Monday, October 30, 2006

Movies: How I stopped worrying and learned to love the bomb . . . and the taste of human flesh.

I did not have high hopes for the remake of The Hills Have Eyes released earlier this year. The original, while fun, was not a particular favorite of mine. Perhaps more importantly, it wasn't the sort of film I thought would be improved through the simple addition of more gore and slime – the overarching concept behind remakes since Bay started producing his somewhat tedious remakes of iconic '70s horror flicks. Happily, and somewhat to my surprise, the remake was better than I think anybody has reason to expect.

The plot, a reasonably close adaptation of the original, involves a family traveling West who takes one of those many unfortunate short cuts that litter the imagined landscape of the modern horror film. It is this family's bad luck to run afoul of a clan of mutated flesh-eating morlocks – the descendants of a mining community that refused to leave the area when the US government decided to use the area around their mining town for nuclear testing. The how and why of the situation is interesting, if not particularly convincing, but it does efficiently get all the elements into place: stranded family, harsh desert, mutant cannibals. What we've got is the classic Beau Geste trapped and surrounded scenario. Will the family pull together? Can they fend off their relentless attackers? The same plot has served Hollywood in across genres, from Rio Bravo to Aliens, for as long as people have been going to the ol' picture show, and it is so popular for a very simple reason: done well, it gives good movie. And, for the most part, The Hills Have Eyes is a well executed, tense, and worthwhile addition to the long tradition of the "circle wagons" sub-genre.

Much of the credit goes to the dramatic sensibilities director and screenwriter Alexandre Aja brought to his remake. One of the secrets to his success was the realization that tension, and not gore, is the real core of the "circle wagons" style film. Yes, there's gore in them there Hills, but the real core of the flick is the ever increasing tension and the cat and mouse game between our fish-out-of-water protagonists and their cannibalistic counterparts. The gore, what there is over it, is deployed to elevate the stakes and not as a sort of nerco-porn collection of travesties to wallow in. For comparison, think to that banner movie of the new horror revival Hostel. How much abuse was really necessary to tell the viewer that the characters were truly and deeply in horrific danger? Certainly some torture helps heighten our fear, but eventually we're not adding to tension so much as emerging ourselves in the details of bodily mutilation as a form of shocking our jaded sensibilities – pursuing excess as a way to get the jolt of the new (and it is at that tipping point that the guiding imagination behind Hostel shifts its sympathies from the side of the tortured victim to the sadistic thrill craving torturers). Instead of simply throwing around buckets of gore, Aja, who is not shy when it comes to aesthetic splatter, uses every violent incident to add an edge to the mounting levels of tension. This strategy explains why Aja is happy to off characters in the blink of an eye or even off screen, denying the gorehound his or her visual money shot, but increasing the viewers' sense of the protagonists' powerlessness. This is not to say Aja has made a gore free film – we get treated to a meat freezer of human parts that would make the Texas Chainsaw Family salivate as well at the now obligatory "hero loses some fingers" shot (the wound of choice for the new horror director – it is the perfect damage as is induces crazy squirming among audience members, but does not kick in their disbelief when, despite the pain and blood loss such a wound must actually cause, your hero continues to fight, run, and otherwise generally function). Interestingly, much of the gore comes from our heroes picking off mutants with axes and the like and from the violence the mutants bring down on our heroes. Again, the gore functions dramatically, emphasizing how savage our once innocent family has become in response to savagery.

The second secret to Aja's success is the use of imagery so seductive and powerful that it overcomes logical objections. This is, I think, what shows that that, despite the English dialogue, its origins in an American cult classic, and its American setting, Hills is very much a European horror film. Europeans have made an entire subgenre of horror that operates primarily on style over substance. From the iconic Eyes Without a Face to nearly any film from the Italian masters of horror – in the old world, creating an luxurious dream vision of the horrific trumps narrative logic or even the use of cause and effect. This is way Europe elevated the work of Poe and Lovecraft years before Americans realized what these homegrown horror masters had produced. There is even a familiar Euro-horror pattern that we see in Hills, namely: Take hero, remove to dream-like setting, sever ties from real-world, now pile on psycho-horror images. Think Susperia and Phenomenon. Heck, think Oasis of the Zombies or Werewolf in a Girl's Dormitory or Murder Mansion. All these movies start with our heroes not just finding themselves out of their normal surroundings, but in a surreal, almost magical and otherworldly place. The viewer is prepped for the illogic of what will follow by repeated warnings and ominous suggestions that they are no longer under the old order of the real (think of Phenomenon's wind that everybody suggests always blows and drives people mad – the idea is that the very weather in the place is insane).

