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Rated 3.01 stars
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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
There's Gore in Them Thar Hills!
by Adam Hakari

A tad flawed and not as well-regarded as certain movies also getting the remake treatment, The Hills Have Eyes has a premise ripe to be updated. Under the direction of Alexandre Aja, the man behind last year's controversial High Tension, this latest version of Wes Craven's cult hit is sure to inspire the same sort of wildly mixed reactions that Aja's previous film garnered. But whereas Tension maintained an air of intensity before negating itself with the worst twist ending in recent memory, The Hills Have Eyes contains more consistent horror and -- when it's on the ball -- can be quite the extreme film in its own right. 

The story remains the same as when Craven first told it. The Carter family, including boisterous patriarch Big Bob (Ted Levine), doting wife Ethel (Kathleen Quinlan), and slightly-wimpy son-in-low Doug (Aaron Stanford), sets out on a vacation to San Diego. Unfortunately, the clan runs into a spot of trouble when they get a flat and nearly total their truck and trailer in the middle of the desert. Some head out to try and find help, while others stay at the camper and pass the time before their rescue. But what the Carters find out soon enough is that they are being watched by a group of hideously-deformed cannibals living in the surrounding hills, people whose whole structure has been mutated due to radioactive fallout and, more than likely, years of inbreeding. These creatures lie in wait until the perfect time to strike, after which the surviving members of the Carter family must fight to protect themselves and escape a fate of becoming a meal for the hill folks.

Before seeing The Hills Have Eyes, I had mixed feelings about the choice of Aja as director. I wanted to join an angry mob of villagers to attack him with torches and pitchforks after his High Tension debacle. But I'm pleased to report that Aja delivers a relatively tight remake, one that even improves a bit over the original. The actors play a more sympathetic bunch this time around, not quite fleshed-out enough to be truly interesting but fulfilling the duties of their cliched parts. Stanford has the most interesting role, starting off as a liberal Democrat whose biggest concern is getting a signal on his cell phone and evolving (or, depending on how you view the film's themes, devolving) into a blood-soaked, pickaxe-wielding machine bent on striking back against the hill freaks.

It's too bad similar attention isn't paid to the villains of the piece; like the henchmen in Elektra, there are about three primary mutants who share the spotlight (Robert Joy's psychotic Lizard gets most of the spotlight), and the rest pop up inexplicably, whenever the plot feels the need to throw one more deformed freak in for good measure, and get killed even more gruesomely than their own victims are. On the whole, the mutants are pretty freaky creations, but a few times too often during the first two acts Aja leans on the hill people as fodder for predictable jolt scares, so for about half of the film, The Hills Have Eyes drags on and starts to lose the audience's interest.

However, when the mutants launch their attack on the trailer, Aja kicks the story into gear and gives us a film filled with one instance of grotesque imagery after the other, combining suspense with blood by the gallons to form a very energetic third act. He really utilizes the desert setting, highlighting its isolation for the benefit of ratcheting up the characters' fear of being picked off by unseen forces at any given moment, and has a knack for staging grim and gory set pieces (an extended scene set in an abandoned "atomic town" serves as the film's highlight).

Despite some impressive unexpected shots and a devil-may-care attitude about incorporating violence into the story, The Hills Have Eyes isn't a great film, but in terms of freaking the dickens out of moviegoers, it gets the job done.  

MY RATING: a mild *** (out of ****)

(Released by Fox Searchlight Pictures and rated "R" for strong gruesome violence and terror throughout, and for language.)

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