The Hills Have Eyes (2006)

We don’t know what that is.

–Doug (Aaron Stanford), The Hills Have Eyes

That was the scene that the MPAA was also very hard to convince, because you are used to seeing a gunshot on screen on the head of young actresses, and that was very, very intense and violent. All that scene was pretty problematic for the MPAA, and that’s why they asked us to cut almost one minute — that you can see here now.

–Alexandre Aja, commentary, The Hills Have Eyes: Unrated Edition

Watching the opening of their Hills Have Eyes, director Alexandre Aja and art director/co-writer Grégory Levasseur are pleased. A group of anonymous scientists, dressed in jumpsuits and goggles, tracking radioactivity in the desert — are beset by unseen monsters, beaten, bloodied, and dragged off in chains. It is a beautiful scene, at once assaultive and intriguing, loud and mysterious, perfectly composed and spastic. Levasseur says, “Everything was made with wire, so the guy could be hit against the rocks like ragged doll.” Aja adds, “It was very funny, you have to imagine the stuntman who did that, being smashed, during all the day.”

As entertaining as they are thoughtful and informative, the French filmmakers’ creative tussling with English grammar makes their observations poetic as well. Joined on their DVD commentary track by producer Marianne Maddalena (a second track features original-and-current film producers Wes Craven and Peter Locke), Aja and Levasseur (who worked together on 2003’s Haute tension) bring to their notes on tomandandy’s unusual score sounds or location hardships (the Sahara desert in July and August — hot) an infectious enthusiasm. No matter how creepy or unanticipated the image (a sinuous slide through darkness to show a man trapped inside an icebox, a slow push-in on a weathered face that replaced a crane shot after the crane broke), their descriptions are lively and detailed. “The idea was to try to make the most real survival possible,” says Aja, “Even if you’re dealing with radioactive cannibal mutants.”

While recalling their work in Morocco with a multinational crew (members from some 18 countries), Aja, Levasseur, and Maddalena also explain the process of remaking of Craven’s 1977 first version. Following the scientists’ takedown by the mutants who live in those watchful hills, Aja says the montage of familiar images (late-1940s, American happy housewives and kids, atomic tests and misshapen bodies) helps to “bring the movie in a kind of nostalgic way, but at the same time, you see some awful stuff coming like flashes.” While that particular nuclear testing is foreign to Aja and Levasseur, it brings up specific memories for Craven and Locke, who laugh about having to “duck and cover” when they were kids in school. The fallout is both metaphorical and ongoing.

“It’s not a Western,” says Aja. “But it opens like a Western.” Just so, the film shifts terms even as it seems to be setting them. The first-spotted, iconic-seeming lone hero turns out not to be quite that, but rather a gas station attendant (Tom Bower) who’s in cahoots with the mutants, sending them unsuspecting families on vacation in the Mojave desert, then reaping rewards in the form of jewelry and other souvenirs (bloody ears in Styrofoam food carriers). The mutants form a family of their own, survivors of U.S. atomic testing and their progeny living alongside the nuclear-family manikins the military set up in fake houses and fake shops and fake cars to test the experiment’s effects, their airless misery framed now by symbols of a familial ideal that never existed to start. They watch tv, sit in rocking chairs, and wait for the gas station attendant to send them fresh meat.

Their latest victims are the Carters, a three-generational unit grumpily trying to please retired cop and staunch Republican Big Bob (Ted Levine) by making a vacation trek into the desert, surrounded by hills (which are, says Aja, “one of the lead characters of the movie, like the lead bad guy”). Bob, his onetime-hippie-chick-now-churchy wife Ethel (Kathleen Quinlan), and their mostly grown kids plus an infant granddaughter, sweat and bicker. Their soon-to-be-assailants are introduced as (sometimes binoculared) point-of-view shots, then made visible in increments, their shadows flitting across the screen, their hands filthy, faces twisted, teeth snaggly.

