The Hills Have Eyes directed by Alexandre Aja, written by Aja, Wes Craven (original screenplay) and Grégory Levasseur, with Aaron Stanford, Kathleen Quinlan, Vinessa Shaw and Emilie de Ravin. 107 minutes. A Fox Searchlight release. Opens Friday (March 10). For venues and times, see Movies, page 107. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Alexandre Aja's remake of Wes Craven's 1977 classic offers solid shocks, suspense and ample gore. But it never quite rises to the heights of the original, despite remarkable fidelity to its script and tone.
Partly, that's because the device of the mutant cannibal psycho hillbilly clan preying on the white-bread family who've strayed off the main road has become much more commonplace. But more, it's because director Aja has kept his villains so completely off screen that we never get a sense of them as people, let alone as a family with its own peculiar dynamic. When they do appear, they're so clearly guys in monster masks that our suspension of disbelief wilts, and with it the film's ability to tap our primal fears.
In place of Craven's emotionally resonant haves-vs.-have-nots conflict, Aja substitutes a political metaphor involving atomic tests, mutation and America's betrayal of its own citizens. The metaphor doesn't quite gel, but it does provide a wonderfully bizarre setting for the climax and earns the film big bonus points for creative use of the U.S. flag as an instrument of death.
Aja has considerable genre chops. His second feature, High Tension, kept the screws tight all the way, with no budget and a cast of three.
He's lost none of his imagination and skill, but here he seems less inclined to trust his instincts. He keeps goosing the slow buildup with pointless shocks that are always oversold by the same musical sting. By the fourth time through, scary has become annoying. Choppy cutting also keeps the action obscure, a good tactic in the buildup, a bad one in the hard-action climax.
Aja's ability works against the film in another way. Craven was far from competent when he made the original, and it shows in camera, editing and performances. We've all seen a million movies. We know what things should look like, how they should sound. Any movie that consistently subverts those expectations generates a subliminal unease, a sense that anything might happen.
That's a good thing in a horror movie, and it may explain why today's filmmakers are so drawn to the crude, effective shockers of the 70s. It also explains why these remakes and homages are never as good: genius might be able to simulate an unsettling incompetence; mere skill never can.
Veteran character actors Kathleen Quinlan (Event Horizon) and Ted Levine (Silence Of The Lambs) shine as the comfortably bickering married couple, but top honours go to Aaron Stanford (the X-Men sequel), who pumps out megawatts of energy on his journey from would-be yuppie to blood-drenched vengeance killer. Sadly, Billy Drago, possibly the scariest actor in movies today, is all but invisible as Jupiter, head of the mutant family.
If Aja had gone with Drago's power and emphasized the family-vs.-family battle, he might have made a great movie. As it is, he's merely made a competent, entertaining one.