In this film, Aja uses decaying fencing, faded signs with warnings from the government on them, the fading cell phone connections of our primary hero to suggest a drift into an alien otherness. His sun-blasted desert reminds one of an alien, lifeless landscape – even down to a visual allusion to Luke Skywalkers high-tech binoculars from Star Wars. This family didn't just drive into the desert; they've driven to another world were the normal rules – not just of civility, but of logic – don't apply. This division is necessary because there is a lot that is illogical, if not outright stupid, about the plot. For example, though the mutants' isolation is the key to their continued existence, apparently enough people come through their desert hellhole that they can live pretty exclusively on long-pig and even manage to keep a meat freezer full of seemingly fresh human parts well stocked. Also, though authorities are well aware of the missing folks these mutants have been offing regularly (and presumably in great numbers) since the 1960s, they've been unable to find either the above ground town the mutants call home or the giant crater full of victims' cars. This is especially absurd given the first people we see killed are a government research team. While one presumes a good number of the civilian victims could have all been lured off their path and therefore lost to any who might look for them, the government research team was presumably intentionally in the former radioactive zone, with their bosses fully aware of where they were sent. Still, while watching the film, these objections get rolled over by the excellent pacing and superior visuals. In our case, my friend and I even commented on some of these problems as we watched, but we were to into the flick to let our brains ruin it.

Aja pulled this same trick with less success in his breakout film, the much loved and much reviled High Tension. There, he attempted to use strong visuals to cover up a plot that simply does not work. Though the film has its fans (I'm one of them), even the most devoted of its supporters must try to explain away that films confused and unnecessary ending. I've heard nobody say the ending "works." At best, people argue it should be ignored in the light of better parts of the film. Here, the trick is much more effective.

There is a second way in which this is a very European flick. The somewhat pointless display of the target family's ultimately useless faith, the simplistic conflict set up between the clich├ęd right-wing thuggish father and the initially ineffective liberal wimp, the Lolita-ish teen daughter, the cultural artifacts the viewer sees are limited to barely heard crap rock and a short clip of Divorce Court – this family is some sort of Euro-intellectual's stereotype of the all-American family. The setting, a vacuous nowhere-land that swallows its residents whole, is the "no there there" visions of America related by Baudrillard, Bernard-Henri Levy, and dozens of other slumming French philosophers given horrible, literal life. The mutants are an odd study in the American body. Their deformed bodies are metaphors only slightly less subtle than the bloated American forms waddling through The Triplets of Belleville. It is an odd study in America has horrible nightmare vision, a weird byproduct of European's love/hate relationship with the US.

All and all, despite its flaws, Aja proves that he's a developing a real mastery of that uniquely European hallucinatory style of horror. In this case, he may have outdone a lackluster original film by bringing his Continental style to it. He certainly out did his previous film. Head for the Hills, it's worth the rental.


Heather Santrous said...

Nice review! This one quickly became a favorite of mine. I think with every film you have to let your mind just go with things at some point. If you don't, you will be hard pressed to enjoy any movie. Probably holds true for the horror movie genre more than some others.

I also did a review for High Tension. I for one did think the ending worked so now you have found someone that thinks that. Cattleworks and I talked about the movie a lot in the comments so, if you want, head over to the Sept link and you will find it right away. I would be interested in hearing what you have to say about it as well.

Dave said...

I found your review intriguing, insightful, and yet incomplete.

How can you talk about this flick without mentioning the true hero of the flick: Beast the dog! He racks up the highest body count in the film and pretty much single handedly (pawedly?) saves the family.

Give a dog a bone here!

CRwM said...

Heather, thanks for visiting my humble site – I'm glad you dug the review. I'm a regular reader of your site and enjoy your writing.

I'm afraid my view on the twist in High Tension will disappoint. I believe the twist fails on two levels.

The first is on the teasing request for logic that is ultimately foiled. The film poses a mystery and then refuses to actually give you the tools to solve it.

Watching the film with the commentary on is somewhat instructive here. Even the writer and director are unable to provide answers to many of the questions you and your readers posed. For example, to explain how our murderous Marie envisions the truck before she and Alex reach the house, the director suggests (and I need to stress the suggest, he says "maybe" like even he isn't sure about it) that Marie, later, in the hospital, claimed or imagined that the killer was there for days, watching the house.

Now, for me, the explanation of the truck isn't so important as the relationship this suggests between the story we're seeing and when the "telling" of the story is taking place. It suggests that this entire thing is a retroactive retelling from Marie's point of view. I think this is important because it suggests that the entire story is spooling out in Marie's imagination after she has already killed everybody, kidnapped Marie, and general gone on her violence happy rampage. Because of this situating device, digging through the flick for clues is, in one sense, pointless because we never have a sane Marie/crazy Marie split. The whole thing is in the wacked out mind of crazy Marie. Any detail or "clue" or contradiction can be explained away by simply tossing it out a figment of Marie's imagination.

The question of whether the truck is real or not is an excellent case in point. Aja says it is and you think it isn't, but both of you, despite disagreeing on this fairly large point, can build a story of how events went down. That tells me that the "clues" are, in fact, irrelevant. At the end of the movie all we can say is that Marie freaked out somehow and we don't know what happened.

How can you really solve a puzzle when the puzzle maker has built into the puzzle's very design the idea that any piece that doesn't seem to fit should just be tossed? Certainly you'll "finish" the puzzle – but did you solve it, or just throw out anything that didn't fit?

