I’ve been on numerous family vacations over the years. When I was a kid (before the advent of the mobile DVD player and most hand held video games), a couple times each summer the family would load into the car and travel to a variety of vacation locales. Our challenges were fairly simple – keeping from crossing over that imaginary line into one of my sisters’ personal space, trying to find something entertaining on the road in between strong radio station signals (this was before iPods too), and maybe the occasional breakdown. Nothing we faced, not even my sister’s vengeful tactics for crossing into her space, compared to the horrors of The Hills Have Eyes, and despite my disdain for Haute Tension, I’m talking about the events within the movie, not the movie itself which, as it turns out, is a rather entertaining gorefest.
A remake of the 1970s Wes Craven film (before he rose to fame with the Freddy Krueger movies), The Hills Have Eyes takes place in an abandoned desert area of New Mexico. The Carter family, with their normal vacation squabbles including arguments between the family patriarch Bob (Ted Levine) and his son-in-law Doug (Aaron Stanford), take a wrong turn and discover just why that area of New Mexico is abandoned. The government used the area for nuclear testing decades before, testing which left mutant effects upon the people who refused to evacuate the area. The mutants ambush the Carter’s vehicle leaving the family stranded in the middle of nowhere and slowly assault the members of the family, dividing and conquering as the stupid family members dutifully play the part of typical horror movie victims, falling prey to each of the mutant’s clever schemes. It would appear the radiation affected the people’s physical traits, but left them with full mental acuity.
Director Alexandre Aja brings the same passion and vision to Hills that he brought to his first horror film, Haute Tension. Hills is incredibly gory, pushing hard on its “R” rating as spikes are driven into the heads of mutants and family members, dogs are disemboweled, parakeets become tasty beverages, and actresses Emilie de Ravin (“Lost”) and Vinessa Shaw (Melinda and Melinda) are virtually raped on screen. The movie is a visual nightmare in a good way, making even hardened horror fans turn squeamish as Aja tosses details completely in the audiences’ faces. Aja extends this method of directing to non-gory parts as well, maintaining camera shots just long enough to be awkwardly uncomfortable, and then a little bit more, on oddball characters like the mutant-affiliated gas station owner responsible for sending the family down the wrong road.
Where Hills falls down a bit is in its pacing, most of which comes from the writing, not the direction. The script (written by Aja and his Haute Tension partner Grégory Levasseur) draws out the suspense of what is attacking the Carter family for far too long, even slowing the movie back down once it has finally gotten going in an attempt to regain that suspense after the visual bloodbath. The result is a lack of suspense after the midway mark, instead making the audience shift uncomfortably in their seats waiting for the film to get moving again. Another weakness of the script is that it falls into that horror flick cliché of relying upon the stupidity of its characters to proceed, so much so that the audience starts cheering for the monsters to put the so called “heroes” of the film out of their misery.
As a second film, The Hills Have Eyes carries on the visual promise Aja showed in his first film. This is a director that isn’t afraid to push boundaries and make the most of his hard “R” ratings. I’m certain the inevitable “unrated” DVD release of Hills will have some honest merit to its unrated status, as opposed to the thirty seconds most titles tack on to use that phrase. As a scriptwriter though, Aja still has some room for improvement. It’s the pacing of the film that moves it from being a steady assault to just being moments of gore and brutality. Those moments are enough to keep me from ever wanting to go near New Mexico on a family vacation and show that Aja is the right person to try and fill Wes Craven’s shoes (his original film had its share of flaws as well but showed equal promise). However, a well-designed film, with this same level of intensity, could be something for gore-hounds and horror fans everywhere to talk about for decades to come, changing the face of the horror industry with a much-needed revolution.