Category Archives: Uncategorized

Don’t Go In The House 1979

In my review of Don’t Go In The Woods I asked, In a roundabout kind of way, how any conservative MP in their right mind could take such a film so seriously as to ban it. Don’t Go In the House, which was also on the Video Nasties list, is surely more the film they were thinking of.

A young man, whose mother burnt him as a child, lures women back to his place, hangs them up in his custom made steel, fireproof room and torches them with a flamethrower. Yey, fun. Unlike Don’t Go In The Woods with its crazy music and comedy bead-wearing killer, Don’t Go In The House is an incredibly bleak and sober movie. There are few laughs to be had as we follow Donny the Incinerator around in his mad, sad life. However, despite the grim subject matter, this film, once more, is not a piece of a shlock needing to be removed from public viewing but a clear homage to Psycho with its own, albeit limited, merits.

The Psycho influences are everywhere. Donny lives in a large, spooky house with his dead mother, although she is kept upstairs in the bedroom rather than the fruit cellar. Expanding on the mother/son relationship, we have flashbacks to Donny being tortured with naked flames as a child which have lead him to his psychotic state of mind now. There are weird old trinkets throughout the property. Donny himself is clearly a schizophrenic with his dead mother talking to him, but instead of dressing like her he has a handy fireproof outfit that he picked up from a clearly deeply irresponsible gun shop.

Where things differ from Psycho is that instead of following the (semi) innocent character of Marion Crane into murderous Norman Bates’s sick world, here we follow Donny as the main character. Considering how pathetic his life is, it makes you question do we want to know about Donny’s tragic existence? And in truth we probably don’t. It’s not like you can watch Don’t Go In The House and start rooting for Donny: “go on my son! Get another victim and cook her!” is, hopefully, not your response. If it is please seek immediate psychiatric help. No, mostly you just want someone to intervene and have him locked up before someone else is hurt.

This is probably what lead the film to end up in the Video Nasties list: the tone of relentless bleakness. It probably didn’t help itself by having been made in the seventies. Donny has a job, at an incinerating plant obviously, which has that gritty working man/blue collar feel to it that movies such as Rocky and, well, Blue Collar did. Life was hard for the working man and it would be just as easy to spend your spare time punching meat and people as it would losing your mind and killing women. However despite all the grimness, Don’t Go In The House is not a particularly violent film. The first woman is fairly graphically burnt in front of us, however the analogue fire effects probably were not particularly realistic then let alone now, so we rely on the terrible IDEA of what is happening rather than the execution of it. After her death the murders are cleverly shown after the fact, so the bodies build up but we aren’t subjected to the brutality of their demises.

If Don’t Go In The House is like any movie then it is William Lustig’s ultra sleazy Maniac. It shares the same madman’s perspective approach to the story. So much so that it has similar scenes of the crazy person talking to his victims and dressing up their corpses. It even has the same ending. Don’t Go In The House was made a year before Maniac but I don’t know if Lusting ripped it off so much as it was just a sign of the times. Maniac is the much better film though.

What this does have over Lustig’s film, however, is a lot of disco. The twist, if you could call it such a thing, is that about two thirds of the way through the movie, director Joseph Ellison clearly had had enough of all this misery and decided to liven things up. Donny has a John Travolta style makeover and ends up down the local discotheque. Things seem like it could work out for a little while but then Donny, instead of boogying with all the pretty girls all night long, blows it by setting fire to one of them instead. At least disco makes a triumphant, and deeply inappropriate, return over the end credits.

Don’t Go In The House is a weak made but odd, creepy and somewhat disturbing variation on the Psycho story. It isn’t a particularly comfortable watch but it does have something to say about child abuse and the damage it can cause in adulthood, which may, or may not, be something you want to see. Even if it’s not, don’t ban the thing.

The Rezort 2015

 

It’s hard out there for a zombie. In the never ending barrage of undead movies it’s getting tougher to stand out from the crowd. I think it’s it’s fair to say that most of the blame must go to The Walking Dead. That TV show sets the zombie bar so high that little can compete.  You can have all the running, swarming or flying zombies you like but no one can compete against the quality of the shuffling corpses that Rick and Co battle against week in, week out. The best of recent fair have either gone for bonkers action with zombies on a train (Train to Busan) or something a bit more thoughtful and intelligent (The Girl With All The Gifts). Basically if you don’t have an angle you’re dead in the water.

