Yet another remake. It's quite an interesting one too, being far better than Wes Craven's original for something like the first hour, but then falling away in such a specific way that it's rather instructive.
Until quite near the end, I was thinking this was a huge improvement. All the dodgy stuff from the original film has been cleaned up. Most obviously the vacationing family have been given characterisation! It's still not particularly deep, but at least this time it won't take you half an hour to work out who everyone is. This film's clearer about all the relationships and they make sure that you will be too. Even after I'd finished watching all of the original film, I still wasn't sure if Brenda and Bobby really were siblings. Here I knew as soon as they opened their mouths. Similarly there's now a clear age gap between all three couples, so you're never left wondering who's hooked up with who. The script even betrays something of a sense of humour, although don't expect that to last long.
"Watch your fucking mouth."
"At least we can breathe now." (lights up a cigarette)
They even give a character moment to the dog! We see it find its friend disembowelled, after which it turns killer.
All that I liked, but much more important for the horror is the characterisation of the mutants. Fortunately this lot aren't just hairy hillbillies, but actual monsters. Texas Chainsaw Massacre seems almost a stronger influence than the original The Hills Have Eyes. Instead of being introduced to them through a cute cavegirl being pathetic at the gasoline station, we get a cool and impressively violent pre-credits sequence involving four scientists and a pickaxe. All this I liked a lot. They're deformed, subhuman beasts. Instead of merely being extreme survivalists, they almost come across as evil commandos out on a war to destroy mankind. Obviously this makes them less chatty, mostly being grunting imbeciles, but overall they're a much more powerful engine for a horror movie. Their table manners are less gross, but to make up for that we get a more disgusting scene with the pet bird.
What's more, the film's doing much more with their nuclear testing origins. The original's references to this felt like throwaways. Here we begin with a montage of nuclear testing and real-life photos of birth deformities, although the filmmakers cheated a bit since these were actually the aftereffects of Agent Orange in Vietnam. A great chunk of the film's last act is set in a nuclear testing village, built by the U.S. government in the 1950s and populated by wooden dummies. An unusually articulate mutant gets a speech about how his people were created by us and our radiation, but not before he's sung the National Anthem.
This is all good stuff and sure enough, the first hour of the film is excellent. Morocco (ahem, New Mexico) is terrific, almost looking like Mars when we're looking at scientists in radiation suits in the pre-credits sequence. Everything feels slick and professional, but in a dusty, serious way that doesn't betray the original's low-budget 1970s feel. The gore is stronger and the blood now looks like blood. What's the story with those plastic bottle trees, by the way? I particularly liked the bit where Bobby is asking what's happened to his red hooded sweater, shortly before we see a mutant running around in it. That's our first clue that the mutants have even got within a mile of our heroes' vehicles, let alone getting inside and stealing things.
Oh, and there may not be any nudity, but we do get to see both young ladies in their bras. Nice breasts.
By now I'd already noticed a few points where I preferred the original, but I didn't mind. It almost feels like a mark of respect, leaving a reason to watch the 1977 version instead of just robbing it blind. The original's old-timer at the gas station was more fun, although also more of a cliche. Grandma's reality-resistance has been toned down, but on the upside Grandad has become a tougher customer who reminded me slightly of Robert de Niro. I missed Bald Retard, but I'm sure he stood out more among the hillbillies than he would have among these missing links. That anthem-singing mutant looks a bit like him, actually. All that I could live with.
However everything started falling apart when the heroes met the mutants. This starts with the trailer scene, which feels more laboured. There was an offhand brutality to the 1977 version that I preferred, even if 2006's Big Bob Carter had a much bigger gun. Nevertheless it's still an effective scene... until the aftermath, when someone cradles their dying loved one in their lap and the director decides we need plinky guitar music. Eh? Whassat? Bugger off. That was the warning sign. Of all the movies I've ever watched, this is the first time I've ever hated an incidental score. Usually it's fine, but every so often it'll erupt into Melodramatic Movie Music at what it thinks are the big emotional moments and make the film look like a spoof of itself. What is this, a Jerry Bruckheimer movie? Twice I actually told my TV screen to fuck off.
That's one very specific problem, but more serious is perhaps the cast. You remember I was praising their characterisation? Well, this is where I have to wonder about what "good characterisation" should mean in the context of a horror movie. This lot conform better to the commonly agreed standards for a well-written character, but they're worse than the originals at being attacked by mutants. In a film called The Hills Have Eyes, this is a problem. The teenagers are even more teenaged and Dan Byrd's Bobby Carter isn't fit to shine the shoes of Robert Houston's. Oh, the actor's fine. He's doing everything the script asks of him, but he's still a kid rather than a dangerous-looking loose cannon and you don't expect him to do much except die. He also gets a scene where he's armed and standing a safe distance away from a mutant, but instead of just shooting the guy decides to run away screaming and waste all his bullets by firing backwards blindly as he goes. Robert Houston wouldn't have done that.
Similarly I wasn't interested in Aaron Stanford's Doug Bukowski. I can see the Straw Dogs vibe they're going for with him, but I'm afraid I didn't care what happened to him and tended to be vaguely surprised that he hadn't died yet.
All this is a real shame, since it takes what had been a pretty good movie and undercuts its final act. The mutants are still horrible and occasionally Chainsaw Massacrey, with a fridge of dismembered bodies and a room of hanging carcasses. One of them even turns into one of the X-Men's mutants for his fight scenes, smashing through walls and throwing people through windows. Maybe they're thin walls?
Despite my reservations, I'm still glad I saw this film. It's faithful to the original and it has enough integrity to make comparisons between them interesting. The first film had more effective heroes but relatively lame mutants, whereas here when it matters it's the other way around. Another big difference might be their aesthetics. Do you prefer low-budget 1970s or a well-shot, atmospheric piece of 21st century filmmaking? I don't know which I'd say is the better film, though. If you can manage not to have a problem with the incidental music, definitely this one.