This remake of Wes Craven’s 1977 cult-classic comes with Craven’s seal of approval considering he produced the updated version directed by French horror protégé Alexander Aja (High Tension). Aja and co-screenwriter Gregory Levasseur flesh out Craven’s skeletal original script with broad strokes of Cold War nuclear predominance to frame a much gorier and disturbing narrative motif than Craven’s original film. A couple celebrates its 25th wedding anniversary on a road trip with a Suburban pulling an ‘88 Airstream trailer to California through the New Mexico desert with their three children, son-in-law, granddaughter and two dogs. A cannibal group of mutated victims of ‘50s era nuke testing lay in wait. Aja ratchets up the crusty gore as the tourists’ numbers diminish and the remaining few are left to fight for their survival. Slack pacing in the film’s first act, and a drawn-out third act, weaken its gut-wrenching horrific punch.
A jaw-dropping opening credit sequence features stock footage of nuclear testing explosions intercut with images of actual deformed babies and ‘50s home appliance commercials. Powerful nuclear blast winds course through a test desert community of ghost houses filled with ‘50s era furniture and mannequins dressed in Sunday church clothes. The disturbing collage of images creates an atmosphere of government consummated negligence that puts the viewer on an uncomfortably intimate footing with the grossly misshapen people who later wait in the arid hills to prey on whoever sets foot inside their desolate domain.
The trademark social schisms of Craven’s earlier ‘70s work (The Last House On The Left) present themselves with a suburban family from Cleveland led by former police detective “Big Bob” Carter (Ted Levine) and his former-hippie-turned-Christian wife Ethyl (Kathleen Quinlan). The couple’s oldest daughter Lynn (Vanessa Shaw) and her admittedly meek husband Doug (Aaron Stanford) watch over their new baby while Lynn’s teenaged siblings Bobby (Dan Byrd) and Brenda (Emile De Ravin) trade jibes. Everything about the Carter family announces their middle-class status. Doug works for a cell phone company and he increasingly resembles the ineffectual character that Dustin Hoffman played in Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs. When unspeakable tortures and murder besiege his family, Doug casts himself as an avenging angel bringing immediate justice on the unfortunate descendants of nuclear testing who have attacked his tribe.
Wes Craven was inspired to write The Hills Have Eyes based on a true story about Scotland’s Sawny Beane family that ambushed, murdered and ate travelers in the 17th Century. The dated nature of the story makes its substitution into the landscape of modern America dubious, and the filmmakers struggle with balancing the flawed narrative logic by blurring its timeframe. Instead of drawing a direct time link to the characters from the age of nuke testing referenced in the opening scene, the writers move the story too far into the present for the connection to work. Nonetheless, once the story becomes a blood-encrusted vengeance thriller all of its narrative underpinnings go out of the window.
THE HILLS HAVE EYES ( * * 1/2 )
Directed by Alexander Aja. • Starring Aaron Stanford, Vinessa Shaw and Kathleen Quinian. • (Rated R, 105 min.) At the Maya Cinemas, Monterey Cinemas Del Monte Center, Northridge Cinemas.