Published at: March 10, 2006, 6:59 a.m. CST by staff
Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...
Before I even begin to discuss Alexandre Aja’s remake of Wes Craven’s THE HILLS HAVE EYES, I should lay some groundwork.
I’ve always felt that the early films of Wes Craven were better in theory than they were in execution. I like LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT and HILLS HAVE EYES when I read descriptions of them. I like the films they are trying to be. When I watch them, though, they always strike me as porn-grade trash, poorly acted and barely competent. I have trouble sitting through them, and when I return to the classic horror films of the ‘70s, those aren’t the ones I take off the shelf. I’ve always felt that with some films, like the original TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, the budget turned into a benefit, giving the films a gritty reality you can’t fake. With those early Craven films, they just felt really, really cheap. I think the original HILLS has its moments, and I think it’s got some atmosphere, and there are a few performances that sort of click, but overall... I’m not overly reverent towards it.
And I take horror seriously. I love the genre. I respect the genre deeply because you’re able to do anything with it. You can deal with any subject. You can tackle any taboo. You can make movies that strip away all the excess baggage and bullshit we all carry around with us, movies that strip characters down to their essential humanity. When a horror film works, I find it to be one of the most exciting things to see. The great ones work on us at an almost chemical level. They’re intoxicating.
Because of that, I take the classics of the genre very seriously, and the current trend to remake anything and everything as long as it’s got a recognizable title makes me a little crazy. And, yes, I know I’m a big fat honking hypocrite because I’m working on RACE WITH THE DEVIL, so you don’t need to inform me like you’re breaking the Watergate story and you just learned a secret. I’m not opposed to remakes across the board... but they worry me, especially when a clumsy piece of junk like the TEXAS CHAINSAW remake gets overpraised and accepted as somehow acceptable or even comparable to the original.
One last bit of precursor: HAUTE TENSION made me mental. I thought it was a skilled bit of survival horror all the way up until it went totally batshit in the last ten or fifteen minutes. Boy, did I hate that twist. I hated it because it made it impossible for me to recommend the film to people. It just seemed like such a blatant “fuck you” to an audience that I couldn’t tell people to go see it, no matter how much I respected the technique of director Alexandre Aja.
So, having said all of that, I have to say... I loved THE HILLS HAVE EYES, and I think this is easily the new gold standard of horror remakes. Aja steps up and takes his place as one of the most important new voices in horror with this film, turning exploitation fare into something akin to... dare I say it... art.
This is not a subtle movie. In fact, if I had to boil it down to one word, I’d describe it as “unbridled.” There’s a sense as you’re watching that the people who made it genuinely want to hurt you, and they don’t care what they have to do in order to make it happen. I am shocked that the MPAA gave this film an R rating in its current form, and all I can figure is that we’ve turned some sort of corner in terms of leniency towards onscreen violence right now. This is one of the hardest R-rated films I’ve seen in a long time, maybe even since the halcyon days of the early ‘80s.
From the very start of the film, Aja exhibits a sure hand and a great sense of control. He sets the film up quickly, painting in broad strokes. He’s helped enormously by his likeable cast, playing a family taking a cross-country trip. “Big Bob” (Ted Levine) and Ethel (Kathleen Quinlan) are the oldest, and “Big Bob” is a retired police detective, a bit of a ball-buster who particularly loves to harass his son-in-law Doug, played by Aaron Stanford, unrecognizable here even if you’ve seen him in X2 or TADPOLE. He’s married to Lynn (Vinessa Shaw, so memorable as the hooker who Tom Cruise almost sleeps with in EYES WIDE SHUT), and the two of them seem to be diametric opposites from Levine and Quinlan. Like I said... the film’s not terribly subtle, and the Republicans vs. Democrats thing was an early warning flag for me. I was afraid that the subtext would become text and completely overwhelm the film.
Nope. We get just enough time to meet daughter Brenda (Emilie De Ravin) and Bobby (Dan Byrd), the youngest, as well as their twin German Shephards, Beauty and Beast, and then the family makes a wrong turn and ends up in the middle of nowhere. They’re just following the directions given to them by the attendant (Tom Bower) at the gas station where they stopped, but somehow, they end up with all their tires flattened and the axle on their Airstream snapped. They don’t even realize they’ve been set up by the attendant, and they certainly can’t imagine what they’ve been set up for.
The thing about this film is, yes, we’ve seen all these story elements over and over at this point. There have been so many movies over the years that have ripped off the original, which you could argue is simply a riff on the same formula that TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE used, that no one is going to walk out of this film commenting on how wonderfully original the story is. What works is the way Aja gradually turns up the heat on his characters. He relies a little too heavily on jump scares in the first half hour of the film, but by the time he has “Big Bob” confront that attendant, only to watch the guy blow his own face off with a shotgun, Aja’s got everything in place, and he just cuts loose. And from that point on, as we hear whispered voices all around Levine in the darkness saying, “Daddddddddy,” the film never slows down again.
There’s a scene in the movie ROMPER STOMPER, a race riot, that starts very small but keeps getting bigger and bigger, accelerating right past where you think it’s going to stop. The first time I saw it, my heart rate doubled and I broke a sweat. It terrified me because it felt like the film had hopped the tracks, like anything could happen. There’s a similar scene in this movie, maybe halfway through, in which the mutants who are hiding in the hills finally attack the trailer for the first time. They use “Big Bob” as a diversion in a moment that’s directly out of the original film, but Aja plays so rough in that trailer that I wasn’t sure I was going to stay seated to watch it unfold.
And for those of you still skeptical, I’ll use one spoiler to illustrate what I’m talking about: Aja points a loaded gun in an infant’s face while someone sexually assaults the infant’s mother.
In. Fucking. Sane.
In fact, the middle of the film is so brutal that it mutes some of the impact of the third act. The film goes where it has to go, and it saves some of its most deranged moments for the last twenty minutes or so. Once the mutant family takes center stage and we venture out of our world and into theirs, there’s a pretty radical shift in tone. Desmond Askew is outrageous as a chair-bound member of the family that should look vaguely familiar to Chris Cunningham fans. Robert Joy and Michael Bailey Smith handle the lion’s share of the physical business, and they’re both suitably intimidating. KNB contributes all of the physical make-up effects, but some of the most unsettling stuff appears to also utilize digital gags. It’s a great mix, because it’s hard to tell what’s what. The score by tomandandy is outstanding, just the right degree of assault on the audience, as great as the work they did on KILLING ZOE.
But none of that would matter if we weren’t invested in the Carters, the human family that is the entire point of this film. So often, these horror remakes forget to do the one thing that is of utmost importance when doing this. We have to care about these people, or all their suffering means nothing. If it’s just violence porn, then it fails. If all you care about is gore and killing and the dumb animal release of it all, you’ll get your fill of that here, but Aja and his co-writer Gregory Levasseur get it right in the right ways. By playing so rough, by unseating us from the familiar, they make this film effective. They allow us to genuinely fear for the Carters. It really is that simple. The film succeeds completely as a horror film, eclipsing Wes Craven’s original in the process, because it respects the fundamental truths of the genre. It is flat-out no-shit straight-from-the-tap fear, and that is a precious commodity for a horror fan who feels a little lost amidst a glut of pretenders.