Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Eyeing them there Hills

So I got the HILLS HAVE EYES remake for my Birthday about 2 weeks ago. It's fascinating... the film I mean, not so much the day I was born. It's one of about 3 remakes I can stand to watch for more than 3 minutes at a time, and in some ways it's one of those oh-so rare remakes that, at least in some ways, ends up being far better than the original.

Let me start off by saying that I love 70's horror films. I love The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, I wank to A Lizard in a Woman's Skin with both hands, and if anybody ever lost my copy of The Evil Dead - very much a 70's horror film despite it's 1981 copywrite - I would have to beat them to death with a frozen leg of lamb. Often these films were badly shot, badly acted, badly edited... and, well, they're just bad. By all rights nobody should love them, and unlike the older creepy dudes at horror conventions I don't have any nostalgia having seen them at a grindhouse as a child. What I love about 70's horror, at least I think, is that I like seeing how the genre evolved over the decade; how it abandoned the "safe" gothic era of Universal Monsters and began to be filled with realistic horrors like serial killers and animals gone haywire. Not all 70's horror films were good, and for every 1 that was awesome there were a half-dozen immitators that weren't worth their weight in the celluloid they were shot on... but the "gems" of the era have survived thanks to the magic of DVD. If it was good (or at least infamous), and if there's so much as a crummy VHS print left in the world, somebody's released it on a 5" disk somewhere in the world.

THE HILLS HAVE EYES is one such film. For those of you who haven't seen it... well, shame on you. Reading my blog and not having done your homework. It's pretty basic; the All American Whitebread Family is driving cross-cuntry (giggity!) to Californ-i-a, and along the way their car breaks down. They split up and seek help, about the same time one of the two family dogs are killed. After nightfall, when Big Bob hasn't returned, the family is one by one attacked, raped, kidnapped of killed by a pack of ruthless inbred mutants who live in the desert hills. The once nice down to earth family has to shed their decencey and morals if they want their baby back, and in the process they become just as brutal as the people that ruined their lives...

Released in 1977, and the second film by now legendary director Wes Craven, THE HILLS HAVE EYES helped along with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to create a new breed of horror in which a van full of innocent people would run in to blood thirsty maniacs and need to do everything in their power to survive. It seems incredibly cliche` by now, but back when Hills was scary shit. Films in which innocent people were preyed upon and then got their just deserts were also pioneered in Craven's earlier (and somewhat lesseffective) THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, a film which in turn was a modern day remake of THE VIRGIN SPRING (Jungfrukallan), which in turn was a sonnet about a girl who was raped and killed and the vengance her parents visited upon them when they ended up spending the night in their house. While Last House on the Left was the first film to get the gut reaction the evolution of 70's horror was known for - I've heard stories of people storming the projection rooms and roiting in the theatres - it wasn't a particularly GOOD movie. It gets the job done, but it's not all that sleazy anymore. Even uncut the film lacks the gut punch it's infamy may leave people to hope for, and when I originally saw a heavily cut version I was less than impressed... the uncut version of HOUSE is somewhat better, and the ironic Charles Manson inspired tunes as sung by the villain, David Hess, are some of the best scenes in the genre... but the problem that Last House on the Left is just a very amateurish and experimental film don't make it any more disturbing. Just frustrating.

Forget HOUSE's failings though, because HILLS got it more or less right. While the film has flaws - the acting isn't always convincing, and some of the practical effects and and death scenes have a bit of a "theatre" vibe to them (if you follow me) - the film is regardlessly a lot better made, and lacks long goofy scenes of fat cops riding on chicken trucks that sort of kills any chance the film has of being taken seriously. For one thing, Hills has none other than Michael Berryman who plays the freaky sunovabitch Pluto, the poster boy who's natural deformities make him one of the scariest looking men on the planet. He seems very inelligent and sweet in interviews, which is reassuring... but damn does he make an awesome inbred simpleton who just wants to eat and fuck. The film is also aided greatly by James Withwirth who plays Jupiter, the inbred clan's father and leader. While not as visually stunning as Berryman, his prowess as a commanding actos outshine almost everything, leaving a mean spirrited and bitter (but not quite heartless) monster who's roaring voice and leering face make you forget that the nose proethstetic he's wearing looks phony as hell. And therein lies where the original HILLS excells; it doesn't matter quite how "convincing" the film is. It isn't real, and you won't be fooled for a second in to thinking otherwose. But you can still take it seriously at pretty much every level. Particularly it's subtext.

