Though I spent much of my youth imbibing the pleasures of Grade-Z slasher films, somehow I always neglected Wes Craven’s original The Hills Have Eyes. I did see the sequel when I was around 11 — long enough ago that the only thing I can recall is the striking impression made by Michael Berryman, the actor whose bald, elongated head and permanent sneer made him the films’ breakout star and a horror-movie icon. But I never got around to watching the first one until last week, in preparation for this review, and when I finally saw the horrible acting, dialogue, and production values, my reaction was, Well, at least the remake can’t be worse. And indeed it isn’t: Esthetically, it’s an improvement over the original in every way, though thematically it takes on a bit more than a simple horror movie can handle.
In setting up the remake, Craven and his producing partners handpicked the 27-year-old French writer/director Alexandre Aja and his regular co-writer Gregory Levasseur. This is only their third feature and their first since the grisly, ludicrous High Tension, which was released in France in 2003 but only made its way to this side of the Atlantic last summer. Where High Tension had a completely nonsensical plot with a “twist” that made a hash of everything that had gone before, Aja and Levasseur have a reliable template here — indeed it’s one of the classic plots of the horror genre — and they hew close to the original story, making mostly necessary or at least useful changes: updating it to the present, making the killers more hideous and frightening, and cutting Craven’s lousy exposition. They’ve jettisoned what didn’t work before while holding on to the elements that were effective, such as Don Peake’s jarring score, which is echoed in the new music by the composing duo tomandandy.
Aja sets up the premise concisely, through a violent new prologue and a set of opening titles that uses stock footage to show the real horrors of nuclear radiation, then introduces the whitebread suburban family that will be the victims of the film’s tribe of cannibals. Kathleen Quinlan and Ted Levine are Ethel and “Big Bob” Carter, a Boomer couple on vacation with their three kids, Bobby (Dan Byrd), Brenda (Emilie de Ravin from “Lost”), and Lynne (Vinessa Shaw); Lynne’s husband Doug (Aaron Stanford from Tadpole and X2); and Lynne and Doug’s baby, Catherine (Maisie Camilleri Preziosi). This set of Carters isn’t the obnoxious, all-American ’70s family of the original; their relationships are more plausible and are explored with greater complexity. We see the dysfunction and tension among them, particularly between Doug and Big Bob, who sees his spindly, four-eyed son-in-law as too soft and delicate. Doug is the geeky, emasculated, modern man, obsessed with technology, bossed around by Lynne, and removed from his primal masculine urges — the pacifist Democrat to Big Bob’s gun-toting Republican. Aja’s story is less about the family as a whole than about Doug’s conversion from passivity to macho action, and he expands on the character, using Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs as his model: Beset by a group of murderous locals, the wimpy outsider is reduced to an animal state, becoming a brutal killer and thus a real man at last.
Much of the script follows the original scene for scene, often using bits of its dialogue, but Aja makes some telling changes. He omits the tender marital lovemaking between Doug and Lynne but makes Brenda’s rape scene longer and more graphic. Not graphic in that he slips in close-ups of breasts or a glimpse of crotch, though; violence is Aja’s turn-on, not sex, and it’s all more brutal and realistic this time around. But the film doesn’t succumb to the overt misogyny of High Tension or even the gender stereotypes of the original Hills — the women here are tougher and more resourceful than in Craven’s film, whose female cast seemed to have been selected based solely on their shrillness — this time it’s antique notions of virility, not femininity, that Aja wants to promote.
He has the perfect setup for it. The plot has the simplicity of a classic, racist Western: A wagonload of people are stranded in the vast, empty desert, attacked on all sides by savages. Aja has improved upon Craven’s cannibal cavemen by making them survivors of a mining town shut down by the U.S. government in the 1940s. The miners refused to leave their homes when the government ordered them off the land, so they were exposed to decades of radiation, turning subsequent generations into disfigured mutants who set their fathers’ pickaxes against any unwary tourists who happened by. They’re the ultimate in white trash: As if rape, murder, and cannibalism weren’t abhorrent enough, Big Mama Mutant spends her days watching “Divorce Court” and combing the wig for her bald head. As in the original, the mutants offer an ironic juxtaposition to their victims: The normals have wealth and comfort, but their individualism and materialism divide them; the freaks have nothing but are far more cohesive, presenting a united front as they pick off their victims. In case that comparison doesn’t get his point across, Aja also offers the contrast of the hideous freaks against the mannequins in a bombed-out (yet surprisingly intact) model town, styled as perfect ’50s-style families.
