Tuesday, 26 July 2011

The Hills Have Eyes (2006)

Starring: Aaron Stanford, Ted Levine, Kathleen Quinlan
Music: Tomandandy (Thomas Hadju/ Andy Milburn)
Director: Alexandre Aja
Screenplay: Alexandre Aja, Grégory Levasseur
Director of Photography: Maxime Alexandre

As I’ve mentioned before, in a post on the far-superior ‘28 Weeks Later’, one cannot view horror-remake/pastiche projects such as ‘The Hills Have Eyes’ without an acute awareness of the fact that Aja and his ilk have grown up with '70s grime-horror in their blood. They want us to know it – they flaunt that influence as a badge of honour, in the same way that certain bands will name-check Captain Beefheart; the way that, goddam it, Bill Clinton will name-check Peter Brotzmann, with off-hand, aw-shucks wonder. What I’m trying to say (and this is why that Clinton reference fits – I’m well aware that he’s not claiming to play his sax like Brotzmann) is that you can name-check anyone you want (not even as the usual trick – the politician (Gordon Brown) pretending to like some popular band of the moment (the Arctic Monkeys) – you can genuinely like them, as I’m sure David Cameron genuinely likes those '80s bands whose music comes in part as a reaction against the very political philosophy that Cameron now rams down our bleeding mouths every single day); you can even turn it a very fine pastiche of their work, but if all that remains is a kind of recycled homage, we’re not really getting anywhere. Now influence consists at once of absorbing/ building upon the lessons of one’s predecessors, and reacting against them. One could thus see the original version of ‘Last House on the Left’, for example, as a more ‘realistic’ reaction to the stylized/ historicised settings of Hammer horrors, or the contemporary, but comic-strip-oriented sensibility of ‘it came from outer space’ monster and red-scare flicks, and George Romero’s ‘Martin’ as a commentary on vampire movies as delusion (“there’s no real magic…ever”), from within the ostensible trappings of a contemporary vampire movie. In the case of Aja and crew, though, the contemporary elements tend to feel rather more like surface trimmings added to the essential core of ’70s movies – a few cutesy political references/ ‘resonances’ to make the more liberally-inclined audience members grin with smug and quickly-forgotten self-satisfaction/righteousness - and then, more noise, more thunder, more blood, more gore for everyone else. Despite its reputation, ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ is not an especially violent film, in terms of what is actually shown – but psychologically, of course, it’s totally draining, its impact coming as much what you don’t see as what you do. Aja’s tendency to leave nothing to the imagination, meanwhile, is good for a few quick and immediate scares – but, as for lasting unease/disquiet, forget it. This is what you deserve, so this is what you’ll get: the instant rush as opposed to the slow burn, the product of a synapse-firing computer age. These films are the product of assimilation, of forgetting – even the return of the repressed as the mere recycling of tired old clichés, incorporated into the viscera of an instant-porn, instant-food sensibility: thrills on tap, connected always to money and exploitation, a digital sheen smoothed over old stains - the money shot, whether it be pure ejaculation or a severed heard or limb or torso, it doesn’t matter – that, and then the lapse into lethargy and sofa-fried-potato slump, or regimented sports-fanatic/ fantastically-busy-businessman shtick – too much to do or nothing doing, in either case papering over a void, like the crack in the wall into which Harriet Andersson stares and wishes to step, in ‘Through a Glass, Darkly’. Hell, let's leave Bergman's religious angst alone, 'The Hills' isn’t supernatural horror, in any case – ghosts, repression, the past, all of that, it’s there, but clothed in pseudo-scientific credit-sequence image-jumble (mutants as the result of nuclear experimentation, a curiously retro anxiety, complete with ’50s pop song-soundtrack and preserved American model town/ nuclear-testing site.) Maybe that’s what mainstream movies are about now, anyway – the digestion and regurgitation of a history of film that seems to have stalled into cheap digital s(t)imulations (watch Johnny Depp’s Keith Richards impersonation in 3D at yr local corporate multiplex, then get the blu-ray HD super-surround-sound tie-in home-system viewing-experience (and don’t forget the T-shirt…)), searches for significance hoisted onto ’50s pop-culture models (‘The Dark Knight’ as a combination of pop-kitsch with ‘artistic’ or even ‘philosophical’ intent), and easy-snack genre-staples: the action movie as an increasingly machine-dominated world of graphix and hyper-real super-violence (hello, Michael Bay; and hello, James ‘Avatar’ Cameron as well, you won’t get out of this, because your veneer of sub-new-age-liberal-Hollywood-faff and ethnicky-piped-soundtrack doesn’t pull any wool over eyes – we all know (do you know too?) that it conceals the very same techno-sadism), the romantic comedy as an increasingly facile assertion that everything’s gonna be alright (Kit Withnail: “To quote the psychologist Oliver James: “the Beatles’ hit ‘All you need is love’ really showed how warped our thinking had become by the end of the 60s”. This is a message we see throughout the media – if your life is bad, find love, and nothing else will matter. Consider for a moment how many falling-in-love films there are. Thousands? Now, how many seizing-the-means-of-production films are there? Alright, in a less Marxist idiom, how many films show a just society and eradication of poverty as the plot’s climax. Ten? Less? How often have the messages of the romantic films been, “lots of things are not going well but none of them matter now because I have the girl/guy”?”)).

