Pretty bloody typical, isn’t it? The government screws us all over: explodes a gazillion nukes in the Southwestern desert just for fun, lies about the danger from the radiation, and kills John freakin’ Wayne, stealing a true American resource from us all before his time. And what do we do? We turn on one another. Just because some of us are handsome, well-off upper-middle-class families with beautiful babies and loyal dogs, and others of us are an entire town full of cannibalistic nuclear mutants, is that any reason for us to take out our anger and frustration at the nearest potential target just because they’re flaunting their genetically pure perfection at us and/or eating our brains? Should we not be directing our rage at the people we’re actually angry at: politicians?
That would be a pretty cool movie — cannibalistic radiation freaks marching on Washington. The Million Mutant March: The Movie, anyone? But I can’t really complain about the misplaced fury of The Hills Have Eyes either, because this is one damn unsettling flick. Director Alexandre Aja — who thoroughly creeped us out last year with the psychological thriller High Tension — and his coscreenwriter, Gregory Lavasseur, have used Wes Craven’s 1977 horror film of the same name as their jumping-off point for a deep-down disturbing and surprisingly poignant riff on abandonment, inhuman isolation, and creepy desolation that, all at once, recalls the up-to-the-minute urgency of the recent Wolf Creek and the dedication to being actually, you know, scary, and not just gory, of classic horror like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
Most “horror” movies these days think it’s enough to “frighten” us with gallons of blood and buckets of gore, but that’s not, in itself, really very scary, particular once you’ve become inured to the sight of such things by a thousand and one “horror” movies. Hills is ooky and creepifying long before the slaughter begins, as a family road trip to the New Mexico desert goes wrong when a middle-of-nowhere breakdown strands the gang far from the main road, far from any glimpse of civilization. It seems like a pretty standard trope, in 2006, to have at least one character try to raise a cell-phone signal, but somehow it’s extra effective here — not only is there nothing around for miles and miles and miles, there’s no way to contact anyone, either. Humans just aren’t meant to be this alone.
Okay, wait: there’s nothing civilized around. There is a town, one of those bizarre fake towns the Feds set up so they could nuke it, complete with shiny happy 50s mannequins and retro TVs and shit, almost like it was a threat: You think you’re happy with your big enormous 12-inch black and white TV and your instant cake mix? Hah: the Russians are gonna get ya and nuke ya and make your life real unpleasant. But here it’s the descendents of the inhabitants of this desert valley who wouldn’t leave and subsequent got irradiated and mutated and freakified. And you can understand why they’re so very jealous of the normals, and like to eat them. They’re all pretty and soft, like teenage blondie Brenda (Lost’s Emilie de Ravin), or pretty and manly, like Brenda’s brother-in-law, Doug (Aaron Stanford: Spartan, Winter Solstice). They are everything the freaks aren’t, and everything they should have been, had they not been betrayed by the very entity sworn to protect them: their own government.
Oh, there’s lots of blood and gore here, never fear, but Aja creates a genuine sense of the atavistic that makes the blood and gore far more affecting, and the suspense actually, you know, suspenseful. Part of it comes in the unusually realistic depiction of, of all things, dogs. The family is traveling — in their giant truck and attached trailer — with two beautiful German shepherds, and the dogs are real characters who behave in authentic doggy ways, displaying appropriately canine emotions of grief and loyalty that serves to lend a whopping dose of verisimilitude to the film.
But Aja also plays with the clichés of the genre in new and fun ways. Bob, the patriarch of the happy family (Ted Levine: Memoirs of a Geisha, Birth), for instance: he’s an ex-cop enjoying his retirement, but he retains sharp cop instincts, and — unlike in the typical horror film, in which everyone seems to be an idiot who wouldn’t recognize a warning to Get Out if it kicked him in the nuts — Bob catches on to what’s going on right way, connects the clues before him in a way that undercuts the phony suspense of the more standard horror flick so that it can jump to create new — and very horrific — suspense. We don’t wait around for Bob to figure out what we already know… instead, we wait around for the far less predictable upshot of Bob learning these truths.
And then there’s this: There are certain rules of horror films, certain rules that prevent us from worrying about the safety of certain folks, and it looks, for a while, like Aja might be willing to break them. It makes us care a whole lot more to know that not everyone who should survive the carnage will.