When the Carters’ tires are shredded by a trap in the road, the men — Bob and his Jewish, Democrat son-in-law Doug (Aaron Stanford) — walk in opposite directions to find help. Bob heads back to the gas station while Aaron stumbles on a graveyard of cars and trucks once driven by previous victims, still filled with toys and new sports gear, a seeming treasure trove of commodities. After this “shopping scene,” as the producers call it, Doug heads back to the broken down camper, where he finds Ethel, his wife Lynn (Vinessa Shaw), baby Catherine (Maisie Camilleri Preziosi, apparently quite the good-natured trooper on set), and pouty teenaged sister-in-law Brenda (Emilie de Ravin) all waiting more or less patiently. Less sanguine is Bobby (Dan Byrd), who saw one of the family’s German shepherds dead and half-eaten in the desert, but didn’t tell anyone.

Poor Bobby needn’t have worried about scaring his family. Within minutes of Doug’s return, the mutants show up in force, burning Big Bob at a stake, raping and murdering women, and stealing the baby. The fact that you’ve been waiting for this for 20 minutes, well aware of the surveillance by the mutants, only makes the attack — all frantic camerawork and fast cuts — seem more brutal. (The smashing around of figures against rocks and hard ground is also effective: Locke says, “I think the stunt guys did unbelievably rough stunts on this movie,” and Craven adds, “Which is what stunt people like to do”). Aja describes his choices in relation to effect:

According to the level of fear of what you are filming, you change the way you are filming. It is more handheld when you are really scared [and aligned with a victim], and it’s more like higher level and steady when you are with the bad guy or when it’s just about tension and suspense.

He and Levasseur repeatedly note the lessons they learned about this hierarchy of fear and suspense while making Haute tension, and Hills evokes a range of visceral responses, from subtle anxiety to full-on dread. (Also helpful on this tip, the DVD’s other extras, the making-of documentary, “Surviving the Hills: Making The Hills Have Eyes,” and the brief “Production Diaries.”) In part, such manipulation relies on familiar deployments of movement and containment, as victims run and fret and monsters plod on, relentless.

And in part, it perverts conventional gender and family relations. For both the Carters and mutants, men are supposed to protect and aggress (the mutants include eager and awkward rapists Billy Drago and Robert Joy) and women scream. Compare Ethel, coming to a weird, brief, traumatized peace following her husband’s grisly demise, to Big Mama (Ivana Turchetto), who ritually combs a plastic doll’s synthetic hair, and little Ruby (Laura Ortiz, deformities part prosthetic and part CGI-ed) takes a liking to Bobby, whose red-hooded sweatshirt she steals, so she can resemble the fairy-tale character.

The shifting term is Doug, introduced as the stereotypically “wimpy” Blue Stater, then transformed by violence — like Straw Dogs‘ David (Dustin Hoffman) — into a stone killer, angry and intent, absorbing the cruelty he sees and suffers. When he finally gets to the mutants’ “home,” he takes up a baseball bat (“Nice touch,” says Craven), then stalks his daughter’s adductors in order to finish them off. Here, inside the house (as earlier inside the gas station), especially, composition and lighting reveal more tan action and dialogue. Aja observes that DP Maxime Alexandre “has really built around the contrast between warm and cold light. And every shot by night, you can really feel the very heat of like yellow, orange, red light.” The camera’s movement ranges from wild to subtle, the light filtered through filthy glass panes to suggest both decay and endless, soul-sapping fury.

As Doug stalks from room to room (apparently inspired by Bobby’s suggestion that he’s “a pussy, just like my dad said!”), he hears someone singing, in raspy voice, “The Star-Spangled Banner.” “I don’t know whether an American filmmaker would even think to do this,” observes Craven. “It’s very spooky to have this creep singing the national anthem.” Locke jokes that Big Brain (Desmond Askew) gets one word wrong, and Craven laughs, “Which is why he has to die.”

As it speeds to its horrific climax, the pile-on of fluids and bodies is monumental. Aja, Levasseur, and Maddalena recall their repeated run-ins with the MPAA, as they had to cut scenes, or rethink compositions and editing, on top of pragmatic, production issues (the decision not to show Beast the dog ripping into Big Brain was determined by the fact that, as Aja laughs, “the dog was terrible!”). Its sophisticated mix of sarcasm and politics, old-fashioned horror and new fangled technologies makes Hills both retro and innovative. In this, it is much like the first film, whose concerns — about consumer culture or cruel acts of government — remain so relevant.

The Hills Have EyesTheatrical Trailer

RATING 8 / 10