OK, so there’s all that. Back to the torture-porners and the horror-specialists, and back to their heroes: Craven, Carpenter, et al, their work emerging (so says ‘The American Nightmare’) as a specific product of the 1970s, as a reaction to the defeat / 'rehabilitation' of hippie culture by the establishment. (And see here Adam Curtis on the alliance between the then-emerging computer technology and hippy, or post-hippy generation 'cool guys' who eventually became, in the nineties and noughties, the new elite, marketed as the young people's friends (producing their ipods, their mobile phones, their laptops, shaping their social world & way of thinking thru technology), perhaps socially 'liberal' (tolerant of homosexuality, multiculturalism, etc) while actually just as oppressive/exploitative of third-world labour/in league with global capitalism, as the more obviously 'enemy' authoritarians of the 1950s. (So, for Andreas Baader or for Wilhem Reich, sexual revolution was inseparable from, was perhaps even more important than previously-articulated versions of Marxist/social revolution – yet, once it's granted, the freedom to fuck simply means that fucking itself becomes a part of the system, not an act of rebellion against it – becomes yet another quick-fix drug and long-term dependency to mask un-freedom and helplessness.)) Perhaps it’s the beginnings of this process (assimilation) as well as the endings of another (the ’60s hope of revolution) that these ’70s horror films deal with, almost unconsciously, and it’s that not-even-conscious knowledge that makes them still so powerful today, endows them with something beyond the cheap thrills and seedy wrongness that gives them their immediate illicit and pleasurable edge. Fast-forward thirty years or so, and the cynicism/despair of that generation proves well-founded – the same imperialist wars and exploitation at home and abroad; the same inequalities (however well-disguised); the same right-wing extremism run rampant; the same gun-toting misogyny, sometimes even passing for feminist liberation (as in the discourses surrounding the veil, the smoothly-rolled-out justifications for the invasion of Afghanistan as the liberation of women from the grip of the Taliban (now women can be blonde and beautiful and dance near-naked in the foam and lather of a car wash!, and “music and song are returning to that devastated land”) – tinges of ’60s rhetoric wedded with the advanced capitalism of the 2000s and beyond, total assimilation/ indifference as the norm. Indifference – not revolt or joy or rage or despair, but indifference – push the envelope further, it still doesn’t do anything for us (the law of diminishing returns) – nothing is now unthinkable, in the world-wide anything-goes freak-show (cf. Mike and Kate Westbrook’s ‘The Waxeywork Show’); nothing, that is, except the overthrow of global capitalism) – hence, the increasing gore-count of the horror movie, post-the slasher craze, post-gut-ripping zombie apocalypse (the transition from ‘Night of the Living Dead’, with its sombre late 60s black-and-white images and its library-music score, to ‘Day of the Dead', with its blood-red ’80s colour and synthesizers); now, the latest thing, 'torture porn' (which is anyway only a slight amplification of the increased violence in non-horror genres – the casual blasting away of millions of assailants, the endless whiz-bang, gun-firing, exploding, ripping, shredding, titillating techno-violence of superhero movies and action films; or even the fact that characters' deaths are passed off as a joke, not once, but twice, in the supposedly 'family-friendly' gazillionth sequel to 'Pirates of the Carribean'). So if there is, apparently, nothing to react to, no envelope to push further (here’s an underground horror movie supposedly shot in one take, like a marriage between Hitchock’s ‘Rope’ and a snuff movie; here’s three hours of vaguely historically-justified torture; and so on), what to do? Go back to the past, it seems – to ‘Texas Chainsaw’ territory –grime, dirt, shacks, hillbillies/hicks, the deformed and ugly as villains (a too-easy equation of physical with moral ugliness, one might say), the young and pretty getting mutilated, a family unit fragmenting and re-constituting itself as, first scared and scarred, then remorselessly violent and vengeful.

