The Hills Have Eyes (2006)
Director: Alexandre Aja. Cast: Aaron Stanford, Dan Byrd, Emilie de Ravin, Vinessa Shaw, Ted Levine, Kathleen Quinlan, Tom Bower, Robert Joy, Michael Bailey Smith, Laura Ortiz, Desmond Askew, Billy Drago, Ezra Buzzington, Ivana Turchetto. Screenplay: Alexandra Aja and Grégory Levasseur (based on the 1977 screenplay by Wes Craven).

Photo © 2006 Fox Searchlight Pictures
In Alexandre Aja's The Hills Have Eyes, a bigger-budget remake of Wes Craven's 1977 shocker, an American family takes a capricious road trip through the baked, scabby terrain of New Mexico. Almost immediately, little things start going wrong. Dad (Ted Levine), referred to by his whole family as "Big Bob," and Mom, referred to by her whole family as "Mom," seem prone to an awful lot of passive-aggressive bickering. Sullen, hot-headed Doug (Aaron Stanford) is married to Big Bob and Mom's eldest daughter Lynn (Vinessa Shaw), who is still nursing their newborn child, but his attention wanders noticeably to the younger, blonder, bikini'd daughter Brenda (Emilie de Ravin). Lynn and Brenda have a brother named Bobby (Dan Byrd), who poignantly cannot find a belt that keeps his jeans all the way up on his waist. The whole family is cooped up in an RV on a cross-country road trip to celebrate Big Bob and Mom's 25th wedding anniversary, but because the camper can't fit the whole family, even amidst this ode to their togetherness, Doug and Bobby are banished to the trailer unit, where they grouse about their boredom and smoke covert cigarettes. The A/C doesn't work in the trailer, and remember, this is New Mexico. Doug is too prissily white-collar to fix the A/C, a fact not lost on Big Bob, whose quixotic urge to "see the desert" has meanwhile gotten the family semi-lost. Now they're fishing for directions from a greasy, shifty gas station attendant (Tom Bower) who assigns them one route back toward the highway, and then, inexplicably, another.

Also, something is watching this family, in leering, roving Steadicam shots. Someone's eyes peer in on Bobby while he pees in the outhouse. Something is making the dogs bark; note that this family has toted their two German shepherds and their two emerald parakeets along for the thousand-mile trek. Patently, the birds are only here so that something can eventually eat them. At least the dogs, Beast and Beauty, have a better shot at, respectively, killing or being killed. They are enlisted not once, not twice, but three times to wander from the camper at inopportune moments, barking and bolting so that one of their feckless guardians has to follow where better-informed moviegoers fear to tread.

This is a lot to go wrong so early, but there is more, and it's the movie, not just the characters, that starts to get into trouble. An opening title card decries the deleterious effects of nuclear testing in the American Southwest from the 1940s through the 1970s, placing the movie within a context of lived, even polemic historical record that doesn't sit all that well with the ghoulish, thrill-happy mayhem that gets unleashed on some radiation scientists in the prologue. The subsequent credit sequence is arrestingly edited and scored, with flash inserts of some truly grotesque birth defects presumably linked to radioactive exposure, but the format and placement of this sequence so closely recall the recent, superior Dawn of the Dead remake that I docked Hills a few points for originality. Something about the family doesn't quite click, either, despite some capable actors: Aja and co-writer Grégory Levasseur milk their six protagonists, especially the parents, for some quick jabs at libertarianism, gun worship, and religious fervor, assembling the kind of parodic "American" microcosm familiar from other European-helmed dramas like Monster's Ball and Manderlay, and with a corresponding failure to convince us that these stereotypes and figureheads constitute a plausible family. Nearly every gesture or line of dialogue exchanged among the family members seems designed to unveil some tension amongst them or some parabolic flaw in the national character, but the end result of this thin, mechanical screenwriting is that we doubt these people's affinity for each other, even their acquaintance with each other.

