Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Director's Report Card: Alexandre Aja (2006-2008)

3. The Hills Have Eyes
Casual horror fans might not have even seen Wes Craven’s original “The Hill Have Eyes” and therefore probably don’t understand the level of anxiety that accompanied serious fright fanatics at the news of this remake. Serious fans can get touchy when a favorite of their’s is being redone, especially after the many subpar adaptations a lot of classic have received recently. Even a talented filmmaker would have trouble meeting the skill of Craven’s best film. Though Aja had one impressive horror behind him at this point, his mettle was still fully unproven.

Luckily, all in all, the new take on “The Hills Have Eyes” is pretty good. The story is faithful to the original and really only makes two serious changes to the tale. My biggest bone of contention would be with the changes made to the family of cannibalistic madman. Originally, the murderous clan was equal in numbers to the Carter folks and many deliberate comparisons were made between the two, suggesting that environment has more to do with the vast difference then anything else. In this rendition, the hill dwellers are a small colony and have become grotesquely deformed nuclear mutants. The main villain of the original piece, Papa Jupiter, is barely in this telling at all.

The social subtext of Wes Craven’s vision, the critique of the American family and proper society, has instead been transformed into a metaphor for America’s involvement in Iraq. Hear me out: A strictly conservative father leads his family into a desert area where the technologically advanced group is picked off easily by the primitive native inhabitants. Its only when the liberally minded man takes charge does things turn around for our victims. Reading too much into it? Perhaps. But the presence of an American flag in a key scene surely isn’t by accident.

As just a scare flick, the new “Hills” is successful, too. Aja continues to show a knack for creating intense attack sequences. His mobile home invasion is, dare I say, more suspenseful then Craven’s original. The final confrontation between Doug and Pluto is also a great moment.

The cast is solid and filled with several familiar faces, such as Ted Levine, Robert Joy, and Billy Drago. I might have preferred a more subtle take, the atomic mutants do push believability, but the monsters are created by cool old school make-up and I can’t complain about that. Aja’s visual style adapts well to the flatness of the Nevadan desert and though some say the remake lacks the grindhouse grittiness of the first, the director has create a new sort of grit, empathizing the heat and dirt. There’s plenty of blood too, even in today’s climate of ultra-gory torture horror, this is still one of the bloodiest films I’ve ever seen in a theater, but it’s never used needlessly and always has a point. Perhaps it’s his European roots, but Aja never befalls to the obnoxious trend of rock video shots prevalent in so much horror today. (Except briefly during the opening credits. Yeah, I noticed.) Unlike a lot of remakes, this one is respectful of its originator and was obviously made by fans. As another fan, I approve of the effort. [Grade: B+]

4. Mirrors
I had really hoped that “Mirrors” would be able to overcome its silly concept. I mean, the movie wants to do for reflective surfaces what “Psycho” did for showers. But I trusted the talent involved. So I’m sad to report that “Mirrors” is, to sum it up, dumb. My biggest disappointment is that almost all of Aja’s trademark style seems to be absent. Only twice does anything resembling his typical style rear its head at all.

The red-band trailer gave me hope that, even if the movie sucked, we’d at least get some crazy gore. Not really. There are only two moments and, while both are quite impressive, it amounts to about six minutes of a 110 minute movie. (And we saw most of the action in the R-rated trailer anyway.) The first act is composed mostly of what I call “stock-and-shock” segments. Basically the scare is pitched so far in advance that when it comes, we don’t even get a little jump. Besides, the scare is usually nothing more then something jumping at us or something “spooky” passing by the camera. The overzealous musical score helps none at all and often I was more irritated by the blast of loud cords then anything else.

Kiefer’s character starts out as morose but mildly compelling, but his ex-wife and kids that figure into the subplot are as boring as can be, in particular the kids, who are terrible actors. And what was with Paula Patton’s gratuitous cleavage? Her boobs are always falling out of her shirt and are framed prominently in every scene she’s in. I mean, its distracting.

After Amy Smart, who does nothing by the way, exits the film and the second act starts, things pick up. We basically have Kiefer Jack Bauer-ing every mirror he encounters. Sure, it’s goofy, but at least it’s entertaining. It should be a rule somewhere that the crazier Kiefer becomes, the better the movie gets. If the whole thing was just him punching glass, I would have liked it better. The mystery here is swiped pretty heavily from “The Ring” but didn’t completely bore me.

It wasn’t until the third act, when Busty Mom and Annoying Kids are locked in the house with the evil-mirror bound spirits, that things become uninteresting again. After another neat moment of gore, the movie takes a bizarre hard turn in its last minutes. We get a climatic fight scene that feels like something out of a video game and is tonally unlike anything else before. And then there’s a dumb twist.

Aja does get some atmosphere out of the creepy abandoned mall but any mood is soon crushed by a goofy plot point or a loud blast of music. I think it would be best if Aja stayed away from supernatural horror in the future as its obvious he doesn’t have any wings for it. Oh well. [Grade: C]

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