Thursday, March 23, 2006


The ending of High Tension is indefensible - it's ill-concieved, awkward, and completely unbelievable. However, I disagree with the common opinion that it makes the film more conventional. If anything, I can forgive the ending because it steers the film into very muddy waters; it's either totally homophobic or perversely open-minded, and I'm honestly more inclined to defend the latter. Simply put, Alexandre Aja is a sick, sick man. For me, this compounds rather than detracts from his films; the untrustworthiness of the director adds to the already unsettling atmosphere.

The Hills Have Eyes, Aja's current remake of Wes Craven's 1977 grindhouse pic, represents a major step forward for the director; arch plot twists are abandoned in favor of pure, grisly atmosphere and momentum. Admittedly, after a great opening and credits sequence, Hills takes a while to find its footing. As in Craven's film, the story follows an extended family travelling across the southwest. At the center are burly Bob Carter (Ted Levine) and his son-in-law, cellphone salesman Doug Bukowski (Aaron Stanford). Bob's a man's man who likes to taunt Doug for being a liberal, though both men see eye-to-eye in their casual disregard for their wives (Kathleen Quinlan and Vinessa Shaw, respectively). The car breaks down on an isolated road, and the Carters are soon attacked by...well, you've seen the ads. Enough PR; its about vengeful mutants. Oh boy, is it ever.

Aja recreates the greatest strength of Craven's film, the sun-drenched locations that become oppressively dark at night. The film takes its time with character development, with mixed results; these characters aren't totally interchangable mutant bait, but they are a bit familiar. The exception is Doug, who in the second half is thrown into Straw Dogs territory. Aja knows exactly how to push our buttons here; one particular bit with an American flag is an instant classic, as we laugh at the moment, laugh at ourselves for possessing such hypocritical bloodlust, and then laughing at Aja for his sheer audacity. That same audacity also pays off in the nightmarish recreation of the original's trailer invasion scene - the same things happen in both films, but the brilliant execution here elevates the sequence to one of pure dread. A handful of shots scream "Look, I'm clever!", but Aja should eventually outgrow that (so did Peter Jackson and Sam Raimi); if anything, The Hills Have Eyes is an indication that his best work is still to come.

It's a well-worn observation that remakes are taking over Hollywood; I find them neither inherently bad nor good. If a filmmaker has a genuinely unique vision for revisiting a classic, than the results can be exciting (Dawn of the Dead, War of the Worlds, King Kong); if it's strictly a profit deal, than it's probably a drag (The Fog, The Stepford Wives). While it's not quite a grand slam, I'd place The Hills Have Eyes in the former category. From its weird, wonderful score by Tomandandy (at points reminiscent of Toto's music for Dune) to its sick joke of a final shot, The Hills Have Eyes is genuinely unsettling at a time when most horror films settle for startling (or less). It also tries for subtext, and while it's no A History of Violence, it does manage to make a few salient points. Aja is, simply put, the best horror director today, a skilled sociopath with a genuiune love for 70's horror and an awareness that the foggy sociopolitical climate that birthed the original grindhouse films is back with a vengeance today.

Also, bonus points for Billy Drago.

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