And still they come–slick remakes of the grim, gritty horror shockers of the 1970s. This time the springboard is Wes Craven’s grisly 1977 “The Hills Have Eyes,” a compact, gruesome little blood-fest about a vacationing family attacked by a family of cannibalistic mutants in the middle of nowhere. Craven himself, who later went on to take the whole genre in a more tongue-in-cheek direction with the “Scream” franchise, is among the producers of this bigger (nearly twenty minutes longer) and–if you can believe it–gorier and more brutal version of the extremely simple story, updated and fleshed out, to use an unfortunate phrase in circumstances like this, just a trifle by writer-director Alexandre Aja, whose previous movie, “High Tension,” demonstrated his grasp of horror convention (if not of narrative logic).
In this case Aja and co-scripter Gregory Levasseur hew remarkably closely to the spare original, in which the wayward clan–tough-guy dad “Big Bob” (Ted Levine), chirpy wife Ethel (Kathleen Quinlan), serious older daughter Lynn (Vinessa Shaw) and her dorky husband Doug (Aaron Stanford), Lolita-ish younger daughter Brenda (Emilie de Ravin) and puppyish son Bobby (Dan Byrd), along with their dogs Beauty and Beast–find themselves stranded in the desert as the result of misdirections given them by a seedy gas station owner (Tom Bower). Soon they’re targeted by another family–a bunch of deformed flesh-eating mutants with such evocative names as Papa Jupiter (Billy Drago), Lizard (Robert Joy), and Big Brain (Desmond Askew). Though the unfortunate travelers suffer plenty at the hands of the repulsive locals, the big difference between “Hills” and pictures like “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” is that the surviving victims turn the tables, proving even more adept at slaughter than their hungry tormentors. (Of course, Sam Peckinpah had made the same “worm that turns” point in “Straw Dogs” back in 1971, but on a much smaller, more confined and less blood-drenched fashion–though even so he was much criticized for the level of violence, as well as the message.)
It has to be said up front that “The Hills Have Eyes” is well-made, within the context of the genre. The cinematography by Maxime Alexandre is almost voluptuous, and combined with the sharp editing by the single-named Baxter the images carry considerable power–especially when one adds the creepily elegant production design (Joseph Nemec III), art direction (Levasseur and Tamara Marini) and set decoration (Alessandra Querzola). Together they have fashioned a truly eerie derelict town, where a good portion of the final half hour or so is situated, to represent a “model community” constructed to gauge the effects of a nuclear blast (now home to those nuclear-generated mutants). And whether you enjoy the results or not, the gruesome makeup by Mario Michisanti, Gregory Nicotero and Howard Berger and visual effects (Jaimson Goei, Franco Ragusa, Rez Illusion) are bloodily effective. The cast, moreover, is better than one usually finds in stuff like this. Quinlan and Askew do what’s asked of them with the conviction of the veterans they are, Stanford carries off dork-transformed act admirably (although Doug’s ability to survive pummeling after pummeling doesn’t just strain credulity but shatters it), De Raven and Shaw suffer expressively, and Byrd proves a solid Stanford in miniature.
So if you relish gore-fests like “The Hills Have Eyes,” rest assured that Aja has concocted a savvy remake that should satiate your blood-lust. If not, though, you’re likely to find it overkill on a massive scale. And if you’re looking for something conspiratorial in it besides mere plot turns, perhaps it’s the nationality of the filmmakers that induced them to add the government-bashing back-story that blames it all on nuclear testing gone so awry that it destroyed the lives–and bodies–of ordinary Americans and turned them into flesh-eating monsters. Some patriot out there is bound to complain that the French can’t overlook the opportunity to make even a slasher movie like this into a slam at U.S. policy, past–and present. For those snooty Gauls, after all, subtext is everything, n’est-ce pas?