This review is late, but my deadline laxness has created the opportunity for me to admit to you that one of the quotes Fox Searchlight is using from me about this film – “Almost too intense” – is wrong. Reports have been coming in of people actually getting up and leaving the theater after the incredibly grim and nasty scene where mutant hillbillies attack a normal American family’s trailer, brutally raping and murdering the people inside. This film, it seems, actually is too intense.
All hail Alexandre Aja for that. He has made a horror movie that is horrifying. There’s a reason why Todd Browning’s Freaks lives on in the pop consciousness – it’s an incredibly disturbing movie even so many decades after its release. There are few films with that power, few films that actually live up to the “horror” film tag, and the remake of The Hills Have Eyes is one of those.
Don’t see The Hills Have Eyes if you’re looking for a film that will make your date grab your arm when the cat jumps out of the cupboard. Don’t see The Hills Have Eyes if you’re looking for a film with clearly defined good and bad guys. Don’t see The Hills Have Eyes if you think horror films are good for a laugh. This movie aims to fuck you up, to upset you, to make you dizzy with brutality.
The plot is simple – the Carter family is on a cross country trip, and they take a shortcut through the desert. But it turns out that the shortcut is the hunting ground of a group of miners and their offspring who refused to leave the area forty years ago when the US government seized their land for nuclear tests. Now they’re hideously deformed and morally decayed into rapists and cannibals, preying on the occasional visitor from the outside, taking their revenge on the people who made them this way.
Aja has set up a deceptively simple concept here, but he fills it with nuance and meaning. The film is heavy in political allegory, referencing the modern war on terror without really coming down as being right or left. I think both sides of the aisle can watch this film and identify with the politics, and I actually think that by the end the movie is pro-war on terror. In the film the only possible reply to violence is more overwhelming violence, and it makes sense.
The director also has a rare eye for beauty amidst the most horrible events. The mutants live in an Atomic Village, one of those fake communities made up of fake homes that the government would use in nuke tests. It’s a mournful, blasted vision of the 1950s and that decade’s family values – that’s what the mutants improbably aspire to. The landscape that the Carter family finds itself lost in is barren but also beautiful, a world so deeply and irrevocably changed by the touch of man that it seems untouched by man.
Of course there’s more than beauty and allegory in the film. Aja tests the limits at every opportunity. No one dies nicely or quickly in this film – even someone who is shot in the head at point blank range spends painful minutes gasping and leaking. I found myself squirming in my seat again and again, which is amazing since I have long thought myself inured to cinematic violence. Aja’s violence is realer than real, though, sort of a hyper-violence that’s not stylized but completely believable.
What makes the film brilliant is the second half, when Aja subtly shifts our sympathies from the family of Americans to the family of mutants. Too many horror films mindlessly fetishize its central killers. Nobody goes to see a Friday the 13th film to see how Jason is defeated – his end seems to come only because the movie is out of time. We’re there to see him off a long series of unlikable characters. In The Hills Have Eyes, Aja makes us wonder who the monster is, who the central killer really is. By the end you’re essentially rooting for Jason not because you hate those camping teens but because the camping teens have become twice as nasty and brutal as Jason was at the start.
This has been a banner year for real horror fans. The Hills Have Eyes ups the ante from Eli Roth’s Hostel in a major way – this is the horror movie to beat now. This is the film that is setting the stage for a revival of horror movies that make you feel something more than a cheap scare. I like the Final Destination movies as much as the next guy, but The Hills Have Eyes have given them and their ilk, and especially the lamer than ever PG-13 fare, their official notice.
A lot of fans have problems with Aja’s last film, High Tension, and quite rightly. I didn’t have trouble with the twist ending of that one, but I can see how others could. For those who didn’t like High Tension, The Hills Have Eyes is Aja’s redemption. For those who did like that film, The Hills Have Eyes is your vindication for supporting him. He’s truly one of the new masters of horror, a stunning visionary force to be reckoned with. Whatever he does next, I need to see it.