Disgusting Desert

Nuclear mutants provide great scares and extreme gore in 'The Hills Have Eyes'

Oh my. We have entered a phase when horror films are getting sicker. I addressed this fact a couple of months ago with Hostel, a frightening torture film that didn't pull punches as it sought to make the viewer as uncomfortable as possible. I had been complaining the last couple of years about how the PG-13 horror-lite movies were pissing me off, because they offered soft-toss scares and minimal gore.

With this latest crop of terror features, those of us who have been whining about wimpy horror films are getting payback with a vengeance.

The latest in the slew of horror-torture movies is a remake of Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes. It's everything a horror film should be and more, with monsters, heads blowing apart, various weapons of appendage destruction and sweet revenge--all wrapped up in a vile and somehow entertaining package. It's the best mainstream horror film since that other successful remake, 2004's Dawn of the Dead.

A family on a long trek in a big trailer decides to take a route through the desert--the Nevada desert where hundreds of nuclear tests took place in the '50s and '60s. The family, led by Big Bob (Ted "It puts the lotion on its skin" Levine) stops at a dilapidated gas station with a toothless owner (never a good sign) who tells them of a shortcut that will chop a couple of hours off the travel time.

This is a horror movie, so the driver will heed the toothless guy's advice and take his family into unknown territory. Kathleen Quinlan plays the mother of the clan, another bad sign, because she starred in Breakdown with Kurt Russell, which also involved a broken-down vehicle and terror in the desert. What happens to her here makes the prior picture's terror look like a desert rave with your favorite soft drinks in comparison.

A wreck leads to the clan's two patriarchs (Bob and Doug, his son-in-law, played by Aaron Stanford) heading off in separate directions to find help, leaving two wives, two daughters (one being an infant), a young son and two German shepherds vulnerable. Before long, they are visited by nuclear-fallout mutants who look an awful lot like Chunk from The Goonies, but they don't want candy bars. They wreak major havoc, resulting in a body count and the kidnapping of the baby. The film then goes into revenge mode, as Doug will stop at nothing to save his daughter.

Director Alexandre Aja showed a knack for terror with last year's High Tension, a film that sabotaged itself with a ridiculous twist ending. He doesn't have that problem here, because Hills is solid from start to finish. I loved his usage of a leftover fake town (built by the military to see how it would withstand a nuclear blast before testing halted), replete with smiling, rotting mannequins sitting on living-room couches waiting for the firestorm that will never come. It's a terrific visual.

The makeup work, including the mutant costumes and requisite gore, is first-rate. Films like this can be derailed by one silly looking makeup job or bloodletting that looks fake (especially the digital stuff), but Hills takes a welcomed, old-school approach that gives the relatively low-budget affair a sleek look of professionalism. These folks know what they are doing.

The performances are good. Emilie de Ravin of TV's Lost screams with the best of them, and given what her character must endure, screaming with aptitude is a must. Stanford (X-Men's Pyro!) makes for a convincing "everyman" type hero. He gets the film's best "kills" when he goes on a bloody rampage during the finale.

Some might bristle at the notion of praising such a disgusting movie, and disgusting it is. One of the hardest things to do in film is legitimately scare people. The Hills Have Eyes achieves this many times during its 107 minutes, and it gets high marks for that.

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