Catching the current wave of slick, Hollywood remakes of 1970s B-horror hits, Alexandre Aja has updated Wes Craven's "The Hills Have Eyes," adding a few contemporary twists and pumping up the gore factor. As someone who has never seen the 1977 original, I was able to view this one without any preconceptions and judge it solely on its own merits. I have to admit I was surprised at how enthralling it turned out to be, especially in this unrated edition from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.
During a cross-country road trip to California, the nice-looking, gun-toting, right-wing Carter family conveniently stops off at the filthiest gas station in the New Mexico desert. The scruffy attendant, who has just received a delivery that includes, among other things, a severed ear, tells them of a short cut that will lead them back to the main road. Naturally, they take his advice and soon find themselves targeted by a gang of cannibalistic mutants who make their home in a deserted atom-bomb testing site.
Along for the vacation is Doug (Aaron Stanford), the liberal, anti-violence husband of the Carters' eldest daughter, Lynn (Vinessa Shaw). He starts out as something of a wimp, but once his baby daughter is kidnapped by the mutated degenerates, he becomes pretty handy with a pickax. As with Wes Craven's early films, this one attempts to raise some socio-political ideas about the nature of violence and how even the most peace-loving citizens can be pushed over the edge to heinous extremes (yes, a film in which a woman's heart is ripped from her rib cage and devoured has a social agenda).
I can see where the filmmakers were going with this, but it doesn't all come together. The opening credits sequence is quite effective, with images of mushroom clouds intercut with photos of genetically deformed fetuses, accompanied by the rather upbeat tune of "In the Valley of the Sun," harkening back to the final scene of Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove." This footage is meant to explain what made the mutants the way they are today. The problem here is that the mutants are not developed enough for us to get a sense of their true motivation. We never sympathize with them, and frankly I don't think Aja does either. He seems only too eager to see them all chopped to pieces by our peace-loving hero.
On the other hand, the film does retain a good degree of suspense. It's predictable, to be sure, and the main characters are certainly not bright. We see each one of them fall into the usual slasher movie clichés, which include splitting up, leaving the baby unattended, looking in every direction except right at the camera where the bogeyman usually passes, and leaving a loaded shotgun next to an unconscious mutant who most surely will get up again in a few minutes. Still, Aja has a great sense of style and pacing that keeps you on the edge of your seat, even if you can see what's coming a mile away. Besides, isn't that the fun of watching these kinds of movies anyway?
Aja also has the capable support of an unusually good cast. Kathleen Quinlan (of all people) and Ted Levine (so memorable as Buffalo Bill in "The Silence of the Lambs") bring an air of respectability to the proceedings, and young stars Dan Byrd and Emilie de Ravin show great potential and a fine range of pathos as their teenaged kids. What makes a film like this work is drawing sympathy for the heroes, and the cast certainly achieves that.
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment has delivered the film in a special unrated edition, the so-called "version to die for." With a few extra minutes of gunshots to the head, pickaxes to the eyes, and blades to the fingers, this will most likely please its bloodthirsty fans who thrive on such colorful imagery. All of it can be beheld in a clean 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. There appears to be some slight edge enhancement, but otherwise the picture is free of blemishes. Rich, deep blacks enhance the dark mood, and the clear image reveals fine detail.
Viewers will relish in the Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track, which offers a good mix of sound effects, music and dialogue. Audio is free of distortion, and the action seems to pop out all around you with good clarity. Voices sound natural, and the sound gets a good boost during the action sequences, giving the jolts an extra kick. An alternate Spanish track is also provided in 2.1 Dolby surround.
As for the special features, things get off to a good start with an audio commentary by director/co-writer Alexandre Aja, co-writer/art director Gregory Levasseur, and producer Marianne Maddalena. They provide some interesting tidbits and anecdotes, including stories of their battle over the violent content with the MPAA. In all honesty, it was sometimes difficult to distinguish some of the commentary through Aja and Levasseur's thick French accents, but they kindly apologized for that.
Much more enjoyable is the second commentary track, with producers Wes Craven and Peter Locke. Locke produced and even acted in the original film, so he and Craven had much to talk about. With tongue firmly in cheek, these two old pros provided lots of laughs as well as useful information and some comparisons between the two versions. I'm sure many who have not seen the original will eagerly seek it out to make comparisons of their own.
Next up is a 50-minute documentary, "Surviving the Hills: Making of The Hills Have Eyes." Loaded with behind-the-scenes footage and special effects shots, this is an entertaining and quite thorough supplement that should keep your interest. It features interviews mostly with director Aja and the producers, but the cast and other crew members pop in occasionally with their two cents.
If that doesn't ease your blood curdling, there are 11 minutes of Production Diaries. Here, we get a look at a welcoming ceremony in Morocco, where the movie was filmed, and some further demonstrations of the fake blood and appendages that are used throughout the film for the grisly killings.
Finally, we have a music video for the film's closing song, "Leave the Broken Hearts" by The Finalist. It's a hard-edged song, and the video is pretty much the usual collection of movie clips with footage of the band playing. On the whole it's a fitting end to a DVD that will leave you unnerved.
Alexandre Aja's "The Hills Have Eyes" takes the brutality of 1970s grindhouse horror and twists in some contemporary special effects and MTV-generation sensibilities to create a scary, if none-too-original, horror movie. A bright cast and stylish directing make this worth seeing, and 20th Century Fox has given us a worthy DVD release. To die for? Perhaps not. But for some late night fun with a few friends, this is a terrific little thriller to chill your bones.