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The Hills Have Eyes (2006)
Director: Alexandre Aja

review by Lucinda Ireson

There's been a slew of horror remakes of late and plenty more set to come, yet the results of such retoolings have been varied and unpredictable: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre managed to achieve success despite the sacrosanct status of the original, while The Fog (2005) was a critical and box-office failure. The Amityville Horror, meanwhile, faced an easier task in that the original was hardly what you'd call a masterpiece. As for The Hills Have Eyes, the 1977 original is undoubtedly a cult classic and so the prospect of a remake may provoke some trepidation, yet Alexandre Aja (Switchblade Romance, 2003) does a first-rate job in updating the material. Indeed, while John Carpenter might regret associating himself with The Fog remake, Wes Craven (director of the original The Hills Have Eyes, and producer of the update) should be able to rest easy about his involvement here.

As with the original, the plot is a simple affair: the Carter family are stranded in the desert when their car seemingly breaks down (they later realise that they have wandered into a trap) and are pursued by a group of deformed beings that live in the hills. In fact, the new version follows the original template to a surprisingly large extent, which is wise in the sense that it keeps to the 'if it ain't broke don't fix it' ethos and illustrates respect for the source material. However, to follow the original too closely would render the remake pointless, and so the 2006 version of The Hills Have Eyes makes some judicious changes to the already strong storyline.

The key addition to the film is a section in which the Carters' son-in-law, Doug (Aaron Stanford), ventures into the antagonists' abode in order to find his daughter, thus bringing about a truly brutal sequence of events that go some way to explaining why the film had trouble with the ratings board in America. Of course, gore in itself doesn't necessarily constitute a positive characteristic, but there is a sense of artistry to the proceedings and, having built up the tension long enough, the film cuts loose with a sequence of rapid-fire violence that creates an atmosphere of adrenalised fear. The decision to focus less on the characterisation of the desert dwellers also adds to this, with the remake purposefully limiting their dialogue and screen time in order to make them more foreboding, monstrous figures and utilising technological advances in order to present a more authentic depiction of their physical deformities. However, this means that the film is a more one-sided affair than the original in that it limits the viewer's perspective to that of the Carters and does not create distinctive, memorable characters amongst the aggressors (none of the characters here are going to usurp Michael Berryman as the face that people associate with The Hills Have Eyes). Furthermore, the juxtaposition between the two families and the social commentary that was evident in the original are pushed aside; the remake does add a backstory about nuclear testing to explain the mutation of the desert's inhabitants, but the idea that humanity is responsible for creating monsters is obvious and doesn't really add anything worthwhile. Still, while the remake may lack the more nuanced social exploration of the original, it succeeds on a visceral level and serves as an effective streamlined horror film.

Despite a naturalistic and engaging performance from genre fave Dee Wallace, the acting in the original film was a varied affair and this took away from the plight of the protagonists and the terror of the scenario. Thankfully, the remake doesn't have any problems in this respect and the characters react in a convincing manner, with Stanford proving particularly impressive and believable as an ordinary guy doing what he must in extraordinary circumstances. This also makes it easier to empathise with the protagonists and care about what happens to them, although it further simplifies matters and makes this a less ambiguous and complex film than its predecessor. In addition, one of the strengths of the original film was that the deaths were shocking not just in their brutality but also in their unpredictability. Here, even those who haven't seen the original shouldn't have much trouble spotting which characters are going to wind up as the survivors and so, while the brutal nature of the killings is still very much present, the aspect of unpredictability is significantly reduced.

As with the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, this film is slicker than its predecessor in terms of visuals but it retains the spirit of 1970s' horror movies and doesn't feel watered down in any way. It's also effectively paced, taking some time to establish the characters and build up tension before launching into relentless terror. One could certainly argue that it is more simplistic film than the original, but it conveys the seriousness of the situation more effectively (the moments of hokey dialogue that tainted the original are absent here) and excels in creating a sense of primal fear. Proving respectful of the original whilst also recognising and acting on any room for improvement, the revamped version of The Hills Have Eyes gets the balance right and illustrates how remakes should be done.
The Hills Have Eyes

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