"...this is an ugly slice of splatter-porn...nasty, nasty stuff..." - Richard Roeper
As much as I respect Richard Roeper's opinion, when it comes to film criticism, I think he grossly misses the point Alexandre Aja is making with his remake of the Wes Craven horror classic, The Hills Have Eyes. Aja's 2006 remake isn't simply about a group of flesh-hungry mutants living in the desert and feasting on any unlucky passerby. Sure, that is certainly one element of the film, but upon further inspection we come to understand that The Hills Have Eyes (2006) is more about the breaking point of the normal human being. It's more about transformation and testing the very limits of the human psyche than it is about letting the mutated hilldwellers have their way with an unfortunate family on vacation. And, ultimately, the film is about the basic reaction of human nature to fight back, defend oneself, and become the unlikely hero when there's simply no other solution.
Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes has become quite the horror classic since its release in 1977. Years before the director became a household name with the release of A Nightmare on Elm Street, Craven made his dent in the survival-horror genre by crafting The Hills Have Eyes on a shoestring budget in the sweltering heat of the desert. The film - his follow-up to the 1972 Bergman-influenced The Last House on the Left - found a family, on their way to California, breaking down in the middle of the desert and becoming the target of ferocious attacks by a group of deformed cannibals living in the hills. A work of grisly, gore-filled entertainment, The Hills Have Eyes immediately ingrained its enigmatic ending in the twisted minds of horror fans everywhere. So when the horror remake craze started to come around just a few years ago, you just had to know that The Hills Have Eyes would be high on the list of films to reimagine. And, if Wes Craven wasn't going to remake the film himself, what better person to decide who should craft a new version of his classic?
The first smartest thing Craven did, while searching for the right filmmaker to helm the remake, was to find someone who actually cares about the original film. Enter Alexandre Aja. Fresh off the success of 2003's gory shockfest, Haute Tension, Aja (and his Art Director Gregory Levasseur) were the ones Craven tapped to reimagine The Hills Have Eyes, and that decision is what makes all the difference in the success of the 2006 remake. Alexandre Aja is someone who simply knows how to make a horror film. Even aside from the gory high spots in his films, Aja has a knack for creating characters that the audience actually cares about throughout the entirety of the film. You root for these people, whether they come out on top in the end or not. His ability to create tension and suspense out of even the smallest of details, along with the amazingly gorgeous look of his films, makes Aja the perfect director to tackle the remake of a film set in an enormous, desolate landscape.
Staying fairly close to the beats in the original film, The Hills Have Eyes (2006) succeeds because it takes chances that you don't often see taken in a Hollywood film. While the plot consists of a somewhat familiar story, Aja takes his film to places that - even as it's happening - you simply can't believe. In terms of the gore factor alone, The Hills Have Eyes (2006) amps up the gross-out factor by allowing its characters to go one step beyond where you'd think they go; probably even one step further than they rightfully should go. Without giving anything away, there's one scene in particular that caused quite a stir upon the film's theatrical release (and it's slightly longer in this unrated cut). This scene, even though it is brutally difficult to watch for anyone with a heart and soul, exists in the film because it must exist. It works to take Aja's mutant villains to another level of evil - a level that only helps to make the film's hero that much more heroic and justified in his actions. It's a testament to the gall and perseverance of Alexandre Aja in that he relentlessly pursues his vision by going to the exact places in the narrative that he wants to go. For such a young director (with only a few films under his belt), this persistence in vision and adeptness with his subject can only mean good things for Aja's budding career.
With a strong cast consisting of Ted Levine (of The Silence of the Lambs fame), Kathleen Quinlan, and Emilie de Ravin (Lost's "Claire"), the acting is formidable throughout the film though some of the lesser characters could have had a bit more to do (other than scream). Even more powerful in The Hill Have Eyes (2006), however, is the absolutely gorgeous look of the film. Aja gives us some beautiful landscape shots, often draped in the slightest bit of different shades of green, yellow, orange, and red. The film's palette is one that only helps to make the audience feel the same heat and oppression that these characters feel. His choice of angles, point of view shots, and close-ups makes even the most spacious, desolate landscape feel claustrophobic. As huge as this desert appears to be, its clear that Aja's characters feel completely trapped in their environment - a testament to the work of both the director and his Art Director Gregory Levasseur.
It's appropriate that the credits sequence of The Hills Have Eyes (2006) evokes the same feelings of impending doom that we see in Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead (2004). Both remakes of absolute horror classics, these two films show (from the very beginning) that they're going to be something a little bit different. Right from the moment the credits hit the screen, we know that both Dawn of the Dead (2004) and The Hills Have Eyes (2006) aren't going to be straight remakes. They are, instead, going to reimagine the original films, mix in some new twists, and give the audience something worth watching. That's not to say that Aja's film is a perfect reimagining. It is, in fact, slightly too long and explains too much (too explicitly) about the origins of the mutants. The Hills Have Eyes (2006), nonetheless, is one of the most interesting and successful of the recent horror remakes. It works to effectively transcend both its genre and its cinematic roots by existing as a horrifying tale about the depths of human depravity and the heights of human nature's persistence and transformative abilities.
The Hills Have Eyes: Unrated is presented in an anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen format that makes Maxime Alexandre's cinematography look even more impressive than already is in the film. Just about every aspect of this transfer is impressive. From the deep blacks, well-delineated shadows, and sharp details to the impressively varied color palette, this visual presentation is a joy to behold. Color saturation is excellent, as the landscapes are often shaded in a slightly muted shade of green, yellow, orange, and red, while contrast is top-notch. The expansive desert environment comes across beautifully, showing both the deep darks of night and the impressive heat of the day. The only minor issue in this transfer is the presence of some inherent film grain, as well as the slightest bit of edge enhancement. These problems, however, are so slight that they're hardly even noticeable. This is, nonetheless, a very impressive transfer that only helps to make the gorgeous cinematography that much more exceptional.
