Alxendre Aja’s previous film HAUTE TENSION was a brutal, shocking slasher that twisted your nerves and burrowed into your mind so perfectly it was all the more shocking when the “twist” that came at the end completely derailed the movie. To have so much promise completely thrown away in favor of the slick and now-formulaic shock ending was as devastating as anything in the film. So I was cautious when I heard his next project was an adaptation of Wes Craven’s THE HILLS HAVE EYES – a film I never liked, but thought could work done the right way – provided Aja didn’t fall into the same trap as last time.
Good news. While I still have some issues with the ending, none of it has to do with any trick ending, and the rest of the film is exactly what you want from both a modern horror film as well as a successful adaptation – ghastly shocks and disturbing images, protagonists you invest some feeling for, and buckets of good old fashioned R-rated blood: something missing from the glut of PG-13 fare passing itself off as “horror” at the multiplex nowadays.
The setup is pretty well-known by now: typical Hollywood family (overbearing Dad, Fragile Mom, Good Daughter with Husband and Baby in tow, bratty younger brother and sister to complete all age demographics) are traveling through the desert on their way to San Diego. They stop at seedy evil Gas Station, where they are told that they can save time by taking a “short cut” through the hills (NEVER TAKE THE SHORT CUT!!). Horrible mutant cannibals descend upon the hapless family and proceed to engage in unspeakable acts.
It’s a tired premise, used in different variations since the original premiered in 1977. But Aja takes the premise and turns it on its head, marrying the brutality of the images with a great soundtrack utilizing traditional instruments and eerie sound effects. As terrifying the mutant's initial assault on the trailer, it's all the more frightening when you hear the sound of the nuclear alarm sirens acting as the backbeat to the terror. Aja rarely descends into MTV-style editing - the images roll and pause for maximum effect at key moments. The trailer assault contains one of the cruelest images I've ever seen in a "mainstream" Hollywood horror film. And from there it only gets worse, as the family members still alive fight not only for their lives but against allowing their actions to transform them into the very monsters they're up against.
Some succeed. Some don't.
Okay - about the ending. Nothing too horrible. THE HILLS HAVE EYES falls into the same trap many other recent films succumbed to: Multiple Ending Syndrome. Ending #1: I would have been fine having the film end with Ruby giving Doug his baby back. Ending #2: I would even have been okay with the trite "killer gets up for one last attempt" gag. Ending #3: Even though it gets a bit much, I still would have been okay with the shock of seeing the last cannibal (played to hilarious effect by Billy Drago) popped in the head by the now-crazed daughter (in fact, I loved that part). Ending #4: But it gets too much when the last scene of the movie is sooo obvious you're already waiting for the pull back to see, surprise! They're still NOT ALONE!!!