The most common complaint I see directed at film critics is that they need to "turn their brains off" and just enjoy a movie that's meant to be entertaining. What these hecklers never seem to grasp is that most of the movies they're trying to defend are prime examples of films where the critic has no other choice; unless you're Armond White, it's not like the thematic essence of Truffaut or Tati is running through anyone's mind at the 7:20 showing of Paul Blart: Mall Cop.
This imposition to stop thinking and just go with the flow is, for me, compounded when the film is a horror movie. The cheapest genre to film in and the one that promises the biggest returns, this is a cross-section of filmmaking that gets flooded with piles of DTV dreck every year, in addition to the stacks of crud trucked into theaters. The obvious downside to this is that even the so-called "cream of the crop" is generally unimpressive, but in a field of mutilated slasher victims, if your only support are the two with missing limbs, well, you take what you can get. To this end, we have The Hills Run Red, an adequately performed, competently directed, mildly-inspired and extremely violent slasher movie. Does it seem great compared to, say, The Final Destination? Yeah, sure. Is it really all that great? Maybe, maybe not.
One of the major problems of The Hills Run Red has nothing to do with the movie at all. It's actually the back of the DVD. Warner Brothers has cooked up a plot synopsis for the film that hits all the expected beats, and I suppose it won't sound like much of a movie if you leave out the shift the film takes in the second act. On some level, that's the conflict; that's the whole reason for someone to watch the film. If the viewer knows about it going in, though, it takes away the mystery that would have sustained the first 35 minutes, and the result is a movie that does pretty much what one expects it to when it's trying to be surprising. I recently saw Orphan at the dollar theater with advance knowledge of the twist, and I found myself impatient during the opening 20 minutes there as well. As someone who sits through horror movies all the time, I've got no more time left for pat character development and dull introductory scenes. Unless you've got some truly well-written, interesting characters, just get me to the gore. Instead we have our hero Tyler (Tad Hilgenbrinck, of the also adequate but all-too-hyped Behind the Mask) weaning Alexa (Sophie Monk) off heroin in 3 days. 3 days!
The part I'd be willing to tell you: Tyler is a documentary filmmaker looking to solve the mystery behind the legendary missing horror film The Hills Run Red. Directed decades ago by a man named Wilson Wyler Concannon and shown only a couple of times before dropping off the face of the planet, the film has a reputation among the horror elite as a holy grail, and Tyler is determined to find it. He packs up his friend Lalo (Alex Wyndham), his girlfriend Cerina (Janet Montgomery) and Alexa -- Concannon's daughter and the young star of The Hills Run Red -- and heads into the woods to find out more.
As a film buff, I'm always, always rubbed the wrong way, at least a little, by movies about movies that try to spin convention into savvy. One of the only successful examples of this within the horror genre is, of course, the Scream trilogy, and it succeeded mostly by gleefully playing into conventions before turning them on their head. There's just an inescapable air of smugness with the way most of the other films use cliché, because even when you point out the obvious, there are so many horror movies out there that the second-most-obvious twist is still pretty obvious.
In fact, the whole movie has problems with tone. In the 1980's, during the heyday of Friday the 13th, watching people get splattered was kinda funny, and I don't just mean when Jason punches someone's head off in Jason Takes Manhattan or when Freddy fires up his Nintendo Power Glove in Freddy's Dead. When Kevin Bacon gets an arrow jabbed through his neck, it's ridiculous and amusing, because all he does is pull a shocked expression and gurgle a little bit. These days, "torture porn" has turned the violence realistic, but the real problem with these movies is excess. It's not that I'm offended or disgusted by the intensely violent sights the movie has in store, but it's that it's so protracted that the pained screams of innocent victims becomes tiring white noise. Director David Parker has mentioned online that a whole 10 minutes got cut out, but this is still one of the more graphic films I've seen in a long time, and I don't know how 10 minutes of unrated footage would noticeably add to the film's already-high on-screen atrocity content. The film has a doozy of an R-rating: strong bloody horror violence and torture, grisly images, sexual content, nudity, language and some drug use. There's even a sticker on the front of the plastic wrap as a secondary reminder, in case someone with a vision problem glimpses the axe-wielding killer Babyface on the front and thinks this is good for the grandkids. It's a shame, then, that it feels like a front, a pre-emptive strike against PG-13 horror. Some of the most visceral moments in The Hills Run Red are the shortest and least-graphic ones.