The audio on this disc is presented in a Dolby Digital 5.1 format that does a great job of bringing the film's soundtrack to the small screen. Dialogue is always clear, crisp, and distinct while spatial separation across the front channels is excellent. The track handles the jump-scare moments in the film very well by allowing the quick pulses of noise to do their job without overpowering the rest of the soundtrack. There are a few sequences in The Hills Have Eyes (2006) that lend themselves to a discrete surround experience, and this track also does a nice job in that department as well. The surround channels are used sparingly for surround effects, which makes them even more effective when they do kick in, but they also do a nice job of pushing the unique tomandandy score to the forefront. The same goes for the .1 LFE channel, as the bass amps up just when it's needed. This is, overall, a very effective aural presentation and one that impresses when you least expect it.
Fox has given The Hills Have Eyes: Unrated an excellent DVD presentation with some very meaty, fulfilling extra material. The film itself is the unrated version, which really consists of about one minute's worth of extra footage that didn't appear in the theatrical version. It's mostly just extended bits of gore, and even a few of the grislier sequences have been lengthened. If you're hoping to see Emilie de Ravin or Vinessa Shaw without their tops in this "unrated" cut, you'll be sadly disappointed.
The first true extra feature is an audio commentary with Director Alexandre Aja, Art Director Gregory Levasseur, and Producer Marianne Maddalena that stays mostly screen-specific throughout the film. Aja and Maddalena chat for most of the track, but Levasseur also drops in some strong comments from time to time. It's clear that these three get along well as they're never at a loss for words as they chat about the film's production, share some behind-the-scenes anecdotes, and explain just how The Hills Have Eyes (2006) came to fruition. Aja and Levasseur have fairly strong French accents, but they're never difficult to understand nor are they shy at all about discussing their film. This track may be dry at times, but it's definitely worth a listen.
Also included on this disc is another audio commentary with Producers Wes Craven and Peter Locke that actually ends up being slightly more entertaining than the previous track. Wes Craven has always made for some interesting commentaries, as he's willing to chat very openly and enthusiastically about his films. His friendship (and working relationship) with Locke makes this a very laid back conversation. It really seems like the two participants are having fun recording this track while also providing some intriguing tidbits about both This Hills Have Eyes (2006) and Craven's original film. Throughout the course of their chat, Locke and Craven actually provide some really engaging information about the film's location, shooting, and crew. There are times, however, when the two seem to crack a few too many jokes, but it's all in good fun as this commentary makes for a highly entertaining and informative listen.
Another excellent special feature included here is the approximately 50-minute behind-the-scenes documentary "Surviving the Hills: Making of The Hills Have Eyes". This exhaustive featurette does an excellent job of showing Alexandre Aja bringing his film to life in the deserts of Morocco. While you do get your usual interviews with all the principle players mixed in with some behind-the-scenes clips (and some short clips from the film), this is nothing like your typical EPK featurette. This is a much more in-depth look at the making of the film, and one that provides some really engaging information about The Hills Have Eyes (2006). It not only proves to be an entertaining feature for any fan of Aja's work, but also heightens your experience, and appreciation, of the film itself.
We also have approximately 11-minutes of video production diaries that show Aja and his crew on the set of the film. Separated into seven separate segments (or viewable all as one continuous featurette), these diaries provide an excellent behind-the-scenes look at the film's conception and production. If you're looking for a real fly-on-the-wall look at the making of The Hills Have Eyes (2006), this featurette is definitely something you'll want to check out.
Finally, we get the music video for "Leave the Broken Hearts" by The Finalist, which is your typical music video displayed in letterboxed widescreen, and an assortment of trailers that play as you start up the disc.
There is definitely a camp of horror fans out there that are so steadfast in their opinion of classic horror films that they refuse to even give recent horror remakes a chance. It's an unfortunate situation, however, because those fans are missing out on some really excellent modern horror films (some of which may even become classics themselves someday). I absolutely love classic horror. There are some films that are just so insanely great that I can't imagine anyone trying to remake them, but I'm also willing to accept that remakes will always be around. Sure, there are plenty of misses, but there are also some hits. Dawn of the Dead (2004) and The Hills Have Eyes (2006) are two remakes that took the ideas set forth in the original films and twisted them into some great modern horror entertainment. In the case of Alexandre Aja's remake, I think he actually made some marked improvements over the original Wes Craven film. Aja's film is a different film from Craven's, but that's one of the things that makes The Hills Have Eyes (2006) so effective. The young filmmaker deserves a lot of credit for being so persistent in his vision and so relentless in the pursuit of that vision.
All that certainly pays off for Alexandre Aja, as The Hills Have Eyes (2006) is an entertaining horror film that not only provides loads of grisly images for the hardcore gorehounds, but also manages to make an intelligent statement about the resilience of human nature itself. Call it "ugly, splatter-porn" if you will, Richard Roeper, but I call The Hills Have Eyes (2006) a refreshingly good remake. Fox has put together a very impressive package for The Hills Have Eyes: Unrated DVD release. In addition to an excellent audio-visual presentation, there are also several worthwhile extra features that are both engaging and informative. With such an effective horror film, and a great DVD treatment, The Hills Have Eyes: Unrated easily comes highly recommended.