The worst flaws in Hills' set-up, though, pertain less to the off-putting humans and more to their undead antagonists. Early on, we gather that the loony, sun-dried station attendant has worked out some kind of cynical entente with the guerrillas in his midst: he directs unsuspecting travelers their way, in exchange for which they leave him the hell alone and pass along the jewelry and other valuables that their kills leave behind. This arrangement is what I sussed out from some scattered cues in the early sequences, though it simultaneously appears that the monsters have recently reneged on this truce. I gather that's why they have left their benefactor a bloody human ear inside a styrofoam clamshell, and why he is nervously scouting them out with a shotgun in hand, well past the witching hour. Really, it's hard to say: Aja and Levasseur introduce the crisis before we've even understood the preceding status quo. How do you work out a treaty with a reclusive tribe of misanthropic mutants? Why the recent change in relations? Why do the mutants need help procuring fresh meat, since we understand that Big Bob's family is already well off the main highway before their second detour? Finally, the looming question that plagues the whole film: does Aja imagine his mutants as victims, with not just a point of view but a grave injustice to avenge, or are they inhumane, even insentient murderers?

At its most promising or at least its most recuperable moments, The Hills Have Eyes seems to hedge that question in potentially interesting ways: the mutant killers, however initially aggrieved, have so fully dedicated themselves to gory, merciless retribution that violence has degraded them even more than radiation ever did. This same downward slope of moral, even political critique might apply later on to the besieged family, whose hardiest members must practically transform into cunning, spike-wielding killers in order to survive repeated onslaughts. Aja keeps throwing American flags around his mise-en-scène—sometimes literally, as when Doug stabs some zombies in the head and neck with a broken flagstaff—and The Hills Have Eyes demonstrates a recurring taste for presumably facetious pietàs and plummy, dog-and-all family reunions. Unfortunately, Aja and his collaborators can't lock a single aspect of their film into any coherent order, which kills any hope for viable satire: the film's human characters waffle too much between realism and caricature, the zomboids oscillate between creaturely grunts and self-explanatory orations, the cultural tropes skew contemporary despite the persistent, 70s-specific residues of Craven's initial formula. The jewel in the film's corona of nonsense is a young girlbeast named Ruby, who shows remarkably tender care for the family being so ferociously quarried by her elders. Forget, if you can, the riddles of how these mutants are procreating, or of why the girl was named "Ruby" before she stole Bobby's scarlet sweatshirt. Forget the film's insistence on Ruby's unquenchable instinct for kindness, or else the atavistic "maternal" impulses of her girlhood—whatever it is about her that even a cyclone of plutonium ash couldn't pollute inside her chromosomes. Cheekily appalled by this misbegotten figure of stranded goodness, my brother leaned over in the theater and asked, "Wasn't she in Schindler's List?", but then The Hills Have Eyes is so thematically bonkers and so sticky-fingered in its regard for other movies that I can easily imagine the parallel being deliberate.

The cinematography and the sound design deserve credit for lending the film what conviction it possesses. Bleached and artfully screechy, Hills feels almost scraped across the screen, and yet the impressive veneer of craftsmanship belies some truly dire failures of scene construction. First, the family's RV is felled by a phalanx of metal spikes that shoot up from the dust in the foreground of a rack-focused shot, slicing a wee gekko to bits for extra effect, but these are clearly not the same spikes that the nearby zomboid sentinel immediately lifts from the road, donning them as a sort of ammo belt and eventually wielding them as a sort of mace. We cut several times to a creepy old mineshaft that reverberates with the gnashing, moaning sounds of the savage beasties, but then they all turn out to be living in a model "testing village" that's a boon to the art directors but none too clearly mapped as a location. Spatial logic counts for precious little: Kathleen Quinlan wakes at one point and wanders out of her camper, seemingly oblivious to the feral giant molesting her daughter in the same narrow quarters. The central set-piece of the monsters' attack is spread between an outside perimeter, where the kidnapped father has been mounted on a blazing pyre, and the inside of the trailer, where all three women and the baby are ultimately assaulted in some particularly gruesome, rape-minded camera angles. The editing of the sequence is understandably chaotic, but the actors still get lost in this curious middlezone between the two sites of trauma, conveniently allowing for separate strands of action to unfold at irregular, discontinuous paces, and unaccountably out of earshot to each other. Later, when Doug penetrates the testing village to confiscate his abducted infant, that whole episode is marred by the kind of trick editing that moves actors from point A to point B in split-seconds, either whisking them away from certain death or else hurtling them toward it with impossible velocity. Meanwhile, teenaged Brenda and Bobby engineer an incredibly convoluted trap out of fishing wire, matchbooks, and propane tanks so that they can kill off a single zombie—provided he moves and acts in a very certain way along a very specific path, and with the collateral disadvantage that Brenda and Bobby incinerate every single one of their remaining supplies and possessions. Time and time again, The Hills Have Eyes sprints past obstacles of sense, precedent, geography, and motivation so that horror can be unleashed in loud, pyrotechnic displays, calling more attention to the filmmakers' ingenuity and questionable ambition than to the plight of the characters or the dictates of the screenplay.

