Saturday, March 11, 2006

REVIEW: The Hills Have Eyes (2006)


"The Hills Have Eyes" begins as garbage. Complete, utter, unrelenting garbage. The worst kind of over-produced, over-stated, over-thought big studio "horror" garbage. Think "Texas Chainsaw Massacre"-remake bad. Hell, think "When a Stranger Calls"-remake bad. A punishingly bad script. Mercilessly blunt, clunky dialogue. Moronic, smack-you-over-the-head symbolism... connected, no less, to a double-take-inducingly-stupid "social message" inserted, nay, FORCED into the story.

For two full acts, I sat grumbling in my seat, taking note once more of "Haute Tension" auteur Alexandre Aja's admirable skill at and enthusiams for the staging of ultra-explicit gore-scenes and bemoaning once more his seeming innability (or outright refusal?) to hitch said scenes to the framework of a good movie. I disgustedly kicked the empty seat in front of me as, one by one, the film ticked off entries on the "remaking classic horror movies" Don't-List. Though the exact words never entered my mind, my feeling was such that the only thing that could save this movie was for it to transform into a completely different movie.

And then it does. Oh, don't misunderstand me... it's still garbage. But once Act Three roles around and just about the dopiest excuse for satire of plastic Americana this side of "Dogville" has somehow morphed into gory swath of shameless pandering and bloodlust-slaking , it attains the final effect of garbage that's been shaped into an impressive sculpture. Like that guy who makes dinosaurs out of junkyard cars. It saves itself by jumping the shark. Sadly, as over-the-moon as I am about the way this remake eventually resolves, it doesn't quite get good enough to make up for it's earlier sins.

The problems start right away in the prologue and opening credits. Wes Craven's original "Hills" (he serves as producer here) was part of the "Texas Chainsaw" cycle of 70s/80s shockers pitting unsuspecting urbanites against Neanderthal-esque rural man-beasts. Like it's cousins, the film had no cause or time to appologize or shade it's portrayal of the bad guys; they were the city-dweller's nightmare stereotype of his farm/desert/backwoods brethren: Slovenly, smelly, subhuman, inbred and irredeemably evil. Mean-spirited, yes, but that mean-spiritedness was a part of the feel of these films; one of the cues letting us know how little regard the filmmaker's had for finesse or good taste, and thus how unlikely they were to pull their punches.

The new version, on the other hand, opens with "ironic" symbolism that was already getting tired when Stanley Kubrick put it to bed at the conclusion of "Dr. Strangelove": A dreamy country ballad underscores footage of 1950s atom bomb tests in the New Mexico desert, while shock cuts of newpaper clippings and deformed fetuses give us the new backstory about dirt-poor miners who refused to leave when their land was comandeered for the nuke tests, leading to a community of cannibalistic mutants living among the mine-shafts and fake test-site houses, feeding off wayward tourists. Just in case we don't "get it," a character helpfully spells it out towards the end "we" (as in "normal America") "made them what they are." Gentlemen, set eyeballs to roll...

...Because the cheezy symbolism is only beginning. Enter our victims, a Nuclear Family of the less-literal sort, who get stuck in the desert at the mercy of the baddies. Father Big Bob (Ted Levine!) is a Magnum-slinging retired cop and proud Republican. Mom is an ex-hippie who's found Jesus. Son is an emo kid just itching to prove his mettle. Daughter #1 is a trampy teen queen. Daughter #2 is the responsible one who's brought along her new baby and husband, a gun-shy, tech-saavy Democrat (GUESS which member of the family he clashes with.) Folks, believe me when I tell you that the film spells this out even MORE ham-fistedly than I am. And it's not even DONE yet: Aja's camera dwells obsessively on the chintzy American Flag flying from the window of Big Bob's truck, and on the oh-so-50s camper that the new parents are riding in. They've even brought along a pair of Family Dogs with them, for crissakes, named Beauty and Beast. No, really.

It's not that I'm against Aja's apparent message here, as much as it is I'm irritated by the phoniness of it: glib mockery of the "duck and cover" 50s has been old-hat go-to stuff for a LONG time now, and despite the temptation to imagine this French filmmaker taking an opportunity to bite his thumb at Uncle Sam on the studio dime it rings hollow. Aja's feigned distaste for kitschy Americana is betrayed by his skill at utilizing it. This doesn't read like horror-as-social-commentary, it plays like an Art School freshman trying to score brownie points with an ex-hippie professor.

The film marks time between desert-stranding and bad guy emergence with dead-in-the-water "character development" scenes that would play as stilted and expository in The Sims. When the baddies do show up, Aja piles on the makeup-FX gore and spices it up with extended sequences of sexual assault and animal abuse like a latter-day Ruggero Deodatto. But while these scenes ARE impressively gruesome, they're also too telegraphed as to dull most of the impact: Even a casual afficionado of modern horror can tell you that the most virtuous and innocent of characters will buy it first to prove how "serious" the film is, or that comely teenaged girls will be threatened with rape, or that parakeets have only ONE use in the genre.

As siege sequences go, it's kind of dissapointing. And it takes the film in a slightly schizophrenic direction: Aja has spend almost an hour taking every cheap, obvious shot at the Norman Rockwell family dynamic he could muster, but now wants us to recoil in horror as the monsters literally start tearing it to pieces? Later on, a sarcasm-loaded shot of an American Flad planted in a corpse's skull punctuated by a mutant singing "The Star Spangled Banner" will be directly followed by an applause-begging scene of a good guy using said flag to take down a baddie, and getting a soaring Sousza-esque music cue for his trouble!

Fortunately, one sunrise, three bodies and one abducted baby later is enough to jolt the film back to life: Silly satire gives way to sillier-but-more-effective action, as "Hills" mutates into a blood-soaked revenge/adventure trip for it's final act. Gun-shy men discover their inner John Wayne, black hats swing pitchforks like Uruk-hai berserkers, and family dogs exact righteous vigilante justice (earning, when I saw it, thunderous applause every damn time.)

It could just be that Aja is better at this: Act 3 drops all pretense of building dread or "saying something," it's just good guys and bad guys wailing on one-another with guns, clubs and axes; blood spraying up at the camera and wounds explicitly framed. It's pure bloodlust and adrenaline, catharsis for the audience. It's totally mechanical, of course: The mutants do unforgivably evil things in the 2nd act, and in the 3rd the survivors exact revenge to the delight of the audience. But like any good mechanical device, it WORKS. It works not just in spite but because of it's willingness to deliver the goods in the form of hero-shots, swelling orchestral music and superheroic canine sidekicks.

So the third act saves it, and makes it worth seeing, but it remains not much of a movie and overall a big mess. A big problem remains the disconnect between Aja's natural talent and his ability (or lack thereof) to make it work beyond the surface level. Here is a film that opens with nuke-test archival reels intercut with images of Vietnamese Agent Orange babies and closes with an image crafted to lionize that kind of previously-satirized old-school jingoism: A "liberal cityboy" turned new-millenium cowboy; emerging behind flames with a rescued baby in one hand, a shotgun in the other, the loyal dog at his side, "baptized" in the blood of his enemies.

Having nothing to say other than "look at me!" isn't necessarily a crime, but if Aja doesn't find a sense of purpose or cohesion his act is going to wear out it's welcome. Until then... reccomended, but the first hour or so is MURDER.