The Hills Have Eyes

(2006) ** R
107 min. Fox Searchlight Pictures. Director: Alexandre Aja. Cast: Aaron Stanford, Kathleen Quinlan, Vinessa Shaw, Emilie De Ravin, Dan Byrd.

Wes Craven's homegrown 1977 indie-horror flick The Hills Have Eyes was part of a wave effecively started in 1974 by Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The same wave has been breaking ever since, though the tides have become more persistent and more violent in recent years. Whether they're right or not, the studios believe in the horror audience's insatiable appetite for gore-fests set in great unwashed America: swampy backwaters; dirty, dusty ghost towns; and desert expanses. The latest in an ever-expanding catalog of remakes, Alexandre Aja's cover of The Hills Have Eyes (dutifully produced by Craven) is as skillfully made and genuinely horrific as it is a pointless rehash.

One nuclear family meets another as a middle-class batch of just-passin' tourists find themselves waylaid in the New Mexican desert by a clan of mutants given a nuclear makeover during ye olde military testing. Proud Republican "Big Bob" (Ted Levine) has a target painted on him, as surely as his wussy, tech-savvy Democratic son-in-law Doug (Aaron Stanford) will have to locate his masculinity (e.g. primal, violent, protective instinct and real skills useful outside of the American cell-phone "range"). Also in the balance: Bob's wife (Kathleen Quinlan), son (Dan Byrd), daughters (Emile de Ravin and Vinessa Shaw, the latter playing Stanford's wife), and infant grand-daughter, and yes, there are family tensions to match the suspenseful ones.

The influence of Straw Dogs is obvious in Doug's bloody purgation, but outside of the revenge angle (and hip hip hooray, by the way, for man's best friend: the vigilante dog), The Hills Have Eyes stakes a claim of social redeeming qualities by pooh-poohing reckless nuclear testing (note the Kubrick-styled opening credits, set to Webb Pierce's "More and More" vocal) and skewering suburban American self-absorption. Aja toys, then, with the notion of sympathy for the freaks molded by the makeup-effects experts at KNB—with a mutant girl outfitted in a red-riding-hoodie—but it all seems a bit disingenuous given the voracious physical and sexual attacks of the "poor" brain-damaged sub-humans.

So you're forgiven your ambivalence at the impaling of a mutant with an American flag, and certainly you're allowed to wonder if there might be a more humanistic way to send an anti-nuke message than gleefully to sic a family dog on a freaky rapist in the process. Aja's film succeeds at being grueling, gory, and upsetting (my God, look what they're doing to that baby!), and he fashions at least one good jump and one well-played reversal. The photography and production are slick (with Morocco standing in for New Mexico), and the music's by Tomandandy. But there's more than a whiff of smug cynicism in the dry air of this conflicted satire, this played-out premise, this dubious entertainment. Aja seems to know horror fans will eat shit, so he obligingly squeezes it out.

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