The Hills Have Eyes Review
The Hollywood horror has been in terminal decline for years now, with every passing week bringing a new teen crapfest or unimaginative remake of the classics. Some of these have been worthwhile (Dawn of the Dead), some have been dire beyond belief (The Fog) but there was never much hope that anyone would manage to make one that actually matches the original.
But Alexandre Aja has done it. Moreover, he’s taken Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes and improved on it in every conceivable way. For the first hour or so, it mirrors Craven’s more or less scene for scene. It’s the exact same family as before – the retired cop dad (Levine), the fussy mother (Quinlan), the eldest daughter, her husband (Shaw and Stanford) and their baby, and the squabbling late-teen siblings (Byrd and de Ravin). They’re on the same vacation in the New Mexico desert on their way to California when they’re attacked by a band of cannibals, mutated by the nuclear testing carried out in the ’50s. With three murdered and the baby kidnapped, it’s a desperate fight for survival for those remaining.
There have been plenty recent efforts that have tried to replicate the gritty flavour of ’70s horror (Wolf Creek, The Devil’s Rejects) but they’ve really just been exploitative pretenders under the misguided belief that gruelling equals effective. This was also true back in the day, and one of Craven’s mistakes was spending too much time with the cannibals. Enough setup time is taken here, but it’s spent getting to know the family (excellent acting all round by the way) so that when the terror starts, sweet Jesus it starts, and when they die, we’re upset.
Aja has Carpenter’s eye for filling a frame and suggesting menace in every corner of it, and he orchestrates the mayhem with consummate skill. He isn’t immune from trying to generate cheap shocks from loud noises, but he doesn’t do it often, and he could occasionally have tried a bit harder in terms of building suspense. But it’s in the final third that The Hills Have Eyes becomes something altogether more primal and dangerous, as the surviving family members fight back.
Aja revels in the payback but, more alarmingly, he makes us revel in it. Each successive act of retribution that they undertake becomes more and more satisfying and triumphal until we emerge, bruised and exhausted but strangely exhilarated. On the surface it could be seen as an allegory for the war on terror, but it is in fact even more than that. It’s a revenge fantasy for anyone who has ever been sickened by the underbelly of society and it reveals to us our own black heart. It’s been a long time coming and it’s taken a Frenchman to do it, but this, ladies and gentlemen, may just be THE great modern American horror.
The Hills Have Eyes by Merlin Harries
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