Directed by Alexandre Aja
Starring Maxime Giffard, Michael Bailey Smith, Tom Bower, Ted Levine, Kathleen Quinlan, Emile de Ravine
OK, you guys know my feeling on remakes, and if you don’t, well usually I think they are a terrible idea. There’s plenty of great talent out there that Hollywood shouldn’t have to keep redoing classics. My idea has always been that if you want to do a remake then do one of a bad movie that had a good concept. One of my favorite examples of this is John Carpenter’s The Thing. Many people don’t know that movie was a remake, a remake of a bad movie. Carpenter took the spark of the original movie and came up with something good. I’ve actually come up with another good qualifier for a remake. If the movie was great when it came out, but it hasn’t stood the test of time, and the story is important enough, then a contemporary remake might be in order. This is where The Hills have Eyes most perfectly fits. I love the original film, when it first came out it was quite disturbing, but now it’s more funny than disturbing. I loved the film when it first came out, and I love it now, but a retelling of the film doesn’t make me as nauseous as a retelling of the still disturbing and powerful Last House on the Left does. The only thing required is that the director do something different with the story.
The writer and director of the original Hills Have Eyes who also produced the remake, hand picked Alexander Aja to update the script and direct the film. You may recognize the name form his previous film Haute Tension, or as it was titled here High Tension. That film was disturbing little piece or work with a twist at the end that really split genre fans down the middle: some hated it and some loved it. I actually wish the twist wasn’t in the film, but it doesn’t detract from how much I like it. Aja is easily one of the top three modern masters of horror, along with Takeshi Miike and Eli Roth. Aja took the original story from The Hills Have Eyes and without actually changing the plot infused it with modern sensibilities and concerns and actually better developed the characters.
In the film a family is taking a trip to California, going the long way to see the desert as they go. Well they end up crashing their motor home in an isolated part of the desert where not even cell phones can get a signal. This part of the desert used to be the place where nuclear weapons were tested. Residents of the area were run out in order for the testing to take place. Well not everyone left and they were radically effected by the nuclear testing. Generations of inbreeding and radiation damage have mutated this family into something horrible. They survive by scavenging from those unlucky enough to pass through their part of the desert and now they have their sites set on this traveling family, now stranded in the desert.
Nearly all the old school grindhouse horror films from the 70’s were driven by social or political commentary. The original Hills Have Eyes was reactionary to the impending cold war and all the nuclear weapons testing that had been going on for years. Remaking this film forces the director to take up this commentary as it is what anchors the story. What’s interesting is that Aja finds a way to tie this outdated commentary into current world issues. No nuclear weapons testing isn’t on our minds these days but terrorism and the war on it is and it all ties in to this film. The commentary is brilliantly woven into the film, with views from both sides of the issue presented but done subtly enough that they won’t pull you from the overall story. This is part of what made Romero and Craven so good back in the 70’s. It’s only at one point about halfway through the film that there’s an instance of heavy handed messaging, but as quickly as it comes, it goes. I think the finality of the political commentary used as an underpinning for the film will be a bit surprising to many viewers.
During the first half of the film the story is almost a beat for beat retelling of the original film which bugged me a little because, why do it if you aren’t going to offer something new? Well Aja in fact does offer something new with his contemporary take on the subject, and surprisingly, when the action kicks in he actually takes it up a few notches from the original film. It’s a banner moment when a remake is more intense and more disturbing than the film it is remaking. This just doesn’t usually happen, not in this world of PG-13 horror films and horror spoofs, but it does happen here. Every attack is brutal and disturbing and there’s one scene of simple humiliation that really stuck with me. I was reminded of some of the better scenes of this nature from Last House on the Left.
The film is stylized but not to heavily and not too MTVish, it perfectly brings in contemporary filmmaking resources while still utilizing the almost documentary feel of the original film. This version of The Hills Have Eyes will stand the test of time. I absolutely believe that 10 or even 20 years from now this film will still be disturbing and effective and that’s not something I can say for 99% of the horror films hitting theaters today. 2005 was one of the best years in many for horror with the release of The Devil’s Rejects and Wolf Creek, and 2006 looks to be even better with Hostel and now The Hills Have Eyes. If you want fake scares and goofy spoofing don’t go see this film. If you want to be effected and disturbed and moved and brought to thought then go now and buy a ticket.
The anamorphic widescreen presentation is good but not as good as it should be. Detail looks great, and is impressive in dark scenes. Colors look just as they did in the theater, many overblown and saturated in sepia. Now there are aliasing issues, and some edge enhancement, and some grain due to the transfer. There is some intentional grain in the film but the compression grain shouldn’t be present. Overall the highly stylized film looks quite good, but it isn’t reference quality as it should be.
There’s a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix available in the original English and dubbed in Spanish. The mix is aggressive and full of dynamic range. There’s excellent use of the surround sound environment for subtle creepy sounds and heavy attacks too. The film is very immersive throughout. Dialogue is clean and crisp and well mixed with score and sound effects.
The Packaging and Bonus Features
The single disc comes in a standard amaray case inside a cardboard slipcover. Both the slipcover and the amaray case feature the same artwork from the poster. You know if you’re gonna do this slip cover why not do different more creative artwork on the inside.
First up is a commentary with the director, producer, and art director. Often they just discuss what’s happening on screen and explain it, which is very irritating. We know what’s happening on screen fellas. Here and there they do get into casting, how the film came together, why they wanted to do this remake and other interesting tidbits. It’s worth a listen for fans of the film.
The second commentary features producers Wes Craven and Peter Locke. When they are doing the “producer” thing they tread a bit of ground already covered in the previous commentary but the best stuff comes when Craven discusses the differences in the remake and the original and even offers some critiques of the remake. Definitely worth a listen for fans of the original classic film.
Surviving the Hills is a lengthy, almost an hour long, documentary about the making of the film. I typically like these in depth looks at films but this one is a bit boring. The problem is the documentary spends most of its running time cover certain scenes in depth rather than giving much behind the scenes information about how the film came to be. The best part of this documentary is the first 10 minutes where the filmmakers discuss how they came to get offered the project and why they wanted to do it. After that we spend a ton of time covering the initial crash of the truck and a few other key scenes. Missing are interviews with Wes Craven, who did the original film, gets story credit on this one, and also produced this film. Also the interviews with the cast are reduced to simple sound bites. Overall, it’s just an OK documentary, it could have been better.
The Video Production Diaries section offers shorter more concise background on the film broken into 7 separate segments that can be watched individually or all at once. On the other side, this would have felt to short had it been the only featurette on the disc. Much of the stuff covered in these brief featurettes isn’t shared with the longer documentary.
Where’s the theatrical trailer? Where’s the still gallery? There is a music video but no trailer and no stills? This release feels a bit incomplete. Do I smell a double dip?
Overall (Not an Average) 8/10
The Movie 9/10
The Video 8/10
The Audio 8.5/10
The Packaging and Bonus Features 6/10
Overall ( Not an Average) 8/10