“Oh fuck yeah!” – that was my response several times during my initial viewing of this film. I know what many of you are thinking, “remake, ugh!” Drop the misconceptions, people! Let’s start fresh. This is produced by Wes Craven, who directed the original The Hills Have Eyes among other horror classics like A Nightmare On Elm Street & Scream. The director is Alexandre Aja, director of High Tension. And to be plainly straight forward, this movie is a brutal piledriver of terror and madness. This is, by far, the most intense horror film I have seen in years. A few years prior, I felt that Marcus Nispel’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake was the truest horror film in years – this movie beats the living hell out of it. What you see in the opening moments of this film is absolutely NOTHING compared to what’s waiting for you later on.
This journey into a desolate landscape of hell starts with a family taking the long way to San Diego, California. The father / former police detective Bob Carter (Ted Levine) is a bold man with a penchant for guns. His wife, Ethel Carter (Kathleen Quinlan) is somewhat of a religious woman, despite being quite the 60s hippie in her youth. Doug Bukowski (Aaron Stanford) is married to their oldest daughter Lynne (Vinessa Shaw), and together, they have a newborn baby named Catherine. There’s also the other daughter, Brenda Carter (Emilie de Ravin) who’d rather be in Cancun than traveling through the hot, dry desert. Finally, there’s the son Bobby (Dan Byrd) who spends a lot of time chasing down the family dogs -Beauty and Beast. After stopping to refuel at the only gas station within 200 miles, the attendant gives them a “shortcut” back to the highway. Big Bob has no qualms about taking a dirt road detour, but that’s where things go wrong….very wrong. After a tire blowout, their SUV is totaled, and they are stranded. Attempts to find help are futile as this family is being watched from the hills of the New Mexico desert. These predators are inhuman results of nuclear testing done by the U.S. government in this very same desert from 1945-1962. They are savage mutants that feed off anything they can find – especially other human beings. The carnage, insanity, and stomach-churning bloodlust that ensues will leave only few survivors. The lucky ones die first.
This movie is a brutal masterpiece of racked up tension, grizzly gore, and relentless horror. Aja has delivered, in my purely honest opinion, one of the most bad ass horror flicks I’ve seen in my entire life. There isn’t any particularly new twists to this story, it’s mainly the same as the original, but Aja executes a vision that only a rare few will ever match. As of late, horror film directors have attempted to push the boundaries of intense, cringe-inducing horror, but I don’t believe anyone has proven to be more effective or successful at it than Alexandre Aja. There is such power and visceral intensity here that it had a hardened horror fanatic in me jumping, cringing, and tingling in my seat. Aja so quickly established himself as a modern master of horror. A lot of other horror directors get a lot of hype built up around them, but their films continually fail to live up to it – Aja proves to be the genuine article here. By chance, I will use Rob Zombie as a perfect example. Zombie has done a lot to build hype for his own movies, promising just how far he’s pushing the envelope with them, and how grossly disturbing they will be. Unfortunately, despite some disturbing moments and such at times, Zombie’s movies fail to strike the correct chords or craft a powerful atmosphere with a coherent storyline. What makes Alexandre Aja different from Rob Zombie is vision, pure and simple. Aja knows how to create and rack-up the suspense and tension in a film. He knows how to vilify a group of savages, and how to elicit certain emotions from an audience. Some people have the talent, the natural gift for such filmmaking. Aja clearly and undoubtedly has it. Some other directors seem to require further practice to get even close to that skill level. Simply put, you don’t need hype when you’ve got the talent because it speaks for itself.
Now, while we don’t get a massive helping of these radioactively mutated cannibals (which can be a good thing), every time we do see them, they make a frightening impact. The most is made of their screen time, and it is not forgettable in the least. From their first attack scene, they catapult the film to a completely different level, and the tension and madness just continue to climb from there. These cannibals only become more feral, more animalistic as the film moves forward. The makeup work by KNB EFX Group is amazing, disturbing, and overall realistic. Their work here is worthy of major awards. I couldn’t imagine how many actors were unrecognizeably transformed by KNB’s complex and intricate makeup designs. You may know Desmond Askew from Doug Liman’s Go as the somewhat charming British fumbler Simon, but here, there’s no way you’d even know he was in the film without reading the credits. Michael Bailey Smith takes over the iconic Michael Berryman’s role of Pluto, and he is no stranger to complex makeup work. In his first role, he was Super Freddy in A Nightmare On Elm Street 5: The Dream Child, and later portrayed (among other creatures) Julian McMahon’s demon alter-ego of Belthazor on Charmed. Smith is really only 6’4″, but through whatever means, he seems even larger in this film. Smith appears monstrous, towering over everyone else on screen. He’s an intimidating physical force that makes the most frightening impact here.
