Okay, I know what you’re thinking before you even say it — and Karnak the Mystic I’m not — “looks like a cheap straight-to-video knockoff of “The Hills Have Eyes.'” And you know what? You’re right. And wrong. Be patient for the briefest of moments and all shall be explained.
Director Dave Parker (“The Dead Hate the Living”) has indeed lensed a relatively low-budget horror flick here that treads on some — I repeat, some — similar thematic ground as Wes Craven’s — ummmm— similarly-titled classic, namely that city folks should not leave the concrete jungle because rural America is populated by psychos out to kill you for the hell of it (a fact which the movie itself even acknowledges in one of its many self-referential dialogue sequences) , and the name itself is a way-obvious —again with the ummmm —- “homage,” shall we say. Hell, if you take a look at the DVD cover pictured below, you’ll see that they even rip off the logo of Alexandre Aja’s HHE remake exactly:
And while we’re (briefly) on the subject of the DVD (which contains a nice 16:9 letterboxed picture, a first-class 5.1 surround mix, a feature-length generally thorough and scene-specific commentary from Parker, co-writer David J. Schow, and producer Robert Meyer Burnett, and a just-under-30-minute “making of” featurette, for those of you who get into the extras), whatever you don’t — I repeat, absolutely do not — read the back of the box before you see watch this film, it gives away waaaaayyyy too much. And yes, this is a lesser-budgeted picture shot in Bulgaria (where Steve Miner’s deplorable “Day of the Dead” remake was also made for budgetary reasons) that, while it got the occasional screening at some recent horror conventions, was destined for DTV release from the get-go by Warner Premiere and Dark Castle Entertainment (the credits even list the script as being a “teleplay”).
So that’s where you’re right — but before you pat yourself on the back too hard, this is the point at which your preconceived notions about “The Hills Run Red” get left in the dust, because in truth, while it “borrows” these elements from HHE, Parker’s film is actually an equal-opportunity thief that also swipes elements liberally from countless other horror staples.
We’ve got the masked slasher a la Jason and Michael. The film-within-a-film (or “metafilm,” if you prefer) conceit from “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare” and Fulci’s “Cat in the Brain.” We’ve got the abandoned cabin in the woods from “The Evil Dead, ” “Cabin Fever,” and too many others to mention. We’ve got a little bit of “Saw”-style torture porn. We’ve got the “movie to evil to ever be seen by human eyes” of John Carpenter’s “Masters of Horror” entry “Cigarette Burns.” And we’ve got the previously-mentioned self-referentiality-as-a-quick-means-of-purportedly-“subverting”-standard-horror-elements that made the “Scream” series, and damn near ever other teen horror that followed it, such a hit. So while there well and truly is nothing new under the sun — or in “The Hills Run Red,” for that matter — Parker and company wear their influences on their collective sleeves so obviously here that it’s obvious from the get-go that he’s not trying to reinvent the wheel, much less give you something daringly original. What HRR is attempting to do, rather, is essentially serve the horror equivalent of Irish stew — familiar ingredients blended together in a (hopefully) appetizing manner that hit the taste buds a bit differently when mixed in combination than they would if prepared individually.
And in that respect, this reviewer must say, “The Hills Run Red” succeeds admirably.
In 1982, director Wilson Wyler Concannon (portrayed in flashback by William Sadler of “The Mist,” among other credits) made his one and only film, a shockingly brutal slasher flick called “The Hills Run Red” about a countryside psycho simply known as “Babyface,” a man-child brute so disturbed that he cut his own face off and tied on a baby mask with barbed wire before going about a life of murder, mayhem, and mutilation. He even carried a baby’s rattle — billed as his “death rattle” — that he shakes before descending upon his victims just to let them know that they’re, you know, fucked. I guess he’s just courteous like that (and this reviewer must admit that the first time he heard the “death rattle” it was, in fact, pretty damn creepy). But I digress.
Anyway, “The Hills Run Red” traumatized audiences so much that it was pulled from theaters in just a few days and all prints of the film were recalled and, presumably, destroyed. The actors who played in it have never been found, and Concannon himself has even vanished. All that exists to prove this film was ever made is a trailer and a handful of still photos.
Now, what the hell do you think would happen if such a scenario existed in reality? Needless to say, a small but fanatical cult has formed around the film, and they’re willing to go to great lengths to try to track down an actual print of the movie itself.
One such devotee is our erstwhile protagonist Tyler (Tad Hilgenbrinck of, dare I even mention it, “The Lost Boys 2”), a film student who’s determined to do what all others have so far failed to accomplish, namely get ahold of “The Hills Run Red” by any means necessary, and to document his quest for this bit of celluloid legend in a movie of his own. Succeed or fail, he’s got his trust high-def video camera with him and is going to record his exploits for posterity — or maybe just for his fellow “Hills” fans, whatever.
Along for the journey are his girlfriend, Serina (Janet Montgomery) and his best friend and roommate Lalo (Alex Wyndham), who have been screwing around on Tyler behind his back while his unhealthy “Hills” obsession has taken over every aspect of his life.
When we join the story, though, Tyler’s finally gotten a lucky break —a-never-seen-on-screen fellow HRR aficionado has leaves a message on his answering machine (guess he blew all his spending money on his film gear) saying that he’s found Concannon’s daughter, Alexa (Sophie Monk), who actually starred in the film as a child, working at a strip club about 20 minutes outside of the never-named city they live in. And here’s where the movie asks you to suspend disbelief maybe just a little too much.