The second level more thematic. One of the things I most dug about the story was the idea that the potential "last girl" was hunting down the killer. Marie was, for this horror fan, one of the few genuinely great female heroes of the genre. The girl, despite her fear, takes off after a killer to save a woman she feels a completely unrequited love for. It was really cool to see such a heroic female figure in such a cool film. So, when, at the last moment, she's suddenly just some psycho dame, it was a little disappointing for me.

All that said, I am a fan of the film. Like you mention, I'm willing to set aside my reservations about the plot and just enjoy how great-looking and suspenseful the film is. I think one measure of the talent Aja's got going for him is how he can, with stunning visuals, seduce you into watching something that, in the hands of a lesser director, would piss you off. I don't think High Tension is a flawless film, but it is a really good one and I think Aja's a director to follow.

Sorry this response was so long. Hopefully it's worth the four million years it will take to read all this.

CRwM said...

Dave, you are so right!

I was remiss in not mentioning the true hero of the picture - Beast, the Wonder Dog!

We need to coin a term for his special role in the film. I'm thinking canis ex machina.

cattleworks said...

With what few blogs I seem to frequent, and this is one of them, there's a strange, giddy thrill I feel when I read another comment by a familiar name but in a different blog!
It's like reading your regular comic book series, and all of a sudden, there's a guest appearance by a superhero from another book. Familiar, yet, somehow different. Well, because the visiting hero is a guest!
How interesting...!
Meanwhile, if my blog were a comic book, my series doesn't seem to have too many new issues...

Heather Santrous said...

Hah! How did I know you was going to show up here Terry? After I read your comment over on my blog I just had a feeling I would find one here from you as well lol.

crwm, thank you for what you had to say about me. I can understand why you, and others, felt cheated by the twist ending. I never felt that way because I knew the twist going into the movie. I think that helped me take a different view on the movie than most people did.

Something that I said to Jed about the dream sequence at the start of the movie I think I can apply to the truck as well. What we are seeing in the movie is the retelling of events that have already happened. This is how Marie is trying to explain it. So maybe the truck is real and we see the truck before it is found simply because it is a retelling.

cattleworks said...

Which would be a way cool title for a comic book!
Unfortunately, because of the current comic book, EX MACHINA, people would think it was a rip-off of the SUPER-MAN/SUPER-DOG concept, like this would be a comic book about Ex Machina's dog, which is totally understandable because of the precedent.
But in actuality, this comic is set in the way-back past, during the days of early Greek theater, when a forgotten Greek playwright, stumped for a way to resolve his play's conflict, suddenly has the bright idea to use a dog to save everybody a la Rin Tin Tin!
The comic illustrates the various Greek tragedies, where our intrepid canine comes to rescue everyone at the end ("What's that, boy? Oedipus fell in a well?! Dammit, I KNEW him tearing his eyes out would lead to trouble!!")
Man, when this book takes off (oh, and it WOULD!), the canine toga merchandise alone would be worth a mint!

cattleworks said...

I, too, loved HIGH TENSION enough that the explanation of the ending disappointed me, but ultimately, not enough to prevent me from buying a copy of this damn movie.
I think Aja's creative partner, Gregory Levasseur should be mentioned also. He co-wrote HIGH TENSION and HILLS with Aja. Levasseur was also art director for HIGH TENSION.

I still haven't seen the end of HILLS!
The DVD I rented acted funky during the sequence in the trailer when all the women are attacked and the guys are dealing with the father's situation outside.
As per usual, I got another copy but haven't watched it. Fuzzwubbit!

But your issue with the govt. team that's taken out in the beginning makes sense, in terms of how come no one looked for them? I can accept the whole tourists lost but not found, but (now that you brought it up!) the govt. team poses problems. However, having said that, I actually thought that the prologue was unnecessary-- in a horror movie way it was a cool idea, but was it my imagination, but didn't the film seemed slightly speeded up when the mayhem happens to the team? Almost like, okay, we really want to have this sequence but it'a also adding time to the film. So, let's get through it!
And perhaps, the illogic you pointed out was interiorly complaining to me subconsciously as well.
But the opening credits sequence afterwards, with that weird tune playing in disturbing counterpoint to the increasingly unsettling images of disfigured people, etc., man, I thought that was really terrific.
Yeah, so far, I think Aja's really talented. But his story logic needs some work at times, although, I don't think he views it that way. It really does seem like such logic is disposable, based on HIGH TENSION.
From that film's perspective, I think you and I are more similar in terms of requiring story logic, at least in some situations.
In THAT case, as soon as the twist happens, my next question is practical logic: how does that work? The psychological motivation, I had no problem with that, none at all. In fact, that made sense because I tyhought they set up that tension really well with the women's conversation in the car in the beginning of the movie. I think the most frustrating thing was, even though Aja and Lavesseur seemed to have no problem with their explanation of HOW what really happened happened (the commentary on the DVD), I think it was possible to depict a logical explanation for what happened vs. what she was imagining. Grrrr...
Yet at the same time, I have NO problem accepting NUDE FOR SATAN's logic. Of course, Rita Calderoni's wandering naked throughout AND her deadly battle with a vicious giant spider (VICIOUS!) could explain a lot.