‘The Hills Have Eyes’: Return Of The Mutant Gut-Munchers, By Kurt Loder

French gore geek Alexandre Aja brings back the mom-and-dad Manwich in this Wes Craven remake.

Inspired by the recent, entirely uncalled-for remakes of such ’70s fright flicks as “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “The Amityville Horror,” director Wes Craven has decided to remake one of his own — the totemic 1977 gore classic, “The Hills Have Eyes.” The story remains approximately the same: A family of Ohio squares — mom, dad, daughters, son, two dogs, one son-in-law and a baby of some sort — are driving through the desert with their trailer in tow when they break down in what turns out to be an old nuclear test site. Before long they’re being stalked, then assaulted, by a family of depraved, irradiated mutants intent on turning them into Manwich meat. The mutants are of course a distorted mirror-image of the hapless Ohioans, and the story a demonstration of how depraved normal people themselves can become when forced to protect their tasty innards from ignominious removal.

It’s a pretty good story, but Craven has already filmed it once. So this time he handed over the re-making to French director Alexandre Aja and his screenwriting partner, Gregory Levasseur. These two characters, still in their twenties, worship at the goo-slick altar of early-’70s gore movies, as they demonstrated in their last film, the flat-footed splatter pastiche, “High Tension.” Craven must have figured they’d kick up the gross-out quotient a notch or 10, and he was right. Working with better actors and a bigger budget (the original “Hills” was a 16-millimeter quickie made for $325,000), Aja and Levasseur have no doubt created the cannibal holocaust of their dreams.

It’s certainly as brutal, bloody and ambitiously disgusting as the most demanding fan might wish. Fingers get whacked off, skulls axed open and one character is roasted alive while bound to a burning tree. Not to mention the dog that has its guts ripped out and the pet parrot that has its head gnawed off (by a mutant who then up-ends the luckless bird over his open mouth and squeezes out a refreshing gout of blood). Traditional genre inanities are preserved as well, among them the inexplicable penchant of various characters to go wandering off alone into the worst possible places — a spooky room, a pitch-black mineshaft — at the most inadvisable times. In a film of this sort, these familiar imbecilities are oddly comforting.

The cast isn’t bad, either. Ted Levine (now featured in the TV detective comedy “Monk,” but once the murderous Buffalo Bill in “The Silence of the Lambs”) brings professional heft to the role of the besieged family’s dad. Aaron Stanford (Pyro in the “X-Men” movies) contributes stubbly sex appeal as the son-in-law. Emilie de Ravin (“Lost”) and Dan Byrd (“Mortuary”) add requisite squabbling-teen interest as the kids. And Kathleen Quinlan, as the mom, and Vinessa Shaw, as the married daughter, do exemplary jobs of dying in awful ways.

But even though we live in a golden age of computer-boosted makeup effects, Aja has remained touchingly faithful to his favorite decade in this area. The mutant faces here are frankly, slimily prosthetic — they look half-melted and ready to spread on a cracker. And we’ve seen their snaggle-toothed snarls and balloony, placental heads before, in movies ranging all the way back to the opera phantoms and bell-ringing hunchbacks of the distant cinematic past. There’s not one creature in this “Hills” that’s as disquietingly weird as the mutant played by Michael Berryman in the original picture. (Berryman’s hairless, misshapen skull is the result of a genetic condition, so he didn’t need a lot in the way of makeup to give you the creeps.)

These run-of-the-mill mutants might have been a shortcoming in any other gore opus (the slasher audience having long ago moved on to the more expensively grotesque Freddys and Jasons of the modern age). Here, though, they’re part of a tiny but undeniable achievement. With his inspiration firmly rooted in the no-budget beginnings of the genre (“Blood Feast,” “Night of the Living Dead,” Craven’s own “Last House on the Left” and, especially, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”), Aja has managed to imbue his film with a feeling, if not a look, of impoverished cruddiness that harks back to the heyday of the z-movie grind houses in which it once flourished. This retrograde sensation, combined with the single-minded brutality of the story, lends the picture an air of moth-eaten hopelessness that’s truly oppressive. The movie leaves you feeling peevish and uneasy, and possibly in need of a shower. Don’t forget to lock the bathroom door.

—Kurt Loder

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