First off, Tyler goes into said strip club and asks for Alexa by her first and last name — and the manager points her out to him! Try that at a tittie bar in your hometown and see how you fare. Ask for a girl by her stage name — “Sherri,” “Honey,” “Cassidy,” “Vanity,” whatever — and you might have some luck. Ask for her by the name on her birth certificate — “Mary Jones, ” “Sally Smith,” you name it — and the best you’ll probably get is a blank stare in return because the manager or bouncer or bartender or whoever probably doesn’t even know her real name since she’s paid in cash and those establishments tend not to bother with a whole lot of paperwork if you look like you’re over 18. Tyler asks for “Alexa Concannon” and the boss-man points her right out.
Next up, Tyler finds she’s a hopeless heroin junkie living out of a motel. So what does he do? Ties her up to her bed, flushes her drugs and hardware down the toilet, and stays with her until goes through painful withdrawals on the way to getting clean from her smack habit — all of which takes a grand total of three days! Dear God, there are people who spend three years getting that stuff out of their system, and going “cold turkey” almost never works! That’s why they invented a little something called methadone.
Anyway, with a newly-clear-headed Alexa in tow, he, Lalo, and Serina all head off into the woods to find the legendary cabin of Wilson Wyler Concannon, where Alexa thinks there might actually be a print of the film that her father stashed away — oh, and apparently he shot the film itself in the nearby environs, so Tyler’s got a major documentarian’s wet dream on his hands here since he can record his search for the lost movie and his pilgimage to its filming locations all in one go.
On their very fist night on the woods, though, about halfway to where Alexa thinks she remembers the cabin is (and we get a lot of nice interplay along the way between present-day “reality” and “archival” footage of the” film itself,”particularly when they stumble upon spots where some of the grislier kill scenes were recorded), they run into trouble of the local variety when a pack of hillbilly hooligans descends upon them while they sleep with the intention of — stop me if you’ve heard this one before — and before that — and before that — and before that — stealing all their shit and raping the women and recording it for sale to the ever-nefarious “porno industry.”
Things don’t go quite as planned for the redneck rapists, though, when they hear the sound of a rattle in the cold night air and come face to face (or face to mask, as the case may be) with none other than “Babyface” himself, who apparently is much more than just a slice (pun intended or not? I leave it for you to decide) of celluloid fiction.
What follows next are a series of usually-downright-surprising-and-often-quite-nauseatingly-revolting plot twists as our merry band of wilderness wanderers run for their lives, find Concannon’s cabin, hide wherever they can when they need to, and generally try to discern fact from fiction in their attempt to unravel the legend of “The Hills Have Eyes.” The kill scenes are terrific, suitably gruesome, and uniformly well-shot. The musical score nicely complements — and yes, okay, at times foreshadows — the action on-screen, and the “aren’t’-we-so-very-clever”ness of the film’s opening acts gives way to some good old-fashioned stomach-churning horror and seriously brual violence.
“Babyface” himself (Raicho Vasilev, not that it really matters — a guy who, I’m guessing by the name, must be a Bulgarian local, as were much of the cast and crew) is one of the downright more awesome slashers to hit the scene in a long time, and his backstory unfolds at a nicely deliberate pace, as does the story of whatever happened to Concannon and his film. Simply put, “The Hills Run Red” will leave you guessing most of the way through its our-and-twenty-minutes-or-so run. Okay, there’s one extra little “gotcha!” moment at the end, as the credits are rolling, that’s not all that exciting or, for that matter, even necessary, but I’ll forgive Parker and his cohorts that one extra exclamation point and I understand why they overplayed their hand since they really are on a pretty solid roll with the surprises for the last 20-30 minutes and probably figured they had one more trick up their sleeve when, in actuality, they didn’t. Certainly a forgivable sin.
As are most of the others in “The Hills Run Red.” Hilgenbrinck, for his part, doesn’t have nearly the acting chops to carry a lead role, but the other players, particularly Monk, who’s asked to go through a lot of sudden character changes as the story unfolds, acquit themselves pretty well, and as “final girls” go, Janet Montgomery does a pretty nice job of things.
To be honest, I think that Warner Premiere could have had a little bit of luck with this in theaters. It’s certainly a damn sight better than most of this year’s slasher fare (like the wretched “Friday the 13th” remake), or even that of most recent years. “Babyface” is downright iconic, and the story, while openly derivative as hell, certainly is less so than any of the remakes clogging up theater screens these days, and to answer the question your humble reviewer posed earlier, yes, the various overly-familiar ingredients are indeed blended together in such a way as to make the individual, and admittedly instantly-recognizable, parts come across in a unique new combination of flavors (just to bring back the food metaphor). It’s not the work of a master chef (although Parker has certainly honed his craft beyween the year 2000 , when “The Dead Hate the Living” was released, and 2009 — I gather he’s mostly been doing featurette/DVD extra-type “making of” shorts on various films and filmmakers in the lengthy interim), but it’s a better meal than most you’ve had lately, and if Parker tinkers with his ingredients a bit more and shows a little more daring in terms of being willing to add his own seasoning, he may just cook up a classic yet.
Now it’s time for dinner, but before I go I — what’s that you say? Really? What clued you in that I was hungry?