Remakes are a tricky business my friend. Particularly remakes of films that are revered, or often thought of as having special powers. Scary powers even. Wes Craven's mind numbing classic from '77 The Hills Have Eyes is the latest to be 're-imagined' for a new generation. And I don't think I need to tell you, the glut of familiar titles popping up on DVD is starting to really wear thin on me.
It's all about branding, and to be honest, I can't imagine why Craven wouldn't tack his name onto this film with a producer's credit. He stands to make a whole lotta cash for a whole lotta nothing...more power to him. It's about time he cashed in. Now I'm not going to nit pick the pros and cons of remaking and I'm going to get off of my soapbox right quick before I bore the hell out of you. But know that remake or not, I did the best I could with this one. So here's as unbiased a look as I could muster for Alexandre Aja's vision of the Craven classic.
Before I even continue, one more thing. I am a huge supporter of Aja. I still stand by my assessment of High Tension (review here); I believe that people will be talking about this one for a long time. I'll admit that his attempts at a clever twist nearly drug this one to the ground. But I've said it once and I'll say it again. The events that encompass the first 2/3 of High Tension are so strong; I don't care how rotten the twist is. Aja, along with a few select others (including Dog Soldiers and The Decent (review here) director Neil Marshall) are indeed the new breed of classic horror directors. They ARE this generations Wes Craven. So if anyone was going to be given the task of taking on The Hills Have Eyes, I'm glad it was Aja.
The story is simple, and should be quite familiar. A family vacation turns sour when a wrong turn down a dirt road off the highway pits our unsuspecting vacationers directly in harms way. The explanation is unique to this version of the film, in that the desert inhabitants are mutants that have evolved after years of government testing and abandonment. Embarking on a family vacation to California is Bob (Ted Levine) his wife Ethel (Kathleen Quinlan), youngest children Bobby (Dan Byrd) and Brenda (Emilie de Ravin) along with older daughter and son-in law Lynn (Vinessa Shaw), Doug (Aaron Stanford) and their baby Catherine. The family is forced to endure many stages of survival and after introductions the audience is left with a series of violent and harrowing attacks.
Aja's vision of The Hills follows really close to Craven's. Perhaps even too close. Characters look eerily similar to those in the original and in some instances have the same mannerisms. Some scenes look like they could have been ripped straight from the original, almost as if it's a SNL skit. It's very odd to say the least. I'd go so far as to say that at least 85% of this film is true to the original. There are a few alterations and the bit about nuclear testing and the abandoned town ads a nice new touch. Then there's the political subtext, which while valid, does come across a bit heavy handed at times. Especially evidenced during one particular scene in which a disfigured mutant confined to a rocking chair sings The Star Spangled Banner, followed by a grating speech and the not so surprising squeal of "You did this to us!" This is only moments before another mindless warrior bursts through the wall with axe in hand and it's back to happy horror time again! Did I mention the guy impaled with an American flag? Yeah, we got one of those too.
As brutal as the original is, Aja has managed to easily one-up Craven with his band of merry mutants and produces a film that's truly deserving of the Hard-R it's been given. Not an easy feat by any means. The 'unrated' version presented here is equally (I guess, if not more) brutal that the R-Rated version that played cinemas. In the opening moments of the film, an unsuspecting man is met with an axe to the chest and is thrown in an extremely violent and brutal manner. Just the start of things to come. There are sequences in this film that are very difficult to watch. These characters are met with endless amounts of violence and despair...it's not a very pleasant experience.
That's a compliment.
Performances are all above average, while the characters themselves are a bit stereotypical. Bob is a gun toting Republican, while Doug is a technology nerd and a Democrat. Brenda is the sexed up daughter, while Bobby is a cynical Hot Topic shopper. You get the gist. Doug, who I felt was the least likeable character of the bunch from the start, winds up going through the biggest (and unfortunately, most unbelievable yet crowd pleasing) character change. Go figure.
Image and sound quality are pretty spectacular. The 5.1 track is really aggressive. Extras include two feature length commentaries. The first with Aja, co-screenwriter Gregory Levasseur & producer Marianne Maddelena, the second with Craven and co-producer Peter Locke. Both tracks are pretty interesting, heavy accents aside. However, I was disappointed to learn how hands off Craven actually was during the production. He knows very little about what actually made it on screen or about the actual shoot itself. And he thinks we're not interested in hearing anecdotes about the original film. Huh? Next up is a making of feature that runs about 50-minutes. Lots of great behind-the-scenes and FX footage here. Very entertaining and informative. This is followed by an 11-minute piece entitled 'production diary' which is comprised of a few random crew interviews. Finally a music video for the closing credits song is also included.
In the end, I'm not as put off as I usually find I am at remakes. Part of the reason that Aja is so successful in keeping my tempers down here is in the fact that he sticks so close to the original and goes straight for the throat. I still don't think it was 'necessary' to remake The Hills Have Eyes, but Aja's vision is as good an excuse as any for revisiting the film. It's so close to the original, if it increases awareness and interest amongst a new generation of moviegoers, then I'm all for it.