The Austin Chronicle

The Hills Have Eyes

Rated R, 105 min. Directed by Alexandre Aja. Starring Aaron Stanford, Kathleen Quinlan, Ted Levine, Vinessa Shaw, Emilie de Ravin, Dan Byrd, Tom Bower, Billy Drago, Robert Joy.

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., March 10, 2006

Wes Craven is best known these days as the man behind the inventive Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream horror film franchises, both of which kicked off with sure-fire, white-knuckle originals only to peter out later on down the line, lamely crawling to their kinda-sorta endings amidst an ever-more-enervating stream of Freddie Krueger one-liners and Kevin Williamson-scripted, self-reflexive winks ’n’ nudges. For the most part, mainstream filmgoers remain unaware of Craven’s decidedly more chewy early films – the brutal Last House on the Left (a sociopathic gaze into Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, no less) and what remains for many his most subversive and freakishly engaging work: 1977’s The Hills Have Eyes. That film’s plot was as simple as it was outrageous: An all-American family (i.e., squabbling, miserable) headed to California on an RV vacation is waylaid while passing through the Nevada badlands by a clan of bloodthirsty, cannibalistic mutants who then attack, slaughter, and force their “civilized” mirror image to ever-more subhuman acts of violence, thus obliterating the line between “us” and “them.” Craven’s nuclear family vs. nuclear family joke (the unspoken message is that the cannibal clan is somehow the result of all those Cold War nuke tests) is a corker, and this new version takes it to even giddier, more effects-heavy extremes, laying some genuinely gruesome KNB make-up atop what was already a blacker-than-black storyline. Director Aja, who helmed last year’s well-received slasher opus High Tension, is obviously a fan of Craven’s stripped-down, micro-budgeted original: Aja understands the creepy, unwelcome irony that Craven nailed flat out and he adheres closely to both tone and story. The running gag in both versions is that keeping up with the Joneses leaves everybody a Smith or, at the very least, a Smith & Wesson. Does Aja’s version break any new ground (or graves)? It certainly ought to, since Craven’s original themes – the inherent debasement of the status quo, lingering fears of the Bomb, and dysfunctional families run amok – rang all-too-true three decades ago and are today oscillating as piercingly as a tuning fork lodged in a methhead’s heart (or lack thereof). Simply on genre conventions alone, Aja’s film, which ratchets up the gore while subtly rewiring some of the characters, is a welcome change of pace from much of what’s been passing for horror in Hollywood of late. Levine, here filling Martin Speer’s boots as the “normal” family’s crotchety, ex-cop pop, adds another gleaming notch in the stock of his 12-gauge arsenal of memorable character parts, and Quinlan’s mom fairly reeks of apple pie and soccer practice. Unfortunately, Aja underplays the familial bonds between his Sawney Bean-esque cannibal kin, which lessens the emotional impact of the story considerably. Craven’s original had some freaky-smart “through the looking glass” moments that unnervingly twinned these two sets of summertime doppelgangers while playing them off each other via the kind of grim, unflinching humor rarely spotted outside of the indie cinema world these days. Lacking this kind of wackily transgressive counterpoint, Aja’s version, while a killer ride in its own right, never manages the nagging subtexts Craven so handily injected into the proceedings. It’s a top-notch nightmare, but this time you wake up.

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