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With: Aaron Stanford, Kathleen Quinlan, Vinessa Shaw, Emilie de Ravin, Dan Byrd, Robert Joy, Ted Levine, Billy Drago
Written by: Alexandre Aja, Grégory Levasseur, based upon the 1977 screenplay by Wes Craven
Directed by: Alexandre Aja
MPAA Rating: R for strong gruesome violence and terror throughout, and for language
Running Time: 107
Date: 03/10/2006

The Hills Have Eyes (2006)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Skills to Play 'The Hills'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Counting Japanese films, The Hills Have Eyes is the twelfth big screen horror remake in the past three years, and by our count, at least nine more are due in the next two years.

What this means is that, in many cases, the old masters that created these films are collecting nice paychecks and "executive producer" credits, while still not getting any actual work as filmmakers.

Moreover, these young Turks taking on these films rarely display the chops of their forbearers. In the case of "The Hills Have Eyes," French director Alexandre Aja (High Tension) slavishly copies Wes Craven's tried-and-true jump-shock technique, like a street vendor copying a Matisse, never knowing how or why certain strokes go in certain places.

Instead of doing the work and deciding how nuclear testing may be relevant to 2006, Aja chooses a literal remake of Craven's 1977 film. He plunges a loving, squabbling family of seven (including Ted Levine, Emilie de Ravin and Kathleen Quinlan) in the middle of the New Mexico desert, where a band of nuclear mutant hillbilly cannibals live. Very simply, the mutants attack, and the humans retaliate. It's less a horror movie than a revenge fantasy.

Aja drags out the film's first half with exposition about the family, and by showing fleeting shadows of the threat-to-be. Since this is a remake, and since we already know about the nuclear mutant hillbilly cannibals, why not just get things rolling sooner?

Likewise, he gives the cannibals no familial connection between one another; they're just superhuman, murderous freaks who happen to occupy the same space.

But when Aja does get going, he subtly and surprisingly elevates the tension like someone who knows what he's doing. Though the gun-toting Republican characters (Levine and Dan Byrd, playing the teenage son) rule the story, Aja saves the revenge part for the liberal weenie, Doug (Aaron Stanford), a bespectacled cell phone salesman wearing a white businessman's shirt.

This way, Doug not only struggles against the beasties, but against himself, trying to find the manhood long since drained out of him by society (and by marriage and fatherhood, the film seems to imply).

As the film draws to its climax, Aja's plan works; whenever he uses those stale genre staples, the tension snaps them back into relevance.

The Hills Have Eyes wallows in blood and gore, lusts after it, like it lusts after the audience's squirmy screams. And it gets what it wants. Maybe someday, Aja will be collecting paychecks while the youngsters do all the work.

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