The Hills Have Eyes 2006 - 9/23

We're one week out from my sister's wedding so this is likely the last Saturday Night Freak Show for a couple of weeks. Last night, we were able to move a good portion of their stuff into their new apartment, which will be their first together and Trixie's first place of her own. Family from halfway around the world are swooping in over the Atlantic to share in the once in a lifetime event. My aunt and my cousin, Aftershock, arrived from Belfast, North Ireland last week and Satanica and I have been taking some time off work to show them the sights and sounds of Rockford and the midwest. On Wednesday, we took a jaunt in to Chicago for stops at the Field Museum, the Sears Tower skydeck and Navy Pier; on Saturday morning we shot over to Roscoe for a visit to the Historic Car Museum - an attraction which should be more famous than it is, seeing that it contains a Back to the Future Delorean, Batmobiles from the Batman TV show and Batman Returns, cars from Bonnie and Clyde and Ghostbusters, cars owned by Elvis, Johnny Cash, Conway Twitty, along a wealth of other vehicles, articles of clothing and memrobilia of historic and pop culture interest.

Since Aftershock is departing the Monday after the wedding (thus missing not only our annual Frightfest Halloween movie marathon but also the distinctly U.S. tradition of local haunted attractions) we couldn't resist the temptation to invite the usual crew over and experience the full onslaught of a Saturday Night Freak Show in our tricked out movie theater basement.

This week's movie was frontloaded with another short from the Small Gauge Trauma DVD called Gorgonas. Originating from Argentina, the film is a cel-animated piece about a young man's attempt to kill three pop stars-turned-cultural icons-turned gorgons who have petrified the world via a televised concert performance. Running approximately 15 minutes, the short is fast paced and leads to a surprise ending where it is revealed that it is the singers' voices, not their eyes, which turn people to stone.

Our feature was the 2006 remake of Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes. Never given the acclaim and popularity of his first film, Last House on the Left, the original Hills Have Eyes is more deserving of praise due to a more polished execution and more artful (but still extremely brutal) depiction of open sadism than Last House. In 2006, coming off the well received French slasher movie High Tension, director Alexandre Aja was chosen by Craven himself to helm the remake.

Remakes of '70's staples (and particularly horror movies) have been in vogue now since at least 2003, most of which jettison the plot of the original movie in favor of a "re-imagined" storyline (i.e. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). The Hills Have Eyes sticks surprisingly close to its source, retaining many of the scenes, situations and dialogue of the original. For the uninitiated, the film details the horrors that befall the All-American Carter family - patriarch and former cop Big Bob (Ted Levine), matriarch Ethel (Kathleen Quinlan), proud new parents Lynn (Vinessa Shaw) and Doug (Aaron Stanford), and bickering kids Brenda (Emile de Ravin) and Bobby (Dan Byrd) - after their motorhome breaks down in the New Mexico desert.

The original film defined the Carter family and the mutant, cannibalistic hill people as polar opposites - warring families, one civilized, one barbaric - and set them against each other in a desolate wasteland to see, when push comes to shove, if even the civilized family could become brutal killers. In the remake, the thrust is different: the U.S. government is implicated in creating the hill people. New to this version is the idea of atomic testing in the New Mexico desert that irradiates a group of miners and their families that refuse to abandon their land. They live in the remains of a town built for the bomb tests.

I am still not sure if the film is meant to be read as political commentary or as simply a document of the current state of affairs, re: the War on Terror, as it is filled with subtext and repeated iconography to suggest this. We see repeated images of the American Flag (used, at one point not so-subtly, as a weapon to impale a mutant); there is an unusual amount of fetishism applied to handguns and weaponry; the film takes place in a desert battlezone; and it features barbaric, backwards enemies who chop their victims into pieces. At one point a mutant explicitly states, after singing the Star Spangled Banner to lure his potential victim, that "your people dropped fire from the sky and made us what we are", phraseology which implies a military attack.

The character of Doug is identified by Big Bob as a Democrat (and later, by Bobby, as a "pussy") due to his refusal to accept a pistol for protection; after they are attacked, his wife murdered and his newborn abducted, Doug pleads with the hill people for understanding before reaching a turning point and picking up a shotgun. The end of the film has him blasting his attackers in a pumped up moment of macho bravura.

True to his style as an unapologetic hardcore horror filmmaker, Aja does not disappoint with the red stuff. The Hills Have Eyes must rank as one of the most brutally violent mainstream Hollywood films recently produced. The version we watched was the unrated edition which was reportedly trimmed by two minutes for the R rated theatrical release.

Aja brought along a majority of his High Tension craftsman for his Hollywood debut, including screenwriter Gregory Levasseur, editor Baxter, and DP Maxime Alexandre. The camera, constantly gliding over the rocky, sun baked terrain consitently utilizes the entire scope frame for maximum effect and a pure cinematic experience. The score, by tomandandy (Killing Zoe, The Mothman Prophecies) is made up of synthesized noises (similar to The Insects' approach to Aja's High Tension) and is unobtrusively effective.

The mutant makeup work is seemless, utilizing CGI to distort certain character's features to suggest birth defects. While the more stylized makeup makes the villains more artificial than the natural deformities afflicting actor Michael Berryman of the original film, it works in sync with the remake's take on the material.

The original film has the realistic, and therefore more frightening, feel to its advantage; the remake, by retaining a good portion of the situations and dialogue from the original, conveys a sense of watching actors performing - thus keeping us at a distance from experiencing the horrors first hand. Taken away from this context, especially to first time viewers unfamiliar with the first film, this ranks as one of the best horror films put out by a major studio in recent years, and far better than the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake.

Leading man Aaron Stanford is nearly unrecognizable in this film, but eagle eyed viewers may recognize him as Pyro from the X-Men movies. Emile de Ravin shot this movie during seasons one and two of the hit TV show Lost, and is becoming a ubiquitous presence in movies; including the excellent private detective-in-high-school thriller Brick, wrestler Bill Goldberg's vehicle Santa's Slay, and the television remake of Carrie alonside Angela Bettis . Ted Levine needs no introduction to horror movie fans, having creeped us all out as Bufalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs and the disembodied voice of Rusty Nail in Joy Ride. Kathleen Quinlan helped a boy who could alter reality with his mind in Twilight Zone: The Movie, and also appeared in the well regarded sci-fi horror hybrid Event Horizon. Vinessa Shaw previously tempted Tom Cruise as a prostitute in Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. Lead mutant Robert Joy has appeared in George Romero's Land of the Dead and The Dark Half, as well as prior Frightfest feature Amityville 3-D. And, actor Billy Drago, who is underutilized here as Papa Jupiter, the head of the clan of mutants, recently appeared in Takashi Miike's Masters of Horror episode, Imprint, as well as scores of other cheeseball horror and sci-fi flicks (most sent direct to video) since 1979. His most memorable role is possibly as the white suited mob enforcer Frank Nitti in Brian DePalma's The Untouchables.