When it was announced that Wes Craven's 1977 classic The Hills Have Eyes was being remade, most horror movie fans automatically assumed that like so many other recent remakes such as The Fog or House Of Wax, this project would be a recipe for suck. A light broke through that grey cloud of dread however when French director Alexandre Aja (who three years prior had made waves with a gory slasher called Haute Tension) was going to direct and that he had every intent of going for a hard R rating.
When reports came through that Aja's original cut of the movie was trimmed by Fox to avoid the dreaded NC-17 (the theatrical kiss of death in this day and age) but that the snipped footage would be put back into the film for its DVD release, fans started wondering if maybe the project wouldn't be so bad after all. Thankfully, the whining and fear that yet another cherished horror movie would be screwed up by a big studio remake was proven to be in vein – and Aja's film was a keeper.
For those who don't know the story (little has changed between the original version and this new one in terms of basic plot lines) The Hills Have Eyes follows a family lead by macho ex-cop 'Big' Bob (Ted Levine) and his wife Ethel (Kathleen Quinlan). Together with their son Bobby (Dan Byrd, his sisters Brenda (Emilie De Raven), and Lynn (Vanessa Shaw), Lynn's husband Doug (Aaron Stanford) and their baby daughter they head off through the desert to California for a vacation. They decide to take a short cut suggested to them by a gas station attendant and inevitably get into a wreck, twisting the frame of the truck and having to hole up in their Airstream camper while they try and figure out what to do.
After they regroup Bob decides to head back to the gas station and sends Doug on up the road to see what lies ahead. Doug returns to tell the family that the road dead-ends at a crater full of wrecked cars and camping gear, whereas Bob doesn't come back at all. It soon becomes obvious that someone is out there, watching the family. Thankfully Bob left Bobby a gun and has trained him how to use it to protect his family but when he heads out into the desert in search of their missing dog, Beauty, he soon learns that it's going to take more than a few slugs from a .45 to save them from the strange people who live in the hills…
From the opening scene in which an unnamed victim is brutally murdered with an axe through to the finale, The Hills Have Eyes is a tight, visceral horror movie that plays itself completely straight and shows no fear in terms of delivering some truly intense scares. On a visual, superficial level, this is an intense and pretty brutal stalk and kill film that really makes use of its alien desert landscape and well performing cast to deliver a very solid film. There are scenes in this movie that this jaded reviewer was pretty shocked to see, particularly when one considers that the project was bankrolled by a major studio player like 20th Century Fox.
On the other hand, there's more to the movie than simply a family being terrorized in the desert. Much like the breakdown of Dustin Hoffman's character in Sam Peckinpah's excellent Straw Dogs (Aja's film plays a knowing nod to that movie towards the end), we witness the transformation of certain family members from passive types to people running on pure survivalist instinct and stooping to whatever level is necessary to protect the ones that they care about in the same way that a mother bear will protect her young by killing whatever might seem a threat to it.
There's a deeper psychology to this newer version of the story than what was in the original which makes it a more layered film. While the make up and appearance of the desert dwelling 'family' is a little too contrived looking their actions in the movie are given sufficient motivation so that when they occur we understand why they're doing what they're doing. The film hardly excuses their horrible deeds but it at least sets them up as having a motive.
The movie also has an interesting political subtext. The characters who are killed off are clearly made out to be proud Republicans, making fun of the Democrat in their midst and sure that their firearms will save them from the bad guys, victims of nuclear testing that their own government conducted. Is it a subtle jab at the current administration or simply an odd coincidence that the Democrat who is pushed too far finally ends up being the one to save the day by using his head and standing his ground? Aja's father has ties to the socialist side of French politics, so maybe it isn't too far of a stretch. Either way, it is an interesting layer to the film regardless of where your political leanings may lie and it makes the story more interesting in much the same way that the politics behind last year's Land Of The Dead made that movie more than just a zombie gut muncher.
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The Hills Have Eyes also looks really slick. Aja brought along his art director/cinematographer from Haute Tension and the results are even grittier than they were in that movie thanks to the harsh desert locations used for the shoot. When the characters start to sweat out there under the sun, you really feel it. The movie has a dusty, dirty, unclean tone to it that really works well in the context of the tale being told and a lot of the credit for this does need to go to Maxime Alexandre. Additionally, the special effects from KNB Effects hold up well, delivering some serious splatter in a couple of key scenes that are actually rather shocking. Though there are some CGI effects used throughout the movie they're handled well and don't come across as soulless as so many digital effects some to feel.