For horror fans, all of this probably means very little. I'm sure the devoted will still nab The Hills Run Red when it comes out, and most of them will probably be pleased. Me, I can't shut my brain off. There are some good performances trying to distract me (Hilgenbrinck is charismatic enough, Wyndham has a "macho Adrien Brody" air about him, Montgomery does tons of thankless screaming, Monk is kind of awful and veteran character actor William Sadler looks like he's having a ball), and there's also some good direction (the "vintage" Hills Run Red trailer is the best part of the movie). The design of Babyface is also kind of brilliant, as far as slasher villains go. Then Montgomery finds herself in what might be a visual homage to The Descent, and I flash back to early word from the United Kingdom that Neil Marshall's film was one of the best horror movies of all time. Even that, a better film than this one, was a disappointment to me following the overwhelming hype. Maybe next time there's a great horror movie out there, we can all try and keep it a secret.
On top of the things I pointed out about the artwork in the body of the review, The Hills Run Red is saddled with a cover that blatantly rips off the title font and overall look of the art for 20th Century Fox's Hills Have Eyes remake. The back cover is pretty generic for a Warner DVD, with a larger image with a cover-art effect on it and several smaller unaltered pictures, with a short summary and lots and lots of copyright text taking up the bottom third. The case is an Eco-Box (ugh) and the disc has a bland image of Janet Montgomery gaping in fear.
The Video and Audio
Hills gets a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation, and it looks fine. All of the issues I detected while watching it (motion blur/ghosting, faint digital grain, slightly muddy contrast) seem to stem from the film's low-budget production rather than the DVD itself, including the numerous times the film cuts to the "documentary" footage the characters are filming (side complaint: why show the camera's L-bracket frame when no one is ever framed within the brackets? Argh!).
Dolby Digital 5.1 English is pretty good, although once again, this is no $200 million production, so you're not getting $200 million sound. There are some good directional and music effects here and there, but a good chunk of the movie is just people talking into the camera, which has a "camera audio" effect on it. Curiously, Portuguese 5.1 is the other audio option, with English, French, Spanish, Japanese and Portuguese subtitles.
An audio commentary with director Dave Parker, Writer David J. Schow and producer Robert Meyer Burnett is included. The audio is pretty echo-tastic, and there are chunks of dead air where the group seems unsure of what to be talking about. When the group is chatting some of it is pleasant in a low-key way, but there's a lot of back-patting and dry sarcasm that rubbed me the wrong way too.
"It's Not Real Until You Shoot It: The Making of The Hills Run Red" (28:16) is a nice, well-rounded making-of featurette with enthusiastic interviews from Hilgenbrinck, Montgomery, Wyndham, Monk and especially Bill Sadler, and lots of fun B-roll footage of the shoot. It also serves as a reminder that Sophie Monk's American accent may be the source of her flawed performance, and contains some unintentionally funny moments like Wyndham being interviewed while pale as a zombie and drenched in blood.
Trailers for Freddy vs. Jason on Blu-Ray, The Cell², Trick 'r Treat and Batman: Arkham Asylum play before the menu. No trailer for The Hills Run Red is included -- the film's theatrical trailer or that cool, retro, film-within-the-film's trailer, which is a great shame. The bonus features are not subtitled.
Once again, The Hills Have Red is indeed a cut above most of what passes for horror these days. It's fun in spurts and contains plenty of bloodletting and exposed skin to please the genre faithful. In fact, watching the making-of featurette after the movie even went a ways towards improving my mild reaction to the movie. It's just not that great in the bigger picture -- the "film critic" picture, if you will. Rent it if you've heard good things, but keep your expectations in check.
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