The Hills Have Eyes (2006) — And probably a nose and two ears, too

“You destroyed our homes and made us what we’ve become. Boom! Boom! Boom!”

Kyle’s rating: Probably how Friday the 13th should be, but thankfully isn’t

Kyle’s review: If you’ve seen High Tension/Haute Tension, then you can imagine the absolutely blood-soaked unpleasantness director Alexandre Aja infuses his second big horror film with. I have to admit upfront that I’ve never seen the original, and I don’t intend to: I’ve heard it’s much more “lame” than “classic,” and the ideals of ’70s horror, especially survivalist horror like Wes Craven’s original is a prime example of, seldom appeal to me. Plus, as my friend astutely noted, the remake has Emilie de Ravin in it. Winner!

So here’s another big family (rather happy, with only slight hints of dysfunction, mostly between the overbearing father and the wimpy son-in-law) going for a summer vacation in California by way of an endless desert. A desert that, as it so happens, was the sight of early domestic nuclear weapons tests, and is still undergoing governmental observance today (not a job you’d want, as the pre-title sequence illustrates). Back then, all desert residents were told to evacuate so as to avoid radiation poisoning and illness. Most complied. Some stayed behind. What happens to people and their offspring when they’re living in an irradiated wasteland?

If you guessed “become murderous, inbred cannibals preying on unlucky travelers with savage brutality” then you win a prize! Hooray!

That’s the movie. Family gets directed to their probable doom by skuzzy gas station attendant, family gets stranded, family splits up to get help, family get largely slaughtered. The acting is impressive because the surviving characters depict a believable descent into desperation, Like most horror films with evil inbred freaks the freaks themselves seem completely unbeatable until the heroes “man up,” but usually the survivors don’t seem capable of getting crazy. These survivors get crazy and you believe it. That’s cool. It’s a sincere and polished take on such an idea, with a lot of innovative and genuinely shocking moments (what happens to the dad left my mouth agape). If it wasn’t so completely unpleasant and brutal, I think I’d recommend it much more whole-heartedly.

There’s some impressive gore here. I never really wanted to see someone place a shotgun under their chin and graphically blow their head off; I’ve gotten on fine for years with movie sometimes depicting such a thing but cutting away for maximum dramatic effect without actually showing anything. But now that I’ve see it (thanks, Alexandre Aja!), it’s like “whoa!” You’ll get your High Tension (unrated) groove on with various shotgun blasts and brutal head-bashings, if that sort of thing’s your bag.

Amusingly, there’s a highly ironic patriotic theme running through this movie, which seems to reach an apex with a one character’s “triumph” over an opponent. I suppose in post-9/11 America it’s a slippery slope dealing with historical fact while maintaining a complex tone towards the country, especially when the facts deal with nuclear testing on American land. I’m not entirely sure how successful Hills is delving into such subject matter, but I admire the attempt.

Surprisingly, it’s a very self-contained movie. All loose threads are tied up. Villains are appropriately brutal and relentless, unless for the sake of a hero catching his or her breath they have to take a seemingly uncharacteristic moment to toy around. As in the original, the surviving heroes have to become as brutal or perhaps worse than the mutant hill-people preying on them… but they only deliver a killing blow if there’s opportunity to gross out the audience. If the practically-dead inbred freak can use a radio to call for reinforcements or pick up a weapon the exhausted hero has dropped (said hero foolishly thinking the fight’s over despite his freakish opponent still drawing breath), then they’re left alive. If there’s no jump scene potential left in a freak, then and only then can a heroic character run up with a pick-axe and drive it deep into the bad guy’s eye socket.

But, I mean, if you’re looking for brutal and bloody survivor horror, and you happen to think that your average Friday the 13th or teen slasher movie is just a little too weak and family-friendly: 2006’s The Hills Have Eyes is meant for you. It does what it should and it does it well. A little too well, for my tastes. I won’t be seeing it again. Emilie de Ravin is absolutely gorgeous and I’m dying to see her in more films (I missed a friend’s Brick night a few weeks back: I won’t make that mistake again!), but she’s not enough to motivate a replay here. Stick to Wrong Turn if you don’t want to feel icky well past the end credits.

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