When The Hills Have Eyes works, which is quite frequently, it’s because we’re given a lot of time to build suspense, while showing us a family that’s just like your ordinary family. These are sympathetic, although sometimes annoying, characters, and they taunt and poke fun at each other with every passing moment. There’s a lot of dialogue that doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, but it helps us get to know these people.
We open with words on our screen telling us that there was a bunch of nuclear testing done in the desert of the United States, and that after it was shut down, the government denied the radiation having anything to do with the rapidly increasing rate of birth defects in the area. If you’ve already guessed how the villains are of this picture, go get yourself a cookie. After our opening live-action scene, which involves a few scientists being murdered, we get pictures of nuclear bombs going off interspersed with images of people who have obviously been affected from birth by the radiation. Later on, we see people with these defects, and we’re saddened that they have had to live with them. We become less sad the more we see of them.
After this disturbing, yet effective, opening scenes, we meet our family. The members are too numerous to mention, but there’s a mother, father, two children, as well as a second married couple and their baby daughter who have some sort of relationship to the previously mentioned family. I think that the woman of the second married couple is another child from the first couple, as the man of that marriage is unhappy about coming on the family vacation.
They stop at a gas station, where the owner has decided that it would be a good idea to send them astray on their trip in the desert. Because gas station owners in the middle of nowhere are always bad news in horror movies, this shortcut ends up leaving them stranded in the desert with no cell phone signals, and no one apart from the man who sent them there to know they’re out there. They hit spike strips, which we see being pulled away afterwards, and begin having things go wrong.
At first, one of their dogs runs away, and is cut open. One of the characters finds it, but keeps that a secret for no rational reason. Later, characters split up, which is never a good idea, and some are killed. And then the crazies begin exposing themselves to us more frequently, in broad daylight, and terrorize our group even more.
Apart from how well we get to know our cast, there’s one other thing that makes The Hills Have Eyes impressive: About two-thirds of it doesn’t take place at night. Horror movies like being in dark places, as the dark is far scarier than the light. It also allows you to hide your villains more easily, using shadows to obscure them from view.
Setting this film in the light, but managing to still be scary is something impressive that director Alexandre Aja does. I was happy to find myself being thrilled and scared even during the daylight scenes, largely because the villains, (a bunch of crazy, deformed miner descendants), can still pop out from out of nowhere. Since we’re in a desert with a bunch of hills, these people can come around the corner or jump down from the hilltops whenever they please. This is a tactic they abuse, and to good effect.
There are moments when The Hills Have Eyes doesn’t work though, and this mostly comes in the last segment of our time spent watching this film. Once a lot of the characters are killed off (and trust me, they are) there isn’t a lot more for them to do than fight back. This is far less interesting than earlier on when we have to watch them survive. The crazy people from the mines end up becoming as stupid as we’d assume they should be, despite seeing them as intelligent people earlier, and the victims turn far smarter than they previously appeared to be. The tides are turned, but it’s not all that interesting or frightening.
For a horror movie, I was quite impressed by all of the individual elements. The acting and characters were both strong, the production values were high, and there weren’t as many jump scenes as I expected. Anticipating these types of scenes is scarier than having them pop-up every couple of minutes, but The Hills Have Eyes doesn’t fall into this trap. There were also some funny moments which helped to keep the mood light early on before dragging us down with the horror portion in the latter stages.
For the most part, this is a scary film. Not I-can’t-sleep-tonight scary, but more along the lines of I-didn’t-see-that-one-coming-and-now-I’m-kind-of-scared. This isn’t a film that’s going to be all that memorable or one that will stay with you for a long time, but it’ll surprise you enough in the moment to satisfy your thirst for terror. It’ll also fulfill your wish to see a lot of gore, because there is a ton of it here.
The Hills Have Eyes is a solid horror movie that, unfortunately, falls apart in its final act. It’s still worth a watch though, as it has a bunch of scares, a solid build-up, as well as being an effective horror movie that mostly takes place during the day, a rarity. I had a good time with it, even if its well-developed characters did end up annoying me more than I’d like.