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The Hills Have Eyes: Unrated Version (2006)

Wes Craven has figured at just about every important junction in the evolution of the contemporary American horror film. With his grim 1972 debut, The Last House on the Left, Craven struck right to the core of gritty, "realistic" murder-and-revenge exploitation genre. In the 1980s, Craven fashioned the most durable of the decade's many fantasy-horror franchises with his A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). In the '90s, with horror films out of vogue in favor of teen comedies, Craven re-imagined the slasher genre as pop culture-savvy, self-referential parody in the blockbuster Scream series. While he comes a little late to the current trend of remaking "classic" fright flicks, Craven at least can take some pride in improving on the source material, rather than desecrating it. Craven produced a 2006 remake of his own 1977 cult favorite The Hills Have Eyes and got just about every ingredient correct, starting with an original movie that was far from perfect and prime for improvement.

Craven's original The Hills Have Eyes found raw energy in its tale of a lost middle-class family fighting for their lives against an inbred cannibal clan deep in the nuclear desert of New Mexico. While his basic premise of civilized people resorting to savagery in self-defense was effectively wrought from the low budget production, most of the movie's other qualities suffered: The characters were cartoony, key plot-points incoherent, and the crazed hill people (most notably the goon-faced Michael Berryman, who became a horror icon) were a novel but superficial variation on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre's evil clan. To put together an updated version of Hills, Craven avoided the familiar trap of hiring one of thousands of narratively inept music video directors and smartly tapped Frenchman Alexandre Aja, the auteur behind 2003's indie horror cult favorite Haute Tension (which oiled the gears for hits like Wolf Creek and Saw), to direct and co-write with his collaborator Grégory Levasseur. Aja's and Levasseur's script for The Hills Have Eyes is intimately faithful to Craven's original and yet also a careful improvement, stripping away the awkward silliness and fleshing out the stranded and besieged Carter family for more powerful emotional connections. With strong performers like Ted Levine, Kathleen Quinlan, "Lost"'s Emilie de Ravin, Dan Byrd, Vinessa Shaw, and Aaron Stanford, the vacationing Carters are sympathetic before they get attacked by the inhabitants of the desert, which gives the final hour added credibility. However, it also creates a problem when The Hills Have Eyes indulges the current horror trend of extended forays into gratuitous torture, and the nauseating sexualized violence of the first, devastating attack against the Carters' trailer is so extreme and protracted that momentary shock-entertainment value becomes alienatingly palpable degradation. While most of the rest of the movie's graphic gore remains within the realm of edgy thrills, this first major victimization of a very believable family (especially the women) breaches a barrier that sours all that follows. Aja is so consistently clever, and often masterful, throughout the rest of this Hills remake, that this sequence becomes even more troublesome for those who prefer their horror fare free from rationalizations about the social value of dispiritingly ugly depictions of egregious violence. Possibly as result, however, the movie's revenge elements are fused with cathartic adrenaline that rescue it from a few annoying horror clichés. Aja's biggest creative derivation is his recasting of the desert's cannibals from wild-eyed creeps hungry for baby meat to radiated mutant hold-outs from a decades-old nuclear test village. This, in addition to play with political tensions amongst the Carters, adds an effective social context plus a vivid, surreal, and intriguing climactic set-piece, even if the mutants' supposedly sympathetic explication is irrational, non-sequiter B.S. Interestingly, despite this attempt to humanize the hill people, these characters are much less memorable than Craven's original thinly-sketched creatures, even with character actors like Billy Drago and Robert Joy behind the prosthetics. Overall, there is plenty to like about this remake of The Hills Have Eyes, if one can weather the unnecessary cruelty without too much psychic damage.

Fox's unrated "Version to Die For" DVD release of The Hills Have Eyes includes a few minutes of extra violence that was cut for United States theatrical distribution in order to earn an R-rating. The feature is presented in a good anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Aja and Levasseur are joined by producer Marianne Maddalena on one commentary track, while Craven and producer Peter Locke chat on another. Also on board is the 50-minute featurette "Surviving the Hills: Making of The Hills Have Eyes," 11 minutes of video production diaries, including footage of the movie's Moroccan location, and the music video "Leave the Broken Hearts" by The Finalist. Keep-case.
—Gregory P. Dorr



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