Fortunately The Rezort does have such an angle: it is Jurassic Park with zombies. Not with dinosaurs AND zombies sadly. And not with zombie dinosaurs… I wish. Just zombies, but it’s an okay premise.

Several years after a zombie pandemic kills two billion people worldwide, the undead threat has been wiped out apart from an island where the rich and stupid can drive around in logo strewn jeeps to hunt zombies for kicks. Obviously something goes wrong and the security system goes down, the zombies get loose and everyone has to get out before the whole place blows up. Good times.

It’s a simple enough premise and doesn’t have any delusions of being anything other than an entertaining horror flick. There is some evil corporation stuff which isn’t anything new but adds some flavour to the plot. Also there’s some conversation about how in times of war it’s the humans who have lost their humanity more than the zombies. I’m not so sure about that: I think if you start rotting, crave human flesh, growl a lot and never change your clothes again you’ve probably lost most of your humanity.

I can’t say that I entirely buy the idea of a resort where people can go and shoot zombies either. It just feels like far too much can go wrong for it to be a viable business venture. Take for example the main group we follow around in the film. Okay you have Dougray Scott as a mysterious marksman who knows how to handle himself and a weapon, but the rest of the tourists seem to handle a submachine gun the way I would handle a numeric drill: randomly and all over the place. Surely far too many guests would get killed in the crossfire? Also who actually would want to go to a place to kill zombies seven years after two billion friends and families became them? Wouldn’t most people be too traumatised by the war to want to go back to a version of it? It would be like opening a Nazi killing theme park in 1952.

Well at least most of the characters have a reason to be there, from being prepared for the next war to winning a competition on the internet. Apart from Scott who, apart from adding a touch of class, remains mysterious.

What is also mysterious but is most welcome are the relatively high production values for this sort of thing. Of course much of the film involves running around dark corridors or mountainscapes but a clever use of matte paintings and set extensions give the impression that the film is bigger than it is. This particularly helps give the impression that The Rezort itself is a large scale and well run operation. However there are also some other nice wide shots, like the ariel view of the boat arriving at the island at the beginning which helps with the sense of size.

Being a British production it feels more like a well made BBC drama rather than something that would give the Hollywood boys and girls something to worry about, but it’s a fun diversion. It’s not going to set the world ablaze with a new rush of zombie apocalypses, but it’s a nice enough break for an hour and a half.

 

The House On Sorority Row 1983


the-sorority-sisters

In the never ending quest to watch a decent slasher movie I will often check out the headlines of reviews to see if a movie could be worth a watch. Under normal circumstances if a film is described as having “competence” it’s generally seen as damning with faint praise. However, if you’ve seen as many slasher movies as I have over the years then competence is a rare and wonderful thing, I mean have you ever seen Don’t Go In The Woods? They don’t know the meaning of the word.

So if The House on Sorority Row is competent then we’re already onto a winner. Fortunately it is much more than that.

The plot is… oh I don’t know why I bother explaining the plots of slasher. They are the same every time with only a small variation. This time, although not for the first time,  events are set at a sorority house (maybe the title of the film gave it away) rather than, say, a woods or a campsite or shopping mall. We are into the slight slasher sub sub genre of I-know-what-you-did-last-summer-itis in that the girls of the sorority accidentally kill someone and have a pact to never tell anyone but are then picked off one by one blah blah blah. The difference here is that instead of the main events taking place a year after the accident they happen immediately. The girls haven’t even got rid of the body yet and someone is already chopping them up.

This is probably what sets this film apart from some of the others. The girls foolishly pull this stupid prank on their mean sorority mother moments before they hold an end of year party at their house. The upshot of this is that they have to cover up their crime and their own repulsion with themselves whilst trying to pretend that they are having a good time. It also gives a vaguely valid reason why they have to separate off quite a lot. So they are alone in a basement or attic trying to cover up the murder and it doesn’t seem so dumb when they are killed. They are acting more like normal human beings would under the circumstances rather than idiots.

The girls are also wracked with grief and self loathing so they don’t suddenly forget themselves and start partying. In fact there’s one great shot as the camera pans across the party revellers to each of the girls looking dumbstruck with the horror of what they have done. All the actresses are well above “competent” too, making their situation genuinely engaging. Well apart from the blonde and busty actress who plays Morgan. She struggles keep her head straight let alone deliver her lines (as she removes her top) but looking at her credit list she never worked before or since this movie. Who knows why she was cast?

