The Hills Have Eyes (2006)

Starring: Aaron Stanford, Kathleen Quinlan, Emilie de Ravin, Vinessa Shaw, Dan Boyd, Robert Joy, Ted Devine

Directed by: Alexandre Aja

Rating: 1 2 3

Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes (1977)

Wes Craven's 1977 horror shocker The Hills Have Eyes was a classic example of 'regional horror', in the grand ol' style of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Deliverance (1972). Stuck up city slickers venture into the vast expanses of the desert (or the countryside or the woods) and live - or rather don't live - to regret it, when they fall prey to the murderous mercies of the locals they've written off as harmless freaks.

And yet, in a sense, The Hills Have Eyes also subverted this theme: as the beleaguered outsiders are forced to rally their forces and fight back, they uncover within themselves depths of brutal savagery that make the clumsy cannibalistic locals look like Buddhist monks. By the (bloodsoaked) climax of the film, you actually find yourself feeling sorry for the poor crazed, bloodthirsty natives - when faced with the vengeful wrath of the Carter family, these ignorant inbreds don't stand a chance.

Michael Bailey Smith as Pluto in The Hills Have Eyes 2006

In this 21st century remake, the notion of a nest of incestuous inbred idiots is replaced by the concept of a colony of miners who take refuge underground after being dispossessed from their homes by the US government, who want to conduct illicit nuclear tests in the New Mexico desert. Needless to say, these rebel miners end up breeding hideously mutant offspring, whose one aim in life is to revenge themselves on the 'normal' people who made them what they are - and eating then raw is one way of getting your revenge, I suppose. So a bit of a political spin there, I suppose - although really it's just an excuse for lots of cool freaky mutant makeup and ganglion prosthetics - although the mutants retain the slightly bonkers Mad Max dress sense of their ancestors from 1977.

Aside from the difference in backstory, however, The Hills Have Eyes 2006 is. almost exactly the same as The Hills Have Eyes 1977. Most modern remakes (Dawn of the Dead, for example) take the title and the concept of the original film and then turn it into something new and up to date. This remake, however, like Gus Van Sant's 1998 version of Psycho (more like a Technicolor refilm than a remake), takes a more literal angle, being very nearly a blow by blow, frame by frame reproduction of the original film. With iPods. And mobile phones - which conveniently have reception in the desert. (Clearly the Carters are not on the same network as Mulder and Scully then, who even in the mid '90s never failed to get a signal when buried in a military bunker in the middle of nowhere.)

Brenda (Emilie de Ravin) and Bobby (Dan Byrd) in The Hills Have Eyes 2006

And so, as in the original, we have the Carter family: overbearing ex-cop Republican dad Bob (Ted Levine), family oriented mum Ethel (Kathleen Quinlan), dizzy blonde teenager Brenda (Lost's Emilie de Ravin) and gawky twin brother Bobby (Dan Byrd), big sis Lynne (Vinessa Shaw) and her countryphobic Democrat hubby Doug (Aaron Stanford), plus baby Catherine and scary Alsatian dogs Beauty and Beast. Piled into a caravan (the décor of which has not changed a jot since 1977) and taking the long way round to California, via God knows how many hundreds of miles of uninhabited desert. Or so they think.

Next thing we know, their car is wrecked, Beauty is dead, Bob's set on fire, Brenda is brutally raped, Lynne and Ethel are shot at close range and baby Catherine is abducted by a murderous duo of ugly country freaks, our mine-dwelling, genetically modified cannibal friends. Which leaves hysterical Brenda, gangly Bobby and super geek Doug to save the day. Oh, and Beast.

Aaron Stanford as Doug, with Beast

Together, Doug and Beast head into the mines, to track down the killers and rescue the baby, leaving Brenda and Bobby to booby trap the caravan - obviously they've seen the original movie, as they use the same technique. However, the eerie, abandoned nuclear testing village Doug and dog discover is by far the most interesting aspect of the film, adding a forlorn and sinister twist to the tale. Populated by blackened, melting shop window dummies, the place is an echoing ghost town - and the ghosts are murderous freaks. And though the freaks of 2006 put up a far better fight than those of 1977 (I wouldn't say I ever feel sorry for this nasty bunch), they're still no match for the wrath of an angry father and bereaved husband. Suddenly it's revenge of the nerd, as Democrat voting computer geek Doug goes radge, slaughtering mutant murders to a surge of triumphant music, as he realises that firing a gun really can make you feel like a man.

To be honest, if you've seen the original, there's not really a lot of point in seeing this faithful remake. As you'd expect from the director of Switchblade Romance, the film is stylishly shot and cut, and the suspense ratchets up nicely, especially in the mutant village, but it's never really what you'd call scary (although the squealing girls sitting two seats down from me might beg to differ). Fake shocks are ten a penny too, which means that by the time the real shocks start to pile up, you're kind of all jumped out.

But to be honest, after the terrifying vision of horror that was Switchblade Romance, I'd expected more from Alexandre Aja than a few cheap jumps and some severed limbs. And then there's producer Wes Craven - the man invented postmodern horror, for crying out loud, so to go back to old school shocks like this seems a bit of a retrograde step - or, rather, a sad reminder (as if we needed of one) that the multiplex horror movie industry is ruled by the almighty dollar, not the sick imagination. In 1977, pre-Evil Dead, it was still just about acceptable for characters to head off into the darkness alone, leaving the doors to their homes unlocked. But in 2006, when everybody knows the Rules, it's really a bit lame.

If you want a really scary example of modern regional horror, check out Wolf Creek instead. And if you want good old, nasty, gory 'he's behind you' shocks, then I'd stick with the original. In 2006, the Hills may have Eyes, but I'm not sure they've got balls.

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