French cineastes have always been adept at reading unintended subtexts into American genre films, including the original Hills, so it makes sense that, in remaking a genre film some consider a classic, French filmmakers would add new subtexts of their own. Aja (who is the son of film critic Marie-Jo Jouan) grafts additional sociopolitical implications onto Craven’s simplistic Me Decade theses about 1) the class warfare between the civilized haves and the bestial have-nots and 2) man’s struggle with his essential animal nature. There’s an object lesson in the story of the mining town: When you get in the way of American Progress, it doesn’t shed a tear; it just rolls right over you. And it initially looks like crude anti-Americanism when we see Big Bob’s corpse with an American flag poking out of its head and hear Big Mama Mutant singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” — eventually Doug plants the flag in the biggest mutant’s throat, suggesting that American power belongs to whomever is brutal enough to claim and wield it. But perhaps a better reading is that the flag is a symbol not of wicked American imperialism but of admirable strength and potency: In claiming the flag from Big Bob and using it as a weapon against his enemy, Doug asserts himself as the new “man of the family” and assumes Bob’s quasi-fascist attitudes; by becoming a brute, he asserts his birthright as an American.
The political subtexts never quite connect with the film’s mythic trappings, such as the mutant girl Ruby, who’s costumed as Little Red Riding Hood and thus cast as the one innocent among the wolves. The politics and the fairy-tale elements seem to come from two different sensibilities (and, since the film has two writers, it’s possible they do). And then there are the non sequitur quotations from other films, like the visual homages to Return of the Jedi — the hydrocephalic mutant who resembles Jabba the Hutt’s factotum Bib Fortuna and the corpse that looks just like Anakin Skywalker after Luke pulls off his helmet. Half the time, Aja seems to throw in symbols and allusions not because they serve any particular purpose but simply because they amuse him.
Aja’s thesis, if I’m reading it correctly — and those subtexts lead the viewer in 20 different directions, so I can’t say for sure that I am — would suggest that the mutants, who, after all, are just trying to survive outside society in a harsh environment, should be pitied for their privation and alienation, but he makes them so hideous and their evil behavior so vaguely motivated that there’s no audience sympathy. And when the worm finally turns and Doug begins kicking mutant ass, we cheer in response. This is the opposite of what Craven was going for: He wanted the audience to be appalled when Doug succumbed to his own animalism, while Aja, like Peckinpah, wants us to see it as the proper, indeed the only, response. He’s using a very basic horror-movie strategy — presenting us with forces that terrify us and then showing us our hero’s triumph over them — but his primitive ideas about male potency conflict with his desire to construct an allegory. The mutants’ backstory would seem to be a statement against militarism and the abuse or neglect of citizens by their government, but then the central plot turns around and embraces the might-makes-right ethic of fascism. Go figure.
Though its subtexts don’t all come together and are sometimes ideologically offensive, the mere fact that it has subtexts for the audience to chew over makes the new Hills far more complex and provocative than the recent batch of sadistic gorefests (Wolf Creek, Hostel, etc.). And, perhaps more importantly, it’s still effective in its central aim — it’s damn scary. Though less grisly than High Tension (the American version has been trimmed to get an R rating), it’s remarkably tense and disturbing, with enough shocks and claustrophobic confrontations to satisfy the most jaded horror fan. Particularly good is the third act Aja has added, in which Doug invades the mutants’ rickety bomb-test town to rescue his daughter. The sequence takes place in the early morning, under a bright desert sun, but Aja doesn’t need the cover of night to make his mutants scary. He’s accomplished something that Craven couldn’t: The actors playing the Dogpatch freaks in Craven’s version just looked silly running around in broad daylight, but Aja’s mutants, with the help of some truly repulsive prosthetics, only look more terrifying when you see them clearly. They’re the most freakish version of what we might be — their deformities are the physical manifestation of their innate savagery — and we can only watch with a sickening mix of horror and triumph as a man much like us becomes just like them.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
The Hills Have Eyes / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()