Hills Have Eyes, The (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

One could make a solid argument that the 2006 remake of The Hills Have Eyes is superior to the 1977 original. The story has been tightened up, the acting is better, and the blood-and-gore effects aren't as hokey. Unfortunately, the biggest stumbling block of the first film is evident here as well: uneven pacing. Although the middle act of the movie is just about perfect, the first portion is sluggish, and the final third is drawn out. The Hills Have Eyes offers plenty of viscera, several scenes with extended tension, and a few solid scares, but it's unlikely to be regarded as a modern classic either by fans of the genre or those with mainstream taste.

There are those who consider the 1977 version of The Hills Have Eyes to be Wes Craven's calling card in the horror genre, building upon what he achieved in the gory The Last House on the Left. While the film has its moments, budgetary limitations and amateurish acting transform parts of it into camp. (Maybe therein lies its appeal.) Aware that more money and modern effects could be used to improve upon the original, Craven hand-picked Alexandre Aja (High Tension) to helm the re-make. Aja earned the honor by not only making a horror film Craven admired, but by commenting that his favorite all-time movie was The Hills Have Eyes.

One of the most radical departures from the original is to give the cannibals backstories. In the 2006 movie, they are miners who were deformed by the radiation fallout from 1940s and 1950s nuclear testing. Their offspring have inherited their mutations, resulting in a race of sub-human creatures. While there's clearly an element of social commentary here (although one that would have resonated better in the '50s and '60s), it's a double-edged sword. One of the rules of this sort of film is that the less we know about the monster(s), the greater the suspense. Because they have been "explained" (if not necessarily humanized), these cannibals aren't as frightening as their counterparts from 1977.

The fundamental framework of the plot is the same. A family, headed for a vacation in San Diego, becomes stranded in the desert when an accident renders their camper-pulling truck inoperative. There are seven characters: Big Bob Carter (Ted Levine), the gun-toting, ex-cop patriarch; Ethel (Kathleen Quinlan), his wife; Bobby (Dan Byrd), his teenage son, who idolizes Bob; Brenda (Lost's Emilie de Ravin), his daughter, who would rather be in Cancun; Lynne (Vinessa Shaw), his oldest child, who has an infant in tow; and Doug (Aaron Stanford), his liberal, Democrat son-in-law. With cell phones not functioning (the standard horror movie excuse - no signal) and no way to repair the truck without help, Bob and Doug decide to explore the area, with one going back the way they came and the other proceeding ahead. Those left behind pass the time as best they can, unaware that they are being watched by hungry predators who are veterans at disposing of trapped tourists.

The shocking brutality of the film's middle portion redeems the slow start-up. Although the movie contains its share of clichéd moments, these function as a shorthand for character development. By the time the crisis occurs, we know the protagonists well enough to be engaged in their struggle for survival. This isn't an insignificant point - too many horror movies are interested only in a body count, not in giving their characters personalities.

The major flaw with The Hills Have Eyes is that the final third takes too long to unfold and, in the process, meanders. There's a point to all of this - that civilized human beings, when pushed to the brink, can become as callous and brutal as the barbarians stalking them - but one senses that the message wouldn't be lost in a quicker, better paced resolution. Aja mistakenly believes that drawing things out generates more tension, but he passes the point of diminishing returns and all the back-and-forth wandering around becomes more tedious than suspenseful.

When it was initially released, The Hills Have Eyes was compared to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The threads connecting the films have been strengthened with their respective remakes. In terms of quality of terror, the gap has narrowed, if not completely closed. The Hills Have Eyes gets points for gore and general creepiness, and for occasional periods of tension, but it's not scary enough to linger long in the subconscious. It's fair to say that this is one of the better horror films in recent months but that's more a comment on the weak field than it is a statement of unqualified praise.

Hills Have Eyes, The (United States, 2006)

Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: 2006-03-10
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1