Director: Alexandre Aja
Starring: Aaron Stanford, Kathleen Quinlan, Emilie De Ravin
Rated R for strong gruesome violence and terror throughout and for language
Every once in a while, a horror movie manages to rise above its humble genre and say something relevant. The very best horror flicks use their blunt instruments to illustrate uncomfortable truths about the human condition, to ask questions of the audience or even to make political statements. We may not approve of their props, but masters like Hitchcock, Romero and Cronenberg have demonstrated that we cannot dismiss a movie simply because it paints its pictures in blood and guts.
I found myself pondering this as I sat through Alexandre Aja’s remake of The Hills Have Eyes, which, unfortunately, is not an example of the exceptional horror films I was just talking about. More to the point, it’s the kind of meaningless exploitative trash that gave horror a bad name to begin with.
The story follows the Carter family, a gun-totin’, God-fearin’ red-state clan travelling cross-country with an SUV and an Airstream trailer. Papa Carter prefers scenic routes to Interstate highways, which is how the family finds itself bumbling along a deserted dusty road in the middle of the New Mexico desert.
Like many remarkably stupid horror-flick characters before them, they take an ill-advised shortcut recommended by a creepy old man whose ramshackle gas station stands alone in a questionably remote location. A person of average intelligence might wonder how the old coot manages enough business to keep his doors open, but not the Carters. They follow the ghoulish geezer’s advice right into the heart of an old nuclear testing region, where their vehicle is promptly ambushed by a group of sadistic mutant cannibals. One by one, the family is tortured and murdered by their assailants, until the surviving Carters finally snap and unleash their own inner sadists.
There is room in this story for any number of worthwhile ideas. I’ve read that Wes Craven’s original 1977 version of Hills drew interesting eco-social comparisons between the affluent, white-bread Carters and the outcast family of mutants who eat them. Whether or not that’s true, I can’t say, but in this remake Aja studiously avoids any story elements that might interrupt the gore and vulgarity.
Unlike old-school slasher flicks, this film doesn’t give us reprehensible protagonists who simply get what’s coming to them. The Carters, while far from perfect, seems like a loving family. They argue and nit-pick, yes, but one gets the sense that they care for one another, which makes their fate not just sickening, but sad as well. Oddly, the story permits the two least-likeable characters to survive.
I’m not one to avert my eyes in a movie theatre, but as the death and dismemberment gets rolling in act two, Aja ladles on the red goo to such a degree that I found myself feeling physically ill. This is the sort of film where a sweet young mother gets raped and has her brains blown out as a prelude to the real violence. If you choose to waste your money on this film, expect to see limbs hacked off, heads axed, bodies eaten and living human torches. The camera does not blink, but rather lingers lovingly on each atrocity because, after all, that’s what we’ve come to see, right?
Apparently so. The Hills Have Eyes is the latest in a growing parade of torture-porn flicks, following Saw, Wolf Creek, Hostel and Aja’s own High Tension. These movies have no interest in scaring their audience (and, make no mistake, Hills is not scary), but instead pour their creative energy into devising gritty, realistic ways to torture their characters to death. Gone are the fantasy elements of A Nightmare on Elm Street and Hellraiser. The new wave is faux-snuff; forget the ghosts and goblins, just kill your characters in rich, realistic detail and hope the audience vomits.
It’s difficult to say why this form of brutal exhibitionism has arisen, except that perhaps it is a reaction against the PG-13-ification of horror films over the last decade. When studios discovered they could earn more coin by watering down their slasher flicks, there must have been an outcry from the Fangoria set, demanding hard, R-rated gore to satiate their bloodlust. Unfortunately, because torture-porn can be made on the cheap, the films are reaping huge profits, and that means we can expect more.
Don’t see this movie. It’s condescending, irredeemable, and an insult to the art of storytelling.