'The Hills Have Eyes': Can You Watch, Too?

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 10, 2006

There are 4.8 million kinds of people in the world but two of them are:

Those who see a flagstone walk in a park and say, "How beautiful."

And those who see a flagstone walk in the park, walk to the nearest flagstone, pry it up to inspect a subterranean universe of maggots, hairy spiders, carnivorous bug things and horrific multi-tendrilled amoebas and say, "How beautiful."

The remake of "The Hills Have Eyes" is for the second kind of people.

In fact, it is so for the second kind of people that all of the first kind of people should not merely be forewarned, they should immediately put down the newspaper or back away from the computer and head for shelter; otherwise, to read what follows will greatly disturb them. Please, nice people: Go away.

For those of you who are left, this remake of the 1977 Wes Craven alleged classic has one very disturbing quality: It's too damned good. It establishes what we already knew and what explains the difference between the two kinds of people: the presence in a substantial percentage of our species of a morbid imagination, which is provoked by images of carnage and violence, which finds artistic merit in the trickle of blood, the sound of human meat being pulled hot from the bone, or the heavy swish through the air of a bladed strip of steel aimed at flesh. There is a name for this kind of person: It is "the rest of us."

Right now the world's most enterprising and gifted member of this troublesome group is the French director Alexandre Aja, who made a blood-splashed international debut last year with "High Tension," a vigorous re-imagining with especially salacious details of the Freddy-Jason mad-slaughterer genre of films.

He's a great reworker. He probably saw those movies at a tender age, absorbed them totally, and then began a ferocious and all-consuming internal debate: How can I make them better? How could I make them tighter, scarier, more outrageous, more resonant, more pathetic, more grotesque?

Certainly the same process took place when he saw Craven's film, so, fellow pilgrims, he really goes berserk in trying to top what's come before. Whether or not he makes it, I leave for the cognoscenti to judge. Whether any of the unfortunate family set upon by cannibalistic mutants in the deserts of New Mexico survives the attack he chronicles, I leave to you also. The basics are this:

A red-state clan of disputatious, dysfunctional, intergenerational retreads, the Carters, head to California in a big SUV and trailer. They look doomed to slaughter: They have an American flag, they have two German shepherds, they have guns and they pray in a hugging mass. You know in the first seconds: They are so toast. But as the Wicked Witch says in "Wizard of Oz," quizzically noodling her pointy chin: "But . . . it's how to do it."

Aja comes up with all sorts of ways. Hmmm, burning at the stake, for one. How about a pickax in the head (a favorite), or the first recorded close-up kill with the new Smith & Wesson .500 magnum (messy!), but there are all sorts of other new and different ways. Is Aja some Inquisition torturer reincarnated in the form of a mild French intellectual?

Another question: Why wasn't it rated NC-17 instead of R? Really, the MPAA has a lot to answer for. But that's another way of returning to the central issue of this review: This one's way rough. Do not see it or drive by it if you have a sliver of a doubt about your ability to put up with such hellish visions. You will learn nothing and won't sleep for months.

Anyway, even as he reinvents, Aja invents. He's clearly working on a big budget for his first American film and has been told he can do anything he can think of. Visually, the movie is wildly alive, full of sure touches. The mutants -- who have birth defects thanks to nearby nuclear testing in the '50s -- are weirdly powerful: distorted faces, eyes as big as cartoon cats', weird clumps of fingers. Ach. Scary.

Not having seen the original, I don't know if this is Aja's improvement or inspiration, but the movie goes against the grain by having the designated target group -- the Carters, mere et pere (Ted Levine and the surprisingly upscale Kathleen Quinlan), married daughter (Vinessa Shaw) and her feckless hubby (Aaron Stanford), teen sibs (Emilie de Ravin and Dan Byrd), and that baby -- somehow get it together in the face of extreme horror and mount a spirited self-defense.

One of the sub-themes seems to be inspired by a classic satirical joke: What is a conservative? A liberal who's just been mugged. In this case, the mugged liberal is son-in-law Doug (Stanford), a gun-hating, violence-eschewing weenie all the way through who finally finds his inner warrior and goes out to kick some mutant behind with a baseball bat.

That sequence is set at another of the Aja brilliant strokes: a lost "test village" from the atomic testing days, so that the carnage plays out against a surrealistic background of split-level living with manikins amid the Scandinavian modern decor that was so '50s. Strange, beautiful, disturbing, probably illegal but nevertheless throbbing with outlaw power.

Aja does one thing poorly. He hides some actors behind too much makeup. When I saw the credits, I noted a trifecta of weird character types: Billy Drago, the scummy Frank Nitti of Brian De Palma's "The Untouchables"; Levine, utterly mesmerizing as "Buffalo Bill" in "The Silence of the Lambs"; and Canadian oddball Robert Joy of about a million things but most recently George Romero's "Land of the Dead." What a delicious threesome of creepy dislocation. Yet none really registers; Levine is the blowhard daddy Carter, and you know he isn't long for this world, and the other two are so rubberized they could be anybody.

Still, straight from hell, "The Hills Have Eyes" would be the perfect movie to play at the first multiplex located under a flagstone.

The Hills Have Eyes (105 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for extreme violence.

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