The party they hold doesn’t seem that great. Everyone seems like an idiot there and there are far too many shifty looking moustaches for my liking. Also the lead singer looks like this:

hosr_80s

Did anyone think that that was a good style in 1983? I thought we’d all moved onto the New Romantic look by then.

As WAS common at this time there is a question of who-done-it? which was soon abandoned for the more straightforward Freddy-did-it approach to slasher where it was only ever a madman in a mask/hat. This more traditional mystery killer approach seems almost quaint nowadays, like they were still trying to convince you that the movie was an Agatha Christie adaptation even whilst covering the screen with teenage gore.

Talking of which, there is a modest amount of gory deaths on display here, none of it very memorable but at least they tried unlike some slasher which wholly missed the point. It really does seem like unless you had Tom Savini involved in your make up effects your movie was going to be at a distinct disadvantage. Other artists just didn’t seem to have the knowledge and skill that he did, so you end up with stuff like this:

4kqenem

Which, you know, is fine and all that but loo death will never be anything other than silly. And this isn’t really an effect at all, just some poor actress having the indignity of having to shove her head through a toilet bowl.

The House On Sorority Row is a well shot, well acted and well directed slasher made at a time when you’d be lucky if one of those boxes was ticked. In fact being more than competent but actually pretty good means it’s one of the best slashers from that early eighties boom. Who’d have thought that from the word “competence”?

 

the-house-on-sorority-row-poster

Halloween 4 The Return of Michael Myers 1988

halloween4bdcap6_original

After everyone wrongly rejected Halloween 3 Season of the Witch for not having Michael Myers in it, the Halloween franchise went into a dormant state. Obviously this wasn’t a bad idea as a) Halloween is an out and out classic and cannot be beaten so why even try and b) Michael Myers isn’t known as The Shape for nothing – he is just a lump, a physical embodiment of evil sure, but what really could one do with the character? (Pretty sure John Carpenter knew this hence his lack of involvement with the series after 3) However, several years later the Friday the 13th producers were still bashing out Jason Voorhees sequels which proved that personality counts for nothing. So in 1988 it was time to dust off the William Shatner mask and send Michael out for another killing spree in Haddonfield, Illinois.

 

By 1988 the eighties horror boom was in full swing. Jason was fighting a Carrie rip off in Friday the 13th Part 7: The New Blood and Freddy was turning teens into cockroaches in A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master. Actually thinking about it the horror genre was in decline creativity, it just didn’t know it. Into this climate of increasingly silly slasher movies staggered Michael Myers and I, for one, never bothered with Halloween 4 because there was so much over guff out there I just couldn’t handle any more disappointment. As it turns out this is a remarkably solid entry in the slasher series. Certainly better than Part 2 which is so boring even the lead character is asleep for most if it.

 

Michael Myers escapes from his confines once again and heads back to Haddonfield, this time to kill Laurie Strode’s daughter, Jamie. Also again Doctor Loomis is hot in his trail telling anyone who will listen what an enormous prick Michael is. Let’s face facts here. It is exactly the same plot as the first film. I was having this conversation with the lovely May the other day after watching the new Alien: Covenant trailer. “it’s the same story again,” May correctly stated.”A bunch of people in a spaceship land on a planet where something awful has happened before and then it happens to them. It’s the same as Prometheus!” And Alien I pointed out and indeed Aliens. Yes all this is true and there is certainly an argument in saying lets do something different. However when the Alien franchise has tried something else they ended up with the troubled Alien 3 or the disastrous Alien Resurrection. Maybe it is best to just stick to what works in a franchise, plot wise, and just have variations within that framework. This sounds like what the current producers of the Friday the 13th movies have forgotten: they’re stuck in an endless none development of a new Friday movie (eight years and counting) with found footage ideas and origin stories because they have forgotten that what works about those films IS the simplicity of it all: a bunch of teens get murdered by Jason in the woods.

 

It’s the same with Michael Myers. All he wants to do is go home! Series producer Moustapha Akkad knew this so he repeats the beats of the first film and together with director Dwight H. Little makes a decent stab at things. So to speak.