Billy Drago (also a Charmed alumnus as the demon of fear Barbas) portrays the cannibals’ leader Jupiter, and despite his brief screen time, does an extremely sick job. This entire movie is filled with sick moments, sick villains, and sickening imagery. And man, is it great! Drago’s a great actor, and his work in The Hills Have Eyes is very ferocious. The same can be said of Robert Joy’s Lizard who teams with Smith’s Pluto in the most shocking scene of the film where the two mothers are assaulted inside the trailer – resulting in gruesome and dire situations. The rest of the mutated cannibals are just as vicious, creepy, and/or crazed as the main ones. They all make the film all the more disturbing, and all for the better. Tom Bower also has a unique and interesting part as the gas station attendant which he pulls off with a bit of slyness, sleaze, and desperation.
The “human” cast, as it were, are great. Enough time is given at the forefront of the film to flesh this family out, and allows us to relate to them. They are real people, very human, and when this murderous band of inhuman maniacs befall them, the shocking moments never stop. They are such a shock because we are so used to filmmakers pulling their punches for so many years, but this time, the punches connect – HARD! Aja does not hesitate to bludgeon us with the brutal realism that this film deserves. We crave it, and we get it in spades. Still, you may not be ready for this level of intensity, and that’s just exactly the idea. This cast is much more endearing in their own ways than some slasher film victims are, but this is much more intense than any slasher film I have ever seen. The one cast member who deserves praise more than any other is Aaron Stanford portraying Doug Bukowski. He starts out as the kind of person who would appear to be least likely to endure such horrific events, but Stanford evolves the character to the point where you believe in him fully – everyone in my packed theatre was rooting for him like MAD! He does an absolutely incredible job here, definitely a performance that should get him well recognized. Speaking of which, I didn’t even recognize him as Pyro from X-Men 2. He appears to have grown up quite a bit since making that film, and all in all, he appears to have great potential for the rest of his career.
Ted Levine, as the father “Big” Bob Carter, does an excellent job as well. Despite being somewhat of a jackass at first, I got to liking him more and more as things went on, and he has a fine night scene back at the gas station that Aja crafted beautifully. Even those who are supposedly “the lucky ones” by dying first put in strong performances that last. They stuck in my mind, and their fear only enhanced my own. Dan Byrd (‘Salem’s Lot) as the son Bobby Carter delivers a concrete performance filled with strength, immense fear, and powerful grief. A great piece of work by this twenty year old actor. On a further note, all the female actors here are down right AMAZING! I’ve never seen such genuine morbid fear captured on film!
And goddamn, how great was this score? Talking about tying your nerves up in knots, and then, shooting them apart! Tomandandy (aka Tom Hajdu & Andy Milburn) composed a score that demonstrates perfectly how valuable a score is to a horror film! I actually enjoyed the few brief heavy guitar bits, but the meat n’ potatoes here are in the gut-wrenching moments of suspense that explode in an instant. Just another masterful stroke on the canvas of this amazing motion picture.
Furthermore, the cinematography here by Maxime Alexandre is fantastic. Never has there been so much scope of so much nothingness. Working with this desolate landscape, there’s such a vast wasteland to capture and utilize. The massive scope used in key moments illustrates how very isolated our protagonists are from everything. The highly revealing shot in the crater scene is a perfect example. There’s not another decent human soul to be found for what seems like eternity. Even if you were to run away, there’s nowhere to go, nowhere to truly hide. It becomes a game of kill or be killed because of this. It’s also made clearly evident that cellular phone reception (as one would imagine) is completely non-existent out in the middle of nowhere. Maxime Alexandre also provides great cinematography when the physical intensity kicks in, and the editing allows for Alexandre’s photography to be appreciated instead of flashed across the screen in a nanosecond like many films do in this age of filmmaking.
Overall, the editing is very well paced and consistent, the cinematography is beautiful and striking, the score is an excellent composition that enhances every single moment of every single scene, the performances are as strong as steel while others are as powerful as a sledgehammer to the face, and finally, the direction is tight, taut, unflinching, and immensely masterful. Aja delivers a full-on balls to the wall horror film that aims to please, and for a great many, it truly has done that. My god, how long had it been since we were graced with a certifiable classic horror film on our hands? Been way too damn long. Alexandre Aja is definitely here to stay to scare the living crap out of us, and I can’t wait to see what he has in store for us next.