‘The Hills Have Eyes’ remake scary, but not fun

The Hills Have Eyes
Craven-Maddalena Films, 2006
Starring Aaron Stanford, Kathleen Quinlan, Vinessa Shaw
Directed by Alexandre Aja
Written by Wes Craven and Alexandre Aja
Rated R, 107 min.

“The Hills Have Eyes,” a remake of the 1977 horror film of the same name, is a jarringly horrific movie. This is horror by horror fans for horror fans–the scares seem calculated for a jaded audience.

The movie is well-executed on nearly every level, but really isn’t any fun to watch. It’s brutal and jarring, both on a visceral and emotional level. The result is a movie that hooks the viewer and pulls them along, but doesn’t allow them to have any fun along the way.

“The Hills Have Eyes” fits what Roger Ebert described as the “wrong gas station” model of horror movies. The characters (usually a group of college kids) are on a road trip and they stop at the Wrong Gas Station. The creepy attendant directs them on some course (usually a short cut) that will lead them to a group of insane recluses (sometimes freakish) who want to kill and/or eat them. In this film the insane recluses are miners who were mutated by nuclear fallout from atomic bomb tests in the New Mexico desert. The usual group of college kids, is in this case, a large family.

Watching jackass college kids get chopped up by psychos is fun. College kids are often jerks in these movies, and the one or two that seem like decent people usually wind up living. The emotional stakes stay at a comfortable level, because the relationships are less profound. If there’s a couple, they’ll usually either survive or die together so there’s no one left to mourn. It’s not fun to watch mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, sisters and brothers dying. When the group getting butchered is a family instead of a group of drunken yahoos, it stops being fun and becomes gut-wrenching.

The brutal drama is unrelenting. “The Hills Have Eyes,” is nearly devoid of comic relief. Comedy is effectively used in most horror movies as a necessary release for a nervous audience. The only laughs in “The Hills Have Eyes” are those that erupt from a relieved audience when bad things happen to the mutants. Aside from that, the movie doesn’t give the audience any opportunities to laugh. Of course, once the film kicks into gear, the audience probably won’t feel much like laughing.

The movie is well executed. The characters are well written and well acted. Daniel Byrd is especially engaging as Bobby Carter, the teenage son. The family is realistic and endearing, with squabbles, in-jokes and a real sense of comfort and history. The story is spare and slow-paced, taking its time to develop its characters before the carnage begins. The story is so well told that if one can buy into a group of evil cannibalistic mutants hiding in the desert, the rest of the movie is surprisingly easy to believe.

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If the viewer attempts to sympathize and identify with its characters, “The Hills Have Eyes” becomes an ordeal. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s rare to see a horror movie that provides legitimate shocks. “The Hills Have Eyes” does this. It goes for the heart instead of the gut. Although I was squirming in my seat at times, I walked out with a feeling of immense satisfaction. I probably wouldn’t want to watch the film again any time soon, but it was a memorable and ultimately enjoyable experience. Gore hounds and horror fans should be well-satisfied, but for many the film could be a little off-putting. Go see it if you want a horror movie that will actually horrify you, but don’t go see it for fun.