 

It helps that everyone takes things seriously. Donald Pleasence is back as Loomis, still wild eyed and crazy although bless him he was 68 when this was made and he does seem a little tired at times. Especially now Loomis seems to be in full action mode – diving out if the way of exploding petrol stations and getting thrown through doors. Whatever, Pleasence was the kind of actor who you could rely on to add a touch of class to any film he appeared in. Go knows you needed that in the eighties when teens seemed to be cast in horror movies for their hair and willingness to take their tops off. Fortunately the teens hijinks here are kept to a minimum. The only one of any real consequence is Rachel (Ellie Cornell) who is looking after young Jamie and is basically battered about by everyone else emotionally and Michael physically until she has had enough and (spoiler) drives over the fucker.

 

Jamie herself is played by Danielle Harris in her first role. Harris has gone into have a long and successful career, mostly fighting monsters, and you can see why here. A tiny, big eyed moppet, Jamie might be the most traumatised child in horror. She starts off having visions of the “nightmare man” and then is rejected by her adoptive sister, mocked for being an orphan by her school peers (children really are awful sometimes) before being stalked by a six foot two madman in a boiler suit who turns out to be her uncle. It’s not surprising that most of Harris’s performance consists of crying. But she does cry REALLY well. Certainly better than teens like Brady and Kelly who struggle with walking let alone showing any emotion. In fact poor Jamie has only one scene where she even smiles and that’s when she’s offered some ice cream, which never even gets. It makes me want to cry.

 

Anyway, events go at a decent pace and I didn’t get bored which is saying a lot. As much as I love the slasher genre, and I do love it, I cannot deny that most if them are incredible dull. Not so Halloween 4. It doesn’t take Michael long to get back to Haddonfield and he’s soon stolen a new Shatner mask, killed an entire police department and turned off the whole electricity grid by throwing an engineer at it. It fact it is remarkable how quickly Michael gets about Haddonfield. He’s at the grid at one point and then at Kelly’s house in the next shot. Either he has got some serious wheels we haven’t seen or Haddonfield is tiny. Still it helps keep things moving. In fact there’s a lot going on here: the police station massacre (sadly off screen) a chase in an abandoned school, car chases, redneck lynching mobs, Michael Myers lookalikes, explosions, a thumb in the forehead and a really decent set piece on the roof of Kelly’s house. Dwight H. Little keeps things coming at you right up to the twist ending which if you think about it is absolutely nonsensical but I kind of liked it all the same. He also wisely keeps as much of the classic John Carpenter theme in the film as possible which can make any scene feel tense.

 

If there is a problem it is as I mentioned before – the actual return if Michael Myers shows what a non personality he is. He really IS just a shape. You can give Michael all the relatives you want but when it boils down to it he’s just a figure in a boiler suit. He makes Jason seem like a charismatic life of the party. That’s not to say that that blank masked face isn’t creepy but really, if it wasn’t for Loomis telling us how evil he is he could almost just disappear before our eyes, like he did at the end of the original film.
Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers ultimately was a welcome return. Not necessarily because of the title character but it was a well made and serious entry in the slasher genre when the rest of its peers were getting increasingly stupid. I’m not sure Halloween stayed this way though, later films had Myers cult worshippers, mysterious men in black and Coolio, but for now the franchise was back on track.

 

halloween4_poster

Blair Witch 2016

blair-witch-callie-hernandez

I love the fact that no one even knew the was a new Blair Witch film was being made until two months before its release. When the original Blair Witch Project came out it was it’s very mystery (with the help of the youngish internet) that propelled it to box office glory and cultural success. I also love that this new film has Adam Winguard directing it who did such fine work with You’re Next and The Guest.

What I don’t love is that this new Blair Witch feels like someone said the original is old, cheap looking and the actors aren’t pretty enough – let’s remake it but make it cleaner. Despite the fact that it claims to be a sequel to the original (and ignores the risible second film, and who can blame them) the new Blair Witch pretty much follows the same plot and beats as the original, only with better looking actors, higher definition and some modern gadgets. The camera crew arrive in the woods, people disappear and things get confusing, they find a house in the woods. That’s your lot. That’s what we got last time and that’s what we’re getting again. It’s like what The Force Awakens did with Star Wars – it has been a long, long time since the last good one, the filmmakers want the audience to know this is definitely a Blair Witch film, so they just did the same story all over again.

Fortunately it is also like The Force Awakens in that it is damned entertaining and does what you hope it would do – freak you out and put you off camping for life. This time the lead is the younger brother of Heather from the original who is all grown up. He sees a new bit of footage on YouTube from what appears to be inside the Blair Witch house and thinks he sees his sister in the reflection of a mirror. So it’s off to the woods again with cameras in tow and bunch of mates/victims/rampant nose dribblers.

