Repulsive. That needs to be the first word of this review of “The Hills Have Eyes," because “suspenseful" and “well-made" are coming up, too.
Extremely graphic and profoundly upsetting, “The Hills Have Eyes" is also a movie that has something on its mind, a movie that would be not be out of place on a very nasty double bill with “Cache." In between scenes of brutal violence and sick suspense, “The Hills Have Eyes" is - like “Cache" (which I hasten to add is a better, smarter film) - interested in the long-term, irreversible effects of bad government decisions.
In this case, it's nuclear testing that resulted in a bunch of mutated, cannibal humans who feast on a family that pulls into their deserted corner of the desert. Unlike, say, “Hostel" or the “Saw" movies, “The Hills Have Eyes" doesn't even give us the easy out of nasty victims who, it could be argued, semi-deserve their fate. These are nice, average people who love their dogs and pray before dinner, and the fates they meet are sadistic and bloody.
If sadism were all the movie had to offer, there would be nothing to distinguish it from director Alexandre Aja's previous movie, the worthless “High Tension." But “The Hills Have Eyes," a remake of a 30-year-old shocker, is concerned with the impact of violence. It shows how grief-stricken the survivors are, and it's interested in where violent impulses come from.
Beginning with an opening-credits montage that includes images of the effects of Agent Orange, “Hills" establishes that these bloodthirsty mutants were created by government negligence, and they're happy to repay the negligence (once the movie gives a nod to Vietnam and shows us a corpse with a flag planted in its forehead, it's no stretch to include Nagasaki and other horrors in the equation).
That may seem like a lot for one movie to get ahold of, especially since there's also an appearance by the little red girl from “Schindler's List," and it's true that “Hills" doesn't quite harness all those ideas into a coherent whole. But if you can get beyond the mayhem to think about what the movie is trying to do, there's no denying it gets one point across: Violence is random and horrifying, and it doesn't make sense.
'THE HILLS HAVE EYES' 3 STARS
Starring: Ted Levine
Directed by: Alexandre Aja
Rated: R (gruesome violence and strong language)
Running time: 107 min.
Playing in: Missoula (Village 6), Kalispell (Gateway), Hamilton (Pharaohplex)