With his grisly international breakthrough, High Tension, French filmmaker Alexandre Aja effectively recreated the
gritty, anarchic style of ’70s shock cinema, presenting a nightmarish vision of a world where nothing, even the life
of a baby-faced boy, is sacred. If Aja’s story hadn’t turned on a bizarre twist lifted straight from the M. Night
Shyamalan playbook, his movie might have become some kind of demented cult classic. Instead, it collapsed under the weight
of its cumbersome, convoluted plot.
Aja plays it safer with his remake of The Hills Have Eyes, and that’s a good thing. Rather than burdening a time-tested
tale with unnecessary new details and gimmicky twists, he and longtime collaborator Gregory Levasseur are faithful to Wes
Craven’s 1977 original. Sure, the cinematography is more lavish, and the blood-splattering effects are more sophisticated.
But this update, produced by Craven himself, is a loving homage, not so much a cynical rehash.
It is the story of an all-American family that finds itself stranded in the New Mexico desert after car trouble derails a
cross-country trip to San Diego. Getting stuck in the sweltering heat of the desert is bad enough, but things are worse than
they seem: Big Bob (Ted Levine) has unwittingly steered his wife and kids into the heart of a nuclear fallout zone where radiation
victims have mutated into cannibalistic killers. They are a deformed clan, lurking silently in the hills and waiting for the
right moment to pounce on their unsuspecting victims.
The Hills Have Eyes eases into a slow, methodical groove after an initial flash of brutality sets the tone, and for
a time, we are left to wonder when Aja’s boogeymen will descend from their rocky perches. When they do, the ensuing
chaos is as gratuitous as any of the gore in High Tension. During one particularly unsettling sequence, Young Brenda
(Emilie de Ravin, of ABC’s Lost) is molested by her beastly tormenters while her sister (Vinessa Shaw) and mother
(Kathleen Quinlan) are forced to watch. Meanwhile, Big Bob is strapped to a stake and burned to a crisp, much to the horror
of his youngest, Bobby (Dan Byrd), and his nerdy son-in-law, Doug (Aaron Stanford).
The rest of the movie is an ultra-violent revenge fantasy, as Doug makes the obligatory transformation from liberal pacifist
to ultimate warrior to save what remains of his family. It’s preposterous, blood-soaked entertainment, taken to unnecessary
extremes by Aja and Levasseur, but there is an undeniably cathartic force behind every pounding blow, every skull-shattering
swing of the axe. Is it scary? Not as much as it is disquieting. It is an artfully crafted exercise in high-octane style,
bolstered by a stronger cast than most horror films could ever hope to assemble, but it’s a bitter, sleazy little pill
that leaves an ugly aftertaste.