Ah, the subtext. Here's where I get back to the remake. I sincerely believe that every director has something to say in his film... wither he realizes it consciously or not. I don't like to throw the word pretentious around, because that's hardly fair. Making a movie (or writing a book or singing a song or whatever) isn't easy, and short of being a strictly commercial artist, you need to have some reason for making it. Even directors who admit their films were made solely for profit often leave very interesting and subtle touches that they themselves didn't even realize, or perhaps didn't intend. Every story has to exist for a reason, and more often than not it's to prove a point, or look at a subject that fascinates the storyteller. In the case of Wes Craven, no subject seems to fascinate him quite like family. In HILLS, we meet a sweet natured, well rounded, and not quite perfect family on a communal trip. We don't know that bad things are going on for a good half hour, and the siege on the family trailer isn't until 45 minutes in. Where a lot of modern horror films have decided "people yell when they're upset - let's make all the characters assholes so when they die, you want to see it!" Wes did his best to make the characters likable and more than one dimensional. It's because of the fact that we like the Carter family that once Mars and Pluto and Jupiter start fucking things up, we care... but that family isn't the only one we care about.

Certainly it's harder to feel sympathy for Papa Jupe's clan of inbred cannibalistic freaks. Jupiter tries to rape Brenda, but not because he's a filthy hateful bastard; he does it because he wants to feel superior to his big brother Mars who not only has done it before, but also teases his brother for his virginity. Ruby is pretty easy to like, an almost adorable feral girl who's paternal instincts and distrust for their stagnant lifestyle makes her try to leave her family a few times. And once more, we have Papa Jupe, a bitter and distrusting soul who's hatred for the world that scorned him for his appearance and personality has made him want to strike back at the comfortable middle class existance he can never have. Holding aside cannibalism and murder, it's not really a stretch to see this family as a strugging lower-class family living in a trailer park who are bitter towards the white collar worker's who's lives seem so much better from afar. Perhaps most important in liking (or at least understanding) the family in HILLS comes from the scene in which they feast on Big Bob's limbs and Jupiter screams at his charred head. Not for the dialogue so much, but for the clapping and adoration, followed by nervousness and fear in the murderous Mars for his daddy. The morals of these two families may differ, but they really aren't so different. Man is a creature that needs to be around himself to be happy. To exist. The inbred cannibals in HILLS aren't a "good" family in the way that the Carter family is, but they're a family none the less, and they care for each other and do what they can to survive. It's this realization that makes the final scene (Spoiler alert!) in which Doug stabs Mars to death (done...) all the more important: the Hill family HAS to kill to survive. The Carter family did the same thing when their own survival was on the line.

The subtext of family and the lack of communication (something I didn't cover in detail... but seriously, if Bobby had said something about Beauty being gutted like a thanks giving turkey, maybe they'd have been okay. Maybe.) is where the remake differs totally, and why it fascinates me so. Most remakes are made for the sole purpose of generating money with both a name brand and a tried and true formula, and in a sense this film is no different. But it's also not only produced by Wes Craven and Peter Loche (the producer of the 1977 version), but it was also directed by Alexandre Aja, who made a hell of a name for himself with the 2003 French "oldschool" horror film HAUTE TENSION - a film which, shitty twist ending aside, is easily the best horror film of the last 5 years alongside his own version of HILLS and the stunning British production THE DESCENT from last year. (The SAW franchise and HOSTEL are both good fun, but they have their own deep flaws I may bitch about at a later date.) While - ending aside - Haute Tension was an amazing piece of cinema, HILLS 2006 was his first "Hollywood" film... and that comes with it's own baggage, both good and bad for a genre director. Aja's film adds some new twists and story elements that weren't at all present in Craven's '77 original, but the actual story is unchanged in virtually every way. So in short it's a remake that's done right; it's a film that takes the exact same story but adds enough of it's own twists that it's simply not the exact same film over again. (The PSYCHO remake remains the most painful waste of effort I've ever layed eyes on... and no, I can' stand the TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE or DAWN OF THE DEAD remakes either, even if they're worlds above the general competition.)