True, nary a year goes by without at least a dozen avatars of just this sort of illogical, ill-plotted, forthrightly sadistic horror film, many of them "worse" than The Hills Have Eyes. Witness the incompetent but munificent Saw franchise, or the repellent teaser trailer for last winter's Hostel, which so openly equated horrific torture with universal aspiration ("There is a place where all your darkest, sickest fantasies are possible..."): the genre of horror seems more and more annexable to the bold exhibition of the basest possible instincts. Say, on Hills' behalf, then, that it brandishes a keen eye and a modicum of underlying ideas that the Sawmeisters couldn't muster in two separate tries. But at least for me, there was something monumentally sour about watching Hills' mirage of proficiency lapse so repeatedly into such broken, cynical syntax, in the service of visual dividends just as dubious as those of the more obviously downscale slashers. Point-blank gunshots to the head are a virtual motif, and the camera isn't at all bashful. The salacious, prosthetic imagination behind the beasties' appearance—this one sporting a neck-brace, that one a bald, obese woman, this one a child with golden ringlets and an ovoid face—calls a perpetual bluff to any idea that the film takes their plight very seriously. The monsters' extended attack on Brenda, whose nubile features are a frequent point of emphasis in the first half hour, is especially upsetting because it marks a rare break from the film's usual template of prowling Steadicams and scrupulously detailed carnage. First one monster and then another lay down upon Brenda, turning her over, caressing her skin, and sniffing their own fingertips in between close-ups of Brenda's parted thighs, but there is an almost emphatic ambiguity about the degree to which Brenda is actually raped, such that the audience's imagination—so robustly flattened by Aja's more typical more-is-more approach—is hailed right into the arc of this sequence. The last shot of The Hills Have Eyes is heavily underlined as a voyeuristic, point-of-view panorama from the standpoint of the monsters, which is symptomatic of how often Aja has moved us in and out of their bestial perspective: visually, dramatically, morally.

In some ways, despite everything I have just outlined, I don't know why The Hills Have Eyes offended and troubled me as deeply as it did. Again, gestures toward irony abound, and though I still find them incoherent and unredemptive after two separate viewings, they at least bespeak an intent to make something more than a gut-splattered mêlée. I would love to feel comfortable ceding Aja some credit on these grounds, and I wish I could more fully explain to myself why the ineptitudes of Saw made it slightly more palatable than the betrayed talents on display here, or why the fitful sincerity and thick overplaying in the Amityville Horror remake intrigued me, while the comparable cross-purposes of this film simply disgusted me. But, Reader, that is how the chips fell. The most interesting thought I had during The Hills Have Eyes concerned the bizarre, certifiable perversity of any national government that, beyond just testing nuclear weapons in this heedless manner, would plant bone-colored mannequins of men, women, and children inside the bombing perimeters—model families festooned in the clothes and postures of daily life, perched on swing-sets and serving themselves dinner just as the uranium settled on their plastic skins. Several reviews have compared the human family in The Hills Have Eyes to their grotesque assailants, but to my mind, the truer parallel links the characters to these eerie, arbitrary dummies: thin, fleeting dioramas of American family life that exist only to be annihilated and abandoned. Aja, despite his clarion protests of a sick and trigger-happy regime, is scarcely less venal in his peppy, undisciplined marionetting of all this torture and trauma. His Hills might have eyes, but they could have used some brains, or at least a steadier hand and a less contemptible sensibility to guide the grisly proceedings. F

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