sign reading “No Trespassing, United States Government Department of Energy” hangs on a fenced-off area, and newspaper clippings hanging in the gas station speak of nuclear testing and miners who were left unprotected from its aftereffects. It’s a good half-hour into the movie’s 107 minutes before the Deliverance-esque mutants fully reveal themselves.

The sensitive may want to shield their eyes after this, because here’s where Aja lets loose. As in High Tension, buckets of blood, guts, and brains are spilled as the hill dwellers hunt down their human prey. There’s still some subtle creepiness—and a touch of Craven-style symbolism—accompanying the carnage, mostly in the form of the mannequin-populated happy-household setups that remain from the testing and that the freaks now call home. But mostly, the attacks and murders are in-your-face graphic—and worse, the sexual assault merely hinted at in Craven’s film is made much, much clearer. A pillow fight ensues, but it’s hardly enough to relieve the vileness.

This, it seems, is the new face of fright: no more camp, no more suggestion, no more edge-of-your-seat fun—only ultrarealistic, unapologetically nasty bloodshed. More important, no real social resonance. Aja and Eli Roth and whoever it is who makes those Saw movies may believe that they’ve recaptured the vibe of the ’70s films that inspired them, but this Hills, at least, doesn’t use horror as an excuse for allegory. It uses allegory as an excuse for horror. Or maybe horror as an excuse for horror. There’s no doubt that Aja is a gifted craftsman of the genre, but his vision of it may leave some fans with a new appreciation of the Scary Movie franchise.

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