Winguard and his regular writer Simon Barrett do bring a number of new things to the table, partly because of advancements in technology but also because they’re a good creative team. Instead of old mini DV machines they have miniature hook-over-the-ear mini cameras. They have small remote cameras they can set up around the camp and, best of all, they have a drone for creepy ariel shots. Well they would have… the ear cameras work as a good short cut to multi camera multi point of view images and edits, helping to keep the action flowing. However the other cameras do very little with the rest of their tech, the drone being a particularly pointless addition as it leads to not much more than a narrative cul-de-sac. I wanted the drone to fly up and reveal some thing watching them from a far or the gang being next to a way out  of the forest all along. Instead the drone gets stuck in a tree. Great.

There are a few other weird and wasted set ups like this too. One of the girls gets wounded crossing a river and inspection of her cut reveals something growing inside her foot. Later she pulls out a small worm from her leg and… well that’s it. We never hear about it again. I’m all for adding mystery to a plot, and in a horror movie these things don’t always have to be resolved, they can just add deeper background to a story, but these elements here just seem like red herrings and half baked ideas.

Other additions work better. The crew find themselves forced into bringing a local couple along with them and this causes tension the moment black crew members see the confederate flag inside their house. The fact that the couple seems not only trustworthy but also don’t trust the crew adds another good layer of ill feeling.

There’s also some really creepy and clever use of time to confuse our protagonists. This was explored a bit in the original, and even in Book of Shadows, but they take things much further with a blink and you’ll miss it twist I certainly didn’t see coming.

Of course this all well and good but the big trouble with Blair Witch is, you guessed it, the found footage approach itself. Nevermind the need to explain how and why everything is being filmed, again, or the irritating shaking camera and screaming whilst something off screen wails its death cry. Nor even the that once, yet again, the film ends with NOT REALLY SPOILERS IF YOU’VE SEEN ANY FOUND FOOTAGE MOVIE someone being dragged off into the dark as the camera falls over. No the problem is… it is over, we are done with found footage, there’s nothing left to say that is new with it. In the years since The Blair Witch Project we’ve had possessions, hauntings, zombie invasions and evil moon rocks. I’m spent, exhausted and bored of found footage. No one cares anymore. Okay, I know I say this all the time and then along comes The Visit but honestly this time I’ve had enough.

Saying that… the final act is really intense and pretty scary. Returning to the house from the original is something I wanted to do. I think last time we only spent a couple.of minutes in it, this time its most of the final act and we get to see a lot more horrors in it. The most terrifying moment involves some incredibly narrow and claustrophobic underground tunnels that are so tight right you can barely breath just from watching it. These scenes DO lend themselves really well to the found footage sub genre with its tight points of view, unknown things lurching out of the dark and plot points there for the eagle eyed.

In fact the whole return to the witch’s woods is a terrifying proposition and a welcome one for the horror fan. If Winguard and Barrett’s plan was indeed to make an updated and slicker version of the original with a few new ideas and a more satisfying climax (although only MORE satisfying not actually answering anything) then Blair Witch succeeds. However if it was something new and different then maybe you should try Blair Witch 2: Book.of Shadows. Oh no actually don’t do that, it’s woeful.

 

the-woods-2016-poster-4

Dracula Untold 2016

They say, whoever they are, that a film is made in the edit suite. This may be true, but if this is the case then a film can be destroyed in the edit suite too. Its the death of a movie by a thousand cuts, through studio notes and test screening worries. I have little knowledge of what went on behind the scenes of Dracula Untold but the film reeks of post production interference, from the choppy story telling to the unnecessary visual effects. 

For a seemingly epic tale of the beginning of one of horror’s great icons and his battle against a vast army, the film clocks in at a decidedly un epic ninety minutes. It’s not that it doesn’t make coherent sense because it does, just, but so much of Dracula Untold is in such a rush that it doesn’t tell it very well.

Right from the beginning we’re in a hurry. Vlad and a couple of his mates find a cave that contains something foul and evil (Charles Dance of course). His friends are killed and only Vlad escapes… but how? One second he’s in a cavern running for his life and the next he’s back home. Then he’s talking about peace in the land and THEN he’s celebrating ten years of that said peace. Wait, what? Did we just jump forward ten years or did I miss something? All of a sudden the main villains led by Dominic Cooper, doing a ludicrous middle eastern accent, are demanding a thousand and one of their sons including Vlad’s own kid.  

