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The original The Hills Have Eyes (1977) is not among my favorite Wes Craven films, but it certainly is an enjoyable, and now a touch nostalgic, survivalist horror that pitted a vacationing family against a clan of mutant cannibals in the middle of the desert. This remake basically follows the same story, but with a larger budget and cranking the intensity and brutality up to 11 by handing the writing/directing reigns to Haute Tension writer/director Alexandre Aja.

The screenplay is credited to Aja and frequent collaborator Grégory Levasseur, but it follows Craven’s original film very closely except it focuses heavier on the vicious clan being the genetic mutation result of atomic testing decades earlier and obviously, cranks up the violence and intensity which is Aja’s style. The story still follows the family of ex-cop Bob Carter (Ted Levine) who is heading out to California with his wife Ethel (Kathleen Quinlan), daughters Lynn (Vinessa Shaw) and Brenda (Emilie de Ravin), son Bobby (Dan Byrd), Lynn’s meek husband Doug (Aaron Stanford) and their infant daughter (Maisie Camilleri Preziosi). They are led astray by a gas station attendant (Tom Bower) who, unbeknownst to them, is in league with a vicious clan of cannibalistic mutants led by patriarch Jupiter (Billy Drago). Soon they find themselves stranded and their car disabled and under attack by a hungry and brutal clan that wants them all for dinner. Will this family perish in the middle of nowhere, or will they find it within themselves to meet brutal violence with brutal violence?

We all know the answer to that question and Alexandre Aja has a gory, brutal blast not only putting this average American family through a vicious ringer, but administering payback with equally violent, blood-spattering efficiency. The film is far more intense than the moderately placed original and it’s larger budget enables it to really crank up the gruesome carnage which reaches a fever pitch in the blood soaked last act. The effects by K.N.B. Effects are very well executed and now the cannibalistic clan look far more like the mutant creatures they are than the original ‘dirty hobo’ look of the 1977 version. The Craven film had some violent moments, but Aja plays it very hard-core and his backwoods mutants are far more threatening and the carnage on both sides far more graphic and with more impact. This film is a really rough ride and has a far darker edge than the original, which was quite brutal in it’s own right back in it’s time, but also had some unsettling humorous moments as well. Aja’s visual eye combined with Maxime Alexandre cinematography give the film a gritty and grungy look that serves to make one uncomfortable even when nothing is going on and when you add in the pulse pounding score from Tomandandy and François-Eudes Chanfrault, you have one intense and brutal 106 minutes that expands and improves on an original that is, in itself, considered a cult classic.

The cast all do well and play their parts very effectively from Levine’s macho ex-cop to Stanford’s mild mannered yuppie phone salesman, who slowly transforms into a man who will do anything to protect his own. Ravin and Byrd also gives strong performances as the frightened teen siblings who find not only the will to survive, but the ability to kill to do so. Drago and company all give us some truly frightening and detestable villains though, none really stand out and make an impression like fan legend Michael Berryman did in the original film that made him a horror icon. Overall, a good cast with solid performances that help add to the film’s effectiveness.

I really like this movie, if ‘like’ is the proper word to use in reference to such a brutally intense blood-bath that Aja transforms Craven’s original film into. It’s got some nail-biting action, some really intense gore, and characters that we like enough to not want to see harmed…and some we want to see get it real good! It’s one of the few remakes that improves upon the original and stands on it’s own as a horror achievement. A really good and really brutally effective horror that honors the original film it’s based on, yet makes it’s own statement. A really good horror.

3 and 1/2 axes.

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