THE HILLS HAVE EYES (Alexandre Aja, 2006)
Packed into an SUV and Airstream trailer, the Carter family embarks on a family vacation to San Diego via the back roads of New Mexico. Typical of fathers, Bob (Ted Levine) wants to take the scenic route through the rocky foothills. A gas station attendant tells him of a path that isn’t on the map but will provide nice scenery and a shortcut to the interstate. Thinking he has a hot tip from a local, Bob follows the directions, but the family has driven into a trap that will leave their vehicles wrecked and them stranded while the mutant cannibals living in the abandoned mines stalk them.
The mutants in THE HILLS HAVE EYES were created when decades prior some miners refused to leave the area during the government’s atmospheric tests of atomic weapons. They and their offspring prey on unsuspecting travelers on their remote land.
Bob decides to walk however many miles back to the gas station to try and get help. Son-in-law Doug (Aaron Stanford) goes the other direction in hopes of finding assistance. Remaining at the trailer are Bob’s wife Ethel (Kathleen Quinlan), Doug’s wife Lynne (Vinessa Shaw) and their baby, and the other two Carter kids, Bobby (Dan Byrd) and Brenda (Emilie de Ravin).
Director Alexandre Aja demonstrated some talent for horror filmmaking with HIGH TENSION, although it was ultimately ruined by an atrocious English-language dub and a ridiculous twist that took screenwriting cheating to another level. In keeping with the trend of increased gore, his remake of Wes Craven’s 1977 film is a brutal, blood-soaked experiment in terror. I’ve objected to the horror porn of HOSTEL and WOLF CREEK, but what separates THE HILLS HAVE EYES from those films is that Aja isn’t coding the violence toward the victims as something for audiences to enjoy. It’s horrible and terrifying, but the identification is with the Carters, not the psychotic killers.
Aja isn’t faultless, though. When the women are attacked, they are also the victims of sexual degradation. These disturbing and thoroughly unnecessary violations are rarely forced upon male characters in horror films (and not at all in THE HILLS HAVE EYES). A baby is also put into peril several times, a shameless dramatic device if ever there was one. THE HILLS HAVE EYES is frightening enough that it doesn’t need these distasteful elements to boost the intensity.
THE HILLS HAVE EYES is scary, something that a lot of today’s horror films aren’t as they compete in the game of one-upmanship in quantity and quality of gore. As in WOLF CREEK, tension is built via the desolate location. (The film also effectively uses the claustrophobic interior of the trailer.) The New Mexico landscape is beautifully photographed, a cruel beauty as it turns out, and the attack scenes take place in good lighting so we can actually follow what’s happening. Aja doesn’t cloak everything in darkness, although the nighttime scenes are nerve-wracking as we wait for the mutants to descend upon the family.
THE HILLS HAVE EYES could have been improved with a little tightening—the last thirty minutes or so tread the same ground—and the subtext regarding the government being responsible for making these villains into what they are isn’t particularly well conceived. Aja introduces other ideas too—the Carters are pistol-packing Republicans and most likely Christian while Doug is a gun novice and Jewish—but doesn’t do anything with it other than having Doug echo Dustin Hoffman’s character in STRAW DOGS all the way down to the shattered glasses. These quibbles aside, THE HILLS HAVE EYES is a scary, well-made film if you have a stomach for this sort of thing.