THE HILLS HAVE EYES
Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: Ted Levine,
Kathleen Quinlan, Aaron Stanford, Vinessa Shaw, Emilie de Ravin, Dan Byrd,
Director: Alexandre Aja
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Features: See Review
Length: 101 Minutes
Release Date: June 20, 2006
I guess it was really bound to happen sooner or later, though I never thought much about it. After having been a horror fan my whole life…after giving numerous cautious recommendations to films like Dead Alive, Hostel or Wolf Creek…after always making it a point to warn readers that certain films were too much for delicate constitutions…I finally found a movie that was too much for mine.
Apparently even I have a limit, and the remake of Wes Craven’s classic The Hills Have Eyes certainly pushed me over it. This is without question the single most horrifying film I’ve ever seen. What I do question is whether such an experience can be described as entertainment.
I loved Craven’s original film…it was scary, masterfully done on a shoestring budget, and possibly the highest point in 70s horror. But being familiar with it did nothing to help steel me for the remake by Alexandre Aja (with Craven serving as a producer). Yes, there was plenty in it I remembered…I just didn’t remember it being quite so extreme and intense.
The film opens with a little blurb about nuclear tests throughout the 50s and 60s, and the first thing I did was grab the box cover to make sure I’d put in the right disc…I thought maybe I’d grabbed a Godzilla flick instead. But no, that’s the angle for the remake: nuclear tests were conducted in the desert, and miners who refused to evacuate were mutated by the radiation. They lived in the hills, had babies that were even more screwed up in the DNA department than they were, and made their way by terrorizing unsuspecting passersby, eating their flesh and stealing their possessions.
Of course, a nice normal vacationing family takes the wrong route when directed by a strange gas station attendant. It’s a total trap. After their vehicle is disabled, leaving them in the middle of the desert without a soul in site, the horror really begins.
I could catalog the events, but I’d kind of rather not remember most of them too much. I guess I should list at least a couple, lest you think I engage in hyperbole. Let’s see…there’s a man tied to a tree and set on fire, in possibly the most graphic and gruesome depiction of burning flesh I’ve ever seen in a movie. There’s the mutant who rapes a young mother while holding the business end of a gun against her infant’s head. There’s a beloved family pet that gets gutted. And we haven’t reached the second half of the movie yet.
As I said…this was the most horrifying film I’ve ever seen. Aja’s vision is sadistic, relentless, and devoid of a single ounce of moral value. I’m not squeamish in the least, but man, I tell you, for an hour and forty-five minutes? I ‘squeamed’.
Now that I’ve found my threshold, and now that it’s been permanently violated, I find myself on the other side of my own warnings for the first time. The delicate will definitely not enjoy this film. And apparently, this time I’m one of you.
I can appreciate the film for its maniacal power, for its fearless approach to its violent subject matter, and for the fact that it absolutely reveled in the revile. But can I call it entertainment? Maybe if my line had been just a little further out so that I would have stayed on my usual side of it, I might be singing its praises more loudly. But The Hills Have Eyes did more than just frighten me and gross me out. It upset me to the point I lost sleep.
And so, for the first time in my career as a critic, I'm left opting for the probably-cowardly solution of not offering a star rating to a film. I really can't come up with one. The fact that it affected me so strongly makes it worthy of four stars. But the fact that it totally crossed my imaginary (though not arbitrary) line of decency makes it worth zero. So it's a fill in the blank for you, dear readers. I don't envy you the task any more than I did myself.
This is a striking anamorphic transfer from Fox…a difficult one, to be sure, because the images range from the blaring bright desert to the darkest firelit and starlit sequences. There’s a bit of grain here and there, but not much…overall, the contrasts are striking, the colors are good, and the details exemplary.
This might be the best 5.1 soundtrack I’ve yet heard for a horror flick, and I’ve heard some good ones. The frequent use of the rear channels with total discretion made me jump more than once, and kind of keep looking over my shoulder. Dynamic range is extremely strong, and crossover signals are smooth and plentiful.
There are two commentary tracks, in case you want to try and make it through the movie again. One is by Aja, his art director and producer. The other is by producers Wes Craven and Peter Locke. There is a making-of documentary, production diaries, and a music video.
If nothing else, I can at long last sympathize with those of you who wrote me and questioned my values in giving movies like Hostel a cautious recommendation. The Hills Have Eyes put me in a place I’ve never been before. I’m pretty sure I don’t want to go back there again. So don’t say I didn’t warn you. I only wish I could say someone warned me.