Many people have issues about remakes and reboots. They see it as unnecessary and a proof that the film industry has run out of ideas. I can’t say that either points have no validity to them, but I disagree with both.While all genres of film have had it’s share of remakes and reboots its the horror section of the film aisle which has seen the most. This shouldn’t come as a shock since horror has always been ripe for remakes. The stories in horror films have always been quite simple and producers take advantage of this by remaking them for a new generation. Take the simple set-up, change the time and setting with a new cast of cheap, unknown actors and you got yourself a horror flick which should make back its budget and make its filmmakers a profit.
While most horror remakes usually range from average to truly dreadful there comes a time when one comes out of the horror remake heap to actually show promise and quality not seen in its remake brethren. One such film is in the Alexandre Aja directed and Wes Craven produced The Hills Have Eyes. Aja’s The Hills Have Eyes is the rare horror remake in that its more than a match to Wes Craven’s original and, at times, surpasses it.
Alexandre Aja first burst onto the horror-cinema scene with his ambitious and grisly homage to grindhouse horror: Haute Tension. Haute Tension was one nasty piece of horror filmmaking which brought to mind 70’s and early 80’s horror exploitation and grindhouse mentality. Aja’s directorial debut was a no-hold-s-barred punch and kick to the stomach that was overtly violent and sublimely painful for the audience to watch. Aja was soon tapped by Wes Craven to lead the remake project of his own The Hills Have Eyes and to Aja’s growing reputation as a rising star of horror, he grew as a filmmaker and more than earned this reputation.
Aja’s The Hills Have Eyes follows pretty much the very same story and characters as the original. This remake has abit more of a political sense to its storytelling in that it doesn’t just pit the basic premise of civilized humans versus the primal inbred, mutant hill dweller, but also the different demographics of red state versus blue state. This theme was hammered through to the audience through the subsurface conflict between Big Bob Carter’s (well-played by industry veteran Ted Levine) red state gung-ho ex-detective and his son-in-law Doug’s (X2‘s Aaron Stafford) pacifist mentality. I think this new wrinkle in the original’s sparse and tight story was unnecessary and unsubtly done. I really didn’t want to know what political leanings and motivations the Carter family members followed. What I did care about was how they would react to the outside forces that was soon to menace and attack them.
The first half of the film was very deliberate in its set-up as it slowly built up the tension and dread as the Carter family’s journey through a supposedly short-cut through the desert put them closer and closer to the dangerous people who dwelt amongst the hills bordering the desert road. Once the family becomes stranded in the middle of nowhere the fun begins for horror-aficionados. For those who have seen the original this remake doesn’t deviate from the main story. The hill people who, up until now have only been glimpsed through quick shadowy movements across the screen, were the true cause of the family’s predicament attack in a brutal and grisly fashion. None of the Carter family members were spared from this attack. From Big Bob Carter, his wife Ethel, their three children, son-in-law and young granddaughter they all suffer in one form or another. The night attack on the camper is the main highlight of the film and shows that Aja hasn’t lost his touch for creating a horror setpiece that doesn’t hold back. From the brutal rape of the Carter’s youngest daughter Brenda to the sudden deaths of several Carter family members. This sequence was both fast-paced and chaotic in nature. It also helped push the definition of what constitute a very hard R-rating. Just like Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects and Roth’s Hostel, The Hills Have Eyes pushed the limits and boundaries of what the MPAA has allowed so far in terms of on-screen violence when it was first released in 2006. I’m very surprised that some of the violence and deaths in this film made the final cut. This film definitely brings back the 70’s style horror.
The cast for this remake was one high point that the original didn’t have. Where Craven had a very inexperienced cast for the original film. Aja had the luxury of a bigger budget to hire a more competent and able group of actors. A cast that was led by Ted Levine who shined in his role as the patriarch of the civilized Carters. Kathleen Quinlan as the mother of the bunch soldiers on even though its almost predestined in films such as this that she would be one of the doomed. The two daughters as played by Vinessa Shaw and Lost’s Emilie De Ravin were quite good in roles that involved some very graphic rape sequences. Much kudos must go to De Ravin for having to perform through her scene during the trailer-camper attack. But the two actors who excelled in the film has to be pacifist turned avenging angel Doug as played by Aaron Stafford. We see in his character Doug the lengths a civilized human being would go through to survive and protect those he cares for. Even if this means resorting to becoming more brutal and primal than the inbred, mutant hill dwellers. It’s in Doug’s character where the basic premise of the clash of the modern with the primitive comes close to matching the same theme in the original. To a smaller degree this was also echoed in the Carter’s teenage son Bobby. Dan Byrd of Entourage plays Bobby Carter and its in him we see the level-headedness of the family. Despite all the horror and carnage he has seen the hill dwellers have inflicted on his family, Bobby remains somewhat calm and even-keeled to protect what is left of his family. The only drawback as to the cast itself was that the opposing family seemed to have been shortchanged. In the original we actually got to understand some of the motivations that drove the hill dwellers to prey on unsuspecting travelers through their area. In this remake the hill dwellers seem more like superhuman monsters and boogeymen. It didn’t bother me as much, but then it also lessened the impact of the story’s basic premise of civilization versus primitives.
Lastly, the look of the film helps add to the grindhouse nature of Aja’s remake. The film has an oversaturated look and feel that took advantage of the desert location and the high-sun overhead. This oversaturation of the film’s look also lends some credence to its grindhouse sensibilities. It looked, felt and acted like something made during the late 70’s and early 80’s. For most fans of horror it would really come down to the special-effects used to show the death and violence’s impact on the audience. Once again, Greg Nicotero and his crew at KNB EFX house show that they’re the premiere effects house. The make-up used to show the mutant effects on the survivors of the original inhabitants of the hills was excellently done. The same goes for the gags used to show the many brutal and messy deaths of both families.
There’s no denying that The Hills Have Eyes was all about pain when boiled down to its most basic denominator. This film is all about pushing the boundaries and piling on violence upon violence. The Hills Have Eyes is not a film that tells us violence solves nothing. Here it does solve the problem for the Carter clan and is also the only avenue of survival of the remaining Carters. The same goes for the nuclear survivors and their offspring who stayed in the irradiated zones that was their home. This film is all about survival and the levels and heights individuals would take to achieve it.
The Hills Have Eyes might not be the original second helping some have expected from Aja after his brilliant, if somewhat flawed first major film with Haute Tension, but it does show his growth as a filmmaker and his clean grasp of what makes horror cinema truly terrifying and uncomfortable. Two ingredients that makes for making a genre exploitation fare into something of a classic. I’m sure that outside of the horror-aficionado circles this film will either be met with indifference or disgust, but for those who revel in this type of filmmaking then it’s a glorious continuation of the grindhouse horror revival that began with Aja’s own Haute Tension, continued by Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects, Roth’s Hostel and continues to live each and every year with the many direct-to-video releases of cheap, but very good horror films. It truly is a great time to be a fan of horror and Aja’s The Hills Have Eyes more than holds its own against Craven’s original.