The remake once more features the Carter family being stuck in the desert by bad directions, and has the family attached by a bunch of freaky inbred creeps living in the desert. The difference now is that they've been upgraded to post-nuclear fallout mutants who's extreme deformities and hatred for the American Dream are even more justified than the mean spirited loners in the original. It also takes the action from a small cave and the desert plains and puts it in miner's tunnels and a town in the middle of nowhere that hasn't been touched since the 1950's save by the smelly deformed freaks living therein. It's a fascinating take on the same story, and for once justified remaking the story for a new generation. Rednecks aren't scary anymore. "Squeal like a piggy" is a big a joke to Generation Y and on as "here's Johnny!", but tell me getting raped by Chunk from THE GOONIES isn't the stuff that fever induced screaming and cold sweat nightmares aren't made of.

The most important aspect of these fallout mutants is the society they exist in. Gone is the ideal that they're a loving but dysfunctional family. Now they're a badly organized pack of seemingly super powered monsters who strike back at The Man out of misguided malice. The Carter family didn't have shit to do with bombing them and taking away their homes, but they will suffer as scapegoat anyway. The all will suffer for the few responsible. It's a misguided, but understandable rage... and it's one that I can't liken to anything better than the terrorist attack of September 11th, 2001.

Really, think about if for a minute. We have an American family, innocent and unaware of everything going on behind the scenes. They wind up in the wrong place at the wrong time and their entire lives are shattered in a few minutes by filthy, desert dwelling people who hate them for something they didn't even do. If you need any further proof, just look at the scene in which (Spoiler time!) Doug takes an American flag out of Big Bob's mutilated head and then pierce's Pluto's throat with it. If this isn't American patriotism at it's most basic level - short of blowing shit up with fireworks made in China - I don't know what is. Not to say that other countries don't do the same dilluted self-servicing flag waving... it's just that Americans are so good at it. It's brougth full circle once Aja's Doug fights with Lizard. Whereas Craven's confrontation was a sudden fit of rage that ended with Doug starring at a man he just killed in shock and disgust, Aja's doug has no trouble blowing the living hell out of Lizard, the man that raped his sister in law and kidnapped his baby daughter. Craven's Doug killed because he needed to and regreted it. Aja's became just as brutal as his "enemies" and didn't for a second look back. Granted, the poor bastard was pretty out of it too. Craven's film was a film about family. Aja's film is a family about strangers who only know that they want each other dead. It's hard to be mad at Aja's Doug for doing to them what they did to his family, but it's equally interesting seeing a French director create a film with such overtly right-wing American overtones.

A frenchman who agrees with invading Afghanistan... now I really think I HAVE seen everything.

Political subtext aside, the new HILLS is also full of great camerawork, massive creepy locations, cringe inducing hyper-realistic gore, and a possibility for a sequel which wouldn't suck nearly as bad as Craven's HILLS HAVE EYES 2. It's not a perfect film; if anything it's strict adherance to the original is what hurts it from being it's own unique beast. Sure, Papa Jupe is still there... but in name only. (For that matter, what's so mutated about Billy Drago? He looks like a strung out Rob Zombie to me...) And while it's good to see that Aja takes Jupe out in the same way Craven did, it doesn't fit with the new versions of Bobby and Brenda nearly as well as it did in the original. It's also a twist that smells of BS... but this is true in both films, and I guess I'm happy Aja's kept the bullshit and stayed faithful to the source material rather than making up his own. It's also a bit harder to swallow that an entire TOWN of mutant cannibal hillbillies could exist in this day and age. For god sakes, Area 51 is -still- protected by armed guards, do you think the US Government would not only not know they existed, but let them kill off travelers and not say a word about it? Then again, if a college kid can send an eMail to an airport SAYING he's smuggling weapons and not get caught 'till 2 weeks after he did it with "beefed up security" in effect maybe America's just too comfortable with it's illusions of control and safety.

So, what does Cannibal Apocalypse mean under it's exterior of gore and bad dubbing? What is Angel's Egg getting at? Does Massacre in Dinosaur Valley have any deep seated moral to teach us?

The answers are; Italians like cheesy action movies, not a friggin' clue, and...no. Just, no.