Aja's 'The Hills Have Eyes’ tries to avoid the jaded sense of gore for its own sake through an hour-long build-up – not without gore (witness the opening scene), but mostly focused on establishing character, situation, location, etc. ('Wolf Creek', one of the better of the ‘torture porn’ movies, does this to a far greater extent, its opening half seeming to come from an entirely different film to the relentless second – an easygoing travelogue with pretty sunset backdrops that eventually turns into night-time torture claustrophobia.)) Yet this structure is in some ways rather second-hand – the plot is fairly faithful to Wes Craven's original – and in any case, is (over-)compensated for in the bloody second hour, to which we’ll come in a minute. As I’ve been re-iterating, Aja and the other horror-(re)makers/pasticheurs, have grown up with a particular kind of ’70s horror movie wedged deep under their skin, and, rather than attempting to forge something new from it, seem to wish merely to re-contextualise their predecessors for the Iraq War era (or, in the case of ‘Hostel’, in the light of Europe vs. America tensions and worries about sex-trafficking.) Of course, as horror specialists have always done, both Eli Roth and Aja have their cake and eat it – picture their work as an absurd, satirical amplification of deepest xenophobic fears (murderous gipsies, slavs, rednecks, inbreds, mutants, and disabled people), but one that also risks re-enforcing popular stereotypes, that risks the alarmist and intolerant absurdity of Daily Mail politics. Iraq, of course, provides a handy, and perhaps too easy parallel with Vietnam– another widely-unpopular, but lengthily-fought imperialist war, married to fear of the other (immigrants, mutants, 'ragheads', terrorists, what-have-you) and an emphasis on romantic love and 'family values' as a saving grace (as in the film ‘Dear John’) – all these provide plenty of material for horrific/satirically-tinged exploration, well within the bounds of genre cinema. The problem with simply re-doing and slightly tweaking what went before (more gory, more explicit in its political references) is that it no longer seems surprising, or even very reflective of society – in the age of the internet and endlessly-accessible information, everything becomes second-hand, nothing truly felt. We view the past thru a prism of movies – life is a genre cliché, politics is understood, or glimpsed, through horror films rather than, as in the 60s, through Marcuse or Marx and direct action. The result is a series of undoubtedly efficient genre pics – and sometimes, as with the afore-mentioned ‘Wolf Creek’, genuinely effective ones – but there's something rather too calculated about their endless ferocity, and, above all, their political 'commentary'.

OK, in Aja’s film, the transformation of a wimpily impractical mobile phone salesman into all-American instrument of revenge – he attacks his enemies with a baseball bat, and even a mini stars- and-stripes – is no doubt intended as parodic. And the film’s most interesting moment, a brief shot in which we see a bald, mutant mother figure watching television while combing a doll’s wig (unable to come to terms with her own ugliness, living vicariously through the image of perfect, half-infantilised, half-sexual Barbie beauty, for which all should strive), suggests that it’s not so much nuclear testing as the nuclear-family, or television, the drug of the nation, that’s turned her into a monster, that’s groomed her for this role (women as passive, home-bound dolts; men as ‘active’, out-door, murderers, their actions the literal manifestation of the cannibalistic tendencies (feeding off others) encouraged by the dog-eat-dog world of work). But, aside from 'Big Brain's' "you've made us what we've become" line, there’s no expansion of this – as Roger Ebert points out, the film’s killers are not “individuals with personalities, histories and motives”, but “simply engines of destruction.”

The stars 'n' stripes & a baseball bat : all-American weapons

Television, The Drug of the Nation

In attempting to adapt the aesthetics and subject-matter of '70s horror to a contemporary setting, and with the needs of a gore-saturated, thrill-seeking public in mind, what Aja has actually succeeded in doing is to create a brood of villains whose simple nastiness regresses to the cheapest monster-movie stereotype: not Frankenstein's monster, with his child-like emotionalism, not Dracula, with his caddish charm, not Romero's zombies, with their melancholic stumbles through the darkness of death, but infinitely disposable hick cannibals, cheap cannon fodder.

