There’s a paper to be written, I’d imagine, on just when this anti-rural sentiment grabbed hold of the zeitgeist and started to dominate the horror film landscape. My money is on the 70’s, which saw the release of the original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the original The Hills Have Eyes, and of course John Boorman’s Deliverance. The modern horror genre is expansive, but the theme has come to command an oddly large percentage of the output, with both Chainsaw and The Hills Have Eyes getting high-profile remakes, and wild cards like Wrong Turn, Wolf Creek and The Devil’s Rejects added to the library of the-hicks-are-coming-for-you entertainments. Sometimes the villains are hideously inbred; sometimes they are run-of-the-mill psychos; sometimes, as here, they are mutants. But the message is always the same: don’t venture off the highway.
Another hallmark of some recent horror is nihilism. For many filmmakers, I think, it’s an easy way of earning street cred and respect from fans of the genre: unrelenting darkness and hopelessness is seen — sometimes correctly, sometimes not — as uncompromising and tough. Anything resembling a happy ending is seen as a cop-out; the higher the body count, percentage-wise, the farther one has “pushed the envelope”; the nastier the villain, the more “hardcore” the film.
By taking some tentative steps toward bucking the latter trend, director Alexandre Aja is also able to subtly subvert the former. Though after a mere two films, Aja has already earned himself the reputation of being one of the grisliest directors on the market (Haute Tension had an NC-17 cut floating around for a while before Lions Gate wimped out and cut it to an R; this film also had to be trimmed before the MPAA would give it a pass), he’s no nihilist, and his main concern is not to lower you into a pit of gloom. And though I believe that the original cut of The Hills Have Eyes earned every bit of its NC-17 rating, there is room for heroism in this movie, for intelligence, for goodness. The protagonists put a few in the win column.
And because of this, it gets kind of interesting. The rugged outdoorsman type who insisted on driving through the desert and is eager to take a shortcut through the hills, the type who voted for Bush and is proud as all get-out of his renovated Airstream trailer and his really, really big gun, is the first to be dispatched, though not until something startles him and he starts shooting blindly into the darkness. Meanwhile, the character who is established as a sissy city boy — a Democrat, no less, played by Aaron Stanford — is the one who winds up going medieval on some mutants, getting most of the triumphant climax all to himself. Maybe the great outdoors isn’t so scary for sheltered urbanites after all. Also, just before attacking one of the good guys with something resembling a sledge hammer, a mutant sits watching Divorce Court.
Meanwhile, Aja does a nice job of doing the things that horror directors do, and even playing a few nifty tricks like sporadically and momentarily tinting the picture red when our heroes get themselves stranded in the desert but before the terror starts. I liked how the soundtrack uses a bass line instead of relying on orchestral cues; it’s creepy, and it’s right for the setting. I liked, too, the way Aja mixes in a good deal of daylight horror along with the predictable use of darkness to generate suspense.
It’s also helpful to have protagonists who resemble human beings; I was particularly fond of Bobby (Dan Byrd), a bright teenager whose reaction to the mayhem rang true to me as a depiction of what happens when withering sarcasm ceases to work as a defense mechanism. There’s some other interesting stuff, including an anti-government streak that may or may not be to your fancy, and what I swear is an Exposition Mutant.
The Hills Have Eyes is a good film, mostly but not entirely in the current horror mold, suspenseful and skillfully made. Genre enthusiasts will be pleased and others might be mildly freaked out to the further delight of the genre enthusiasts. Everyone’s happy.