Ultimately, Aja has made quite the accomplishment with his remake of Craven's film. He's delivered a more thought provoking movie than the original was and a more intense one as well – it's a flat out scarier movie than its predecessor was. While Craven's movie scores points for originality and for cooler looking bad guys, it did suffer from some pacing problems that Aja has corrected with his take.
So what is there in the unrated version to make you want it over the R-rated theatrical cut? Basically, gore. That's about it. There's no added nudity or anything like that, just some extensions to some of the kill scenes and some prolonged versions of a few of the more intense moments from the trailer attack (telling you anymore would be spoiling it, so don't ask).
The Hills Have Eyes is presented for this region one release in a very nice 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that preserves the film's original theatrical aspect ratio. The slick cinematography is well captured by this although due to the 'hot' nature of the color scheme and the locations you can expect some aliasing throughout. There is were not noticeable problems with artifacting nor any print damage to report. Grain was never overpowering, in fact it was only noticeable in a few scenes. For the most part the movie is clear, colorful and very pleasing. Shadow detail is strong even when things get really dark. Color reproduction is accurate here but the color scheme itself is quite unusual in that it is made up of mostly earth tones and hot reds and yellow in the desert, so keep your expectation in check in that regard. Edge enhancement is present but it's not too strong nor does it get out of hand. This is, all in all, a very solid presentation in the visuals department.
Fox presents The Hills Have Eyes in your choice of a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound tracks in the film's native English or in a dubbed Spanish 2.0 Dolby Digital Surround Sound track. The 5.1 mix sounds very good with plenty of lower end bass response and some very nice instances of channel separation throughout – the trailer attack scene and the truck/trailer crash sequence in particular sound very good. Dialogue is clean and clear and free of any hiss or distortion. This is a fairly aggressive mix at times but it needs to be in the context of the movie and not once do things sound over cooked. Turn this one up loud and listen to the back of the sound mix for some creepy ambient noise during the parts that take place in the desert and in the mine shaft. Subtitles are provided in Spanish French and English and there's an English language closed captioning option provided for the feature as well.
Fox starts off the supplements section of this release with a commentary track from director Alexandre Aja who is joined throughout by one of the films producers, Marianna Maddalena, and art director Gregory Levasseur. The track is conducted in English and as these guys are French the accents might take a bit of getting used to for some people but this reviewer never had a problem following the discussion. The three participants do a good job of keeping things on topic, explaining certain parts of the film as they play out in front of us and only straying to provide more detail on certain aspects of the production such as the desert shooting locations and some of the casting details. They give us a good idea of what inspired them to remake the popular Wes Craven film and also explain what they were going for with their version in addition to providing some welcome general information on how they put the project together.
Speaking of Wes Craven, he shows up on the second commentary track where he's joined by fellow producer Peter Locke. This is an interesting talk as Craven is able to note and critique certain aspects of this newer version when compared to his original film. He and Peter Locke go way back and are obviously comfortable with one another throughout this talk as made apparent by some of the in-joking that occurs. They cover some of the same ground as the gang from the first commentary but this still makes for a really interesting listen that should please fans of either version of The Hills Have Eyes as you get a bit of a crash course in both features here.
An excellent making of documentary entitled Surviving The Hills is up next and clocking in at almost fifty minutes in length it provides an excellent look at pretty much every aspect of the film that you might be curious about. The documentary more or less follows Aja from pre-production through shooting the feature out there in the middle of the desert and then on into post production for editing and tweaking. It does a great job of showing his directorial style and provides some interesting behind the scenes footage as well. Each of the cast members shows up to talk about their part in the movie and their experience on the film and some interviews with the producers and with the director himself ensure that this is a well rounded featurette.
A shorter look at the making of the film is provided through an eleven minute collection of behind the scenes footage compiled in the Video Production Diaries. Fox allows you to watch this material as seven brief clips or as one longer clip and in here we see a few key scenes being made and learn more about pre-production planning and editing tactics. This makes for a nice companion piece to the longer documentary and surprisingly enough there isn't a lot of shared material between the two, making this one just as interesting as the longer piece.
Rounding out the extra features is a music video and trailers for a few other Fox horror movies available on DVD. The disc comes with animated menus and chapter stops but somehow manages to omit the trailer for the movie itself on this disc.
A pretty ferocious film that goes for the jugular right out of the starting gate, The Hills Have Eyes lacks some of the charm of the original but still manages to make for a pretty intense film that surpasses its predecessor in more ways than one. Fox's disc looks pretty good and sounds damn near perfect and throws some nice extra features into the mix as well. Highly recommended (just make sure you get the unrated version, not the R rated disc as the brief trims that have been restored do make for a more intense experience).
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.