Consider Craven's hill-dwelling clan; consider the fact that the opening of his film includes more lines of dialogue for Ruby (the clan's little girl) than the entirety of the remake; consider the way that there's something rather exhilarating about the original brood, hippies with a macabre sense of humour who have taken to the hills, where their minds have become deranged, their clothes a mixture of raggedy left-overs from civilisation and primitivist, quasi-tribal chic - they are what straight America finds itself up against, or they are what straight America imagines itself to have fought, and defeated; paranoiac Manson family values (the clan, the tribe, the commune, breeding like rabbits) threatening the the strict confines of a more containable family unit, easier to fit into pre-ordained roles and to sell products to. Aja doesn't really give us much sense that the Hill clan are a 'family' at all; we briefly glimpse some small children, Big Mama sits watching TV, and Ruby skips waif-like through the desert landscape, but there's little sense of personal interaction or of particular relationships between individuals.

Consequently, despite the satirical touches, one doesn't feel the shock that was present in Craven’s original at the transformation of the ‘ordinary family’ (here, sexy/narcissistic teenage daughter, moody teenage son, hippy-turned-religious, let's-get-the-family-together-praying mom, and tough ex-cop dad, attempting to gain back some of his all-American manhood by going out into the desert (albeit as tourist rather than active participant in survival games)) into a ‘violent brood’. Nor do we have much sense of parallels with the mutant family, as mirror-image or horrible reversal of the norm. Our heroes’ embrace of bloodthirsty survival tactics, the revealing of the real violence at the heart of their comfortable ‘normality’ (the violence, in fact, that allows it to exist) is presented as more exhilarating than anything else: right, most of the women are out of the way, killed off in a trailer massacre – now the teenagers and the 'wimp' son-in-law can go and kick some ass! One might have thought that the scene where said wimp is mocked by the teenage boy, no less, for being a pacifist, gun-control democrat, might lead to some critique or even criticism of violence, but instead we just revel in revenge – though the ‘monsters’ are in some sense victims, their sheer physical ugliness, their cannibalistic excesses, and the whooshes every time they dart round the edges of the frame (Roger Ebert: “just as a knife in a slasher movie can make a sharpening sound just because it exists, so do mutants make swatches and swootches when they run in front of cameras”), make them simply into evil antagonists (aside from Ruby, the mournful-faced little red riding hood girl, her costume’s ‘Don’t’ Look Now’ echoes apparently unintentional), and we have no problem with them being dispatched bloodily and gruesomely. Nor do we have a problem with the ‘Straw Dogs’-style transformation of the son-in-law – the way power guitar swells on the soundtrack every time he dispatches a member of the 'family' while he takes off his glasses in semi-parodic, semi-‘heroic’ (‘cool’) fashion (said action repeated not once, but several times over, like the quips James Bond makes after he dispatches another larger-than-life villain.) I can’t help feeling that we’re actually, in some way, meant to feel liberated by this – the guy's saving his baby, after all, being a ‘real man’, so let’s sit back and enjoy the ride, alright, with no moral qualms. Craven, remember, ended his film with a freeze frame as the screen turned red on the murderous rampage of a previously benign, ‘ordinary’ man – we were meant to be shocked by this, perhaps ashamed at our own exhilarated complicity, but we were certainly not meant to revel in it. Thus, while Aja’s ‘Hills’ purports to be critical of all-American values, it ends up simply reinforcing them in the usual action/horror-movie style (see Michael Caine in ‘Harry Brown’, or Kevin Bacon (of all people) in ‘Death Sentence’) – sod it, let’s just blow the fuckers away. This is why its apparent anti-Americanism feels rather tokenistic; yes, maybe an American film-maker wouldn't have made the scene in which a wheelchair-bound cripple with a massively deformed neck sings 'The Star Spangled Banner', or another is killed by having the stars and stripes literally thrust thru his neck, but in a way such touches make matters worse – they are just a European reflex-instinct, a simulated edge of political 'credibility' to make critics stroke their beards or beads in happy appreciation. It's certainly not the fever dream that horror, or horror-tinged surrealism, is capable of unleashing – the anti-Americanism of Artaud, and, to a lesser extent, Céline', is delirious almost to the point of caricature (and such bitter attacks don’t have to come from the United States at all – we could easily include William Burroughs here). However much Aja wants us to feel it, what we have here is not delirium, not the giddy and horrific transformation of social values and situations, but genre clichés amped up to new levels of violence and noise (perhaps so that we won’t recognise them as clichés), and a facile resort to easy, glorified violence, the family unit triumphing through adversity – and of course, the expected ‘shock’ ending, as the camera pulls out from the victors’ group huddle to reveal that they are being watched through another pair of binoculars. There’s a sequel too, don’t you know.

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