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 clichéd 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.