I haven’t had a chance to keep up. Well I have, but there’s little time to ponder anything. And this is a shame because it’s clear there is a good film tucked away in here. The story is solid with some interesting touches and moment of high drama. Vlad seeming to doom his people for the sake of his child is a great idea but the speed at which this happens – I want your kid – here’s the drop off going wrong – oh there are a thousand Turks at the door me Lord – means we miss the meat of this dilemma. It feels like the elements were there, not just in the script but filmed, but left on the edit room floor (or is it the hard drive in the draw nowadays?). Luke Evans makes a fine Vlad, and soon to be Dracula, and the rest of the cast do their best. Also director Gary Shore clearly knows how to shoot a pretty picture with lots of lovely compositions and sweeping vistas.

Even if Shore was a first time director of a fairly large budgeted film he has surrounded himself with a good cast who can deliver their sometimes blah lines like it’s Game of Thrones. Which it might as well be with the amount of actors who are from that show. There’s Charles Dance, Paul Kaye, Art Parkinson (the youngest Stark) and other familiar faces. Also on board is Sarah Gadon who is popping up all over the place at the moment (for example the cool 11.22.63) and is all kinds of lovely. I’d point out that her role is underwritten but, sadly, that seems to be the norm. She does her best with what she’s got.

The Game of Thrones vibe is definitely something Shaw seemed to be going for, however it seems Universal where more interested in making an effects feast like The Mummy. Are they mental? There’s a big fight scene where Vlad first gets his “powers” (yeah it does feel more like a superhero film at times) and he fights a thousand soldiers. It should have been a rousing, guttural battle against the odds however it comes across more like an ill thought out effects montage as he slow motions and speed ramps around his enemies, turning into a swarm of bats. 

He becomes bats A LOT. As the crummy May pointed out, can you ever have too many bats? Well the answer seems to be yes. Most of Vlad’s fighting technique seems to be attacking as bats. It’s well done I suppose but when you’ve seen it once, you’ve seen it a hundred times. And Dracula Untold obviously didn’t get that memo because you DO see it a hundred times.

There’s also a lot of Turkish soldiers marching into battle, people shimmering to reveal their vampiric underside and undead blowing up left right and centre. It’s all very well done (to be honest I know people who worked on it but there are some very nice effects here) but they’re a detriment to the story. The dialogue may not be the most Oscar worthy but it says something when the best moments in the film aren’t the scenes of spectacle but when two people are talking to each other.

Saying all that I did quite enjoy Dracula Untold mainly because of the cast, an attempt to do something different and some good ideas. Charles Dance’s ancient vampire spending eons in his mountain waiting for someone to bring him death, his life foreshadowing Dracula’s own in his castle in years to come, is a cool concept. However every time something like that happens it’s ruined by choppy editing and in this case “vampire vision” – which is an effects heavy version of Predator’s heat sensing eyesight but with blood and veins. It looks beautiful but is so high tech it looks completely out of place in this ancient world. 

Look, this is head and shoulders above something like I, Frankenstein because at least there is something good hidden away in here. It just suffers too much from trying to be a massive blockbuster at the cost of being a good story well told.

The Hills Have Eyes 2006

hills06_1

Back in the noughties (which seemed about a week ago for me but apparently it was a whole other decade) the horror genre seeming to be going through a bit of a remake frenzy. Horror has always been subject to the remake (how many Draculas and Frankensteins have there been) and I don’t have a problem with it par se. However the remakes of the noughties mostly suffered from one shared consistency – they were all a load of old shite. There was one exception to this, The Hills Have Eyes.

There are a number of reasons why The Hills Have Eyes succeeded whilst so many others failed. The first and foremost has to be because director Alexandre Aja is a legitimately great horror director. He’d already proved his chops with High Tension (despite the ending, yeah it still doesn’t make a scrap of sense but I think I’m over it now) and you can tell that here, with his first American movie, Aja is HUNGRY for it. Obviously he brings the that sense of grim realism that French horror was having such a good time with back then but he also makes the characters genuinely interesting and worth caring about. Every death and violent act you feel in your gut. The family who drive out into the desert and end up stranded due to the father’s hubris are still a bickering bunch of American cliches like in the original film, but this time it actually feels like a family we can relate to. The teenage son does annoy his sister to the point they can’t seem to bare each other, but when their family is butchered they grip onto each other like their lives depended on it. The mother and father flirt and bicker with each other like a couple of old shoes, making little comments that suggest they really have been together for twenty five years.

