Film review by Jason Day of the horror movie The Hills Have Eye (2006) about a family of holidaying, middle-class Americans who are attacked in the middle of a vast wasteland by a community of inbreds, horribly mutated after nuclear testing. Starring Ted Levine and Kathleen Quinlan.
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Typical, all-American suburban family the Carters, headed by ‘Big Bob’ (Ted Levine) and Ethel (Kathleen Quinlan) are travelling from their home in Cleveland, Ohio to San Diego, California with their family to celebrate their silver wedding anniversary. In the New Mexico desert, they are informed of a short cut that will shave considerable time off their journey.
Innocently, they accept the tip but their vehicles are scuppered en route. It becomes apparent their tyres have been deliberately damaged, but who by? And why? A day of horror, torture and a descent into hell begins shortly after as a group of inbred mountain men, mutated after nuclear testing in the area decades before, attack and horrifically abuse them. The fight is on to see which family will survive and emerge victorious.
Review, by Jason Day
As anyone who knows me and reads my reviews can attest, I love a good horror. One that properly, professionally and thoroughly jolts you out of your skin and smacks your face against the wall.
One that leaves you cut up, bleeding and ready for the next scene of onslaught.
This remake of Wes Craven’s noted 70’s horror classic did all that to me…and then some.
I was too slow to catch the film on it’s original cinematic release in the UK, which might have been just as well for any cinema staff, who would have had to clean up my cinema seat (and the other half dozen either side of me).
Watching it instead DVD a few months later, I ‘settled’ myself (ha!) for an evening of ‘mild horror thrills’. My own thoughts. As a critic I never read other reviews so had no idea what to expect.
Needless to say, my innate need to be “professionally thrilled” by a horror film was totally satisfied. And that’s just within the first two reels.
A monumentally intense, albeit thankfully brief, scene catalogues the depths of suffering, torture and torment that barely-humans can inflict on others.
Civilisation, long since left behind by the Carter family, has not existed in this barren region of Earth for many years. The film’s slogan states “The lucky one’s die first” and how lucky they prove to be in this first sequence. We see:
- A man is knocked unconscious and taken into an underworld by a mining railway
- That man is crucified and then set alight, still alive and screaming in agony
- His wife is shot and mortally wounded
- His elder daughter, who has recently given birth, is attacked and her attacker breast feeds from her
- The attacker shoots her in the head when she fights back
- Her younger sister is raped by that same attacker
- That man bites the head off the families love birds and drinks the blood
- The attacker steals the elder sister’s baby into the wild location that surrounds them\
- The chase is on!
I wasn’t sure what affected me the most after that first onslaught (probably the budgie bothering), but it was enough to make me pause the DVD and pace the length of my flat for a quarter of an hour trying to recover. Taking a few deep breaths, I knocked back another glass of wine. That definitely helped.
OK, so is enough enough? Did director Aja not know when to yell cut?
No, and why should he? He slams his audience hard with the force of a runaway freight train staffed by zombies to present a chronicle of two warring families surviving in the harshest of environments. And he keeps that momentum up commendably throughout.
Aja’s genetic battle across Uncle Sam’s Baddest of Lands unfolds with uncomfortable accuracy.
The mutants need to deal with issue of famine and protein starvation in a naked and barren landscape. How do they resolve this? They can’t grow crops (and we are told they come from arable stock) so they trap passing humans and eat them. Simples!
The Carters are privileged, suburban, transitory, annoying perhaps. But they are just as loving and equally determined to protect their own genetics.
The film is set for a swift and brutal mino-watr between the two polars of civilisation. Audiences will obviously side with the Carter’s, the more normal and physically attractive side of humanity, but will still be left with questions about their behaviour, morality and ethics and their own brutality, which is shown to be just as calculating and extreme. (In one perversion of Americana, Aaron Stanford uses the US flag to impale Pluto’s feet to the floor and thus escape him).
There is a neat subversion of cinematic gender power dynamics. Both families are headed by typically masculine leaders, but the winners, in the end, are the younger males, the women, the emasculated lads.
For the mutants, the leaders are the sexually violent Lizard (Robert Joy) and the retarded, physically powerful but naive Pluto (Michael Bailey Smith).
For the Carters, ‘Big Bob’ (Ted Levine) is the lead on everything, even his daughter’s choice of sexual partner (Stanford), whom he belittles and emasculates whenever he can. His son ‘Bobby’ (Dan Byrd) is more or less nondescript in the background.
But as the movie progresses, the patriarchs are slowly and surely curtailed and killed so the females and weaker, younger males step up to the plate to prove their worth and save their dwindling kin and assume the reins of co-control.
All have to pass through the fires of hell to do this. Most notable is sweet tanning-obsessed Brenda (Emilie de Ravin) who, after a terrible sexual abuse, finally finds some axe-wielding justice deep inside herself.
This film is harsh, in tone, landscape and execution, but you’ll come out the other end feeling it was worth the order.
Will you feel cleansed? Nah. You’ll still need a shower like I did after seeing it. But it’ll be the most pleasant shower you’ve ever had.
Cast & credits
Director: Alexandre Aja. 1hr 43 mins. (103mins).Dune Entertainment/Major Studio Partners. (18)
Producers: Wes Craven, Peter Locke, Marianne Maddalene, Cody Zwieg.
Writers: Alexandre Aja, Grégory Levasseur.
Camera: Maxime Alexandre.
Music: Tom and Andy.
Sets: Joseph C. Nemec III.
Aaron Stanford, Dan Byrd, Emilie de Ravin, Ted Levine, Kathleen Quinlan, Vinessa Shaw, Robert Joy, Laura Ortiz, Tom Bower, Michael Bailey Smith, Billy Dragi, Ezra Buzzington, Gred Nicotero, Desmond Askew.