This family is the same as the original for sure but everything here is just so much more clearly defined. This is helped by the second reason the remake works: it has a really good cast. Ted Levine and Kathleen Quinlan play the mother and father of the Carters. Levine has always had the baggage of having played Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs so could never be a leading man (if you’ve ever seen The Mangler you’ll know what I mean) but he’s perfectly cast as the former cop and tough old head of the family with his droopy moustache and deep, broken voice. Quinlan is also spot on as an old hippy, now mom although she’s given the least to do sadly. Dan Byrd and Emilie de Ravin both look really young (far younger than the actors in the original) but bring an emotional intensity to their roles, most notable when they stop to look at the awfulness of their dog’s death or their mother having been dragged away to be eaten. Then there’s Aaron Stanford as the bespectacled, liberal son-in-law who hates violence but by the end is covered in gore and has killed half a dozen people – all he can do is stare blankly into the distance.

the-hills-have-eyes-2006

Of course there is a really good cast because of the third reason it all works so well – money. The original The Hills Have Eyes cost $230,000 which even in 1977 was a stupidly low budget. I may have criticised some of the costumes, make up, camera work and sound but then what was Craven working with? Very little obviously. You’ve got to admire him for even being able to finish a film on that budget – he didn’t finish the sequel on three times that. Aja had $15,000,000 to play with. Still not exactly Titanic money but a big wad of cash for a horror movie ten years ago. Now its almost unheard of. Aja fills his film with lots of big sweeping shots of the desert, nuclear craters filled with old cars and an entire atomic test town with fifties automobiles and life size dolls. Clearly the make up budget took up a chunk of the cash too as the mutants look fantastic.

It is a little disappointing that the mutants aren’t seemingly a family any more. In the original they represented a flip-side to the Carter family, with their own dominant male and crazed children. In 2006 they are more of a community, which may not work quite as well but it does mean we get to see more of them. Young Ruby is back from the original but with her weird sloping down-her-face eyes she’s never going to be able to escape, become part of normal society and come back for the sequel.  Pluto is now a fully realised mutant rather than just an unusual looking actor. Actually now I think about it the whole casting of Michael Berryman in 1977 as Pluto was kind of offensive to Michael Berryman. Oh well, he got a career out of it, I’m sure he’s happy. So the full make up, vast size and massive pick axe make Pluto a much more viable threat than before. He still has a fanny fit when he gets frustrated so has that man-child thing going on, but also delights in hacking fingers off and pick axing people in the back. He’s great. Less pleasant is, I guess his brother, Lizard. His make up is again superb with his huge hairlip showing off revolting yellow teeth, but the rape scene in this version is less implied and more expicit. I’m not big on rape in film it has to be said. If it really is a vital part of the story then I guess it has to be in it, but here it just seems gratuitous and unnecessary. For me, its the one sour note in the film.

Finally, let’s face facts here, what helps make this film better is that the original isn’t much cop. Remaking Psycho or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was always going to fail because what is the point in remaking perfection? In fact its not possible – a perfect film is a one off, it rarely happens anyway and it certainly doesn’t happen twice. The original Hills isn’t a great film by any stretch of the imagination. Craven was still finding his feet when he made it and didn’t have the resources to pull it off. It was still a hit and is fondly remembered but you can’t consider it a classic.

The Hills of Eyes of 2006 is, however, on the cusp of being a classic. It takes the original’s story beats and creepy idea and tightens everything up to make a tense, violent cinematic experience. Bringing in a French man’s perspective to make such an American film works wonders on the story. Aja is clearly able to show the different sides of the American citizens through the various characters and link them to the nation’s obsession with violence. He even does this literally with one character being killed by having an American flag shoved through his throat. If Aja (and Craven before him) were trying to say that an acceptance of violence will only lead to the American people destroying themselves, either through weapons or eating each other, then he is saying it loud and clear here.

You know what, thank god for The Hills Have Eyes 2006, and not just because the noughties really went through a glut of bad American horror movies, and here was a shining light in a desert of dullness. Also because without this version there wouldn’t be any good Hills Have Eyes movies at all. Then this whole let’s-review-the-whole-lot-in-week idea of mine would have been a waste of time. Okay I still have one more film to watch, and I’m forever hopeful. However I hear bad, bad things…

hills_have_eyes_xlg