Back in the noughties (which seemed about a week ago for me but apparently it was a whole other decade) the horror genre seeming to be going through a bit of a remake frenzy. Horror has always been subject to the remake (how many Draculas and Frankensteins have there been) and I don’t have a problem with it par se. However the remakes of the noughties mostly suffered from one shared consistency – they were all a load of old shite. There was one exception to this, The Hills Have Eyes.
There are a number of reasons why The Hills Have Eyes succeeded whilst so many others failed. The first and foremost has to be because director Alexandre Aja is a legitimately great horror director. He’d already proved his chops with High Tension (despite the ending, yeah it still doesn’t make a scrap of sense but I think I’m over it now) and you can tell that here, with his first American movie, Aja is HUNGRY for it. Obviously he brings the that sense of grim realism that French horror was having such a good time with back then but he also makes the characters genuinely interesting and worth caring about. Every death and violent act you feel in your gut. The family who drive out into the desert and end up stranded due to the father’s hubris are still a bickering bunch of American cliches like in the original film, but this time it actually feels like a family we can relate to. The teenage son does annoy his sister to the point they can’t seem to bare each other, but when their family is butchered they grip onto each other like their lives depended on it. The mother and father flirt and bicker with each other like a couple of old shoes, making little comments that suggest they really have been together for twenty five years.
This family is the same as the original for sure but everything here is just so much more clearly defined. This is helped by the second reason the remake works: it has a really good cast. Ted Levine and Kathleen Quinlan play the mother and father of the Carters. Levine has always had the baggage of having played Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs so could never be a leading man (if you’ve ever seen The Mangler you’ll know what I mean) but he’s perfectly cast as the former cop and tough old head of the family with his droopy moustache and deep, broken voice. Quinlan is also spot on as an old hippy, now mom although she’s given the least to do sadly. Dan Byrd and Emilie de Ravin both look really young (far younger than the actors in the original) but bring an emotional intensity to their roles, most notable when they stop to look at the awfulness of their dog’s death or their mother having been dragged away to be eaten. Then there’s Aaron Stanford as the bespectacled, liberal son-in-law who hates violence but by the end is covered in gore and has killed half a dozen people – all he can do is stare blankly into the distance.
Of course there is a really good cast because of the third reason it all works so well – money. The original The Hills Have Eyes cost $230,000 which even in 1977 was a stupidly low budget. I may have criticised some of the costumes, make up, camera work and sound but then what was Craven working with? Very little obviously. You’ve got to admire him for even being able to finish a film on that budget – he didn’t finish the sequel on three times that. Aja had $15,000,000 to play with. Still not exactly Titanic money but a big wad of cash for a horror movie ten years ago. Now its almost unheard of. Aja fills his film with lots of big sweeping shots of the desert, nuclear craters filled with old cars and an entire atomic test town with fifties automobiles and life size dolls. Clearly the make up budget took up a chunk of the cash too as the mutants look fantastic.
It is a little disappointing that the mutants aren’t seemingly a family any more. In the original they represented a flip-side to the Carter family, with their own dominant male and crazed children. In 2006 they are more of a community, which may not work quite as well but it does mean we get to see more of them. Young Ruby is back from the original but with her weird sloping down-her-face eyes she’s never going to be able to escape, become part of normal society and come back for the sequel. Pluto is now a fully realised mutant rather than just an unusual looking actor. Actually now I think about it the whole casting of Michael Berryman in 1977 as Pluto was kind of offensive to Michael Berryman. Oh well, he got a career out of it, I’m sure he’s happy. So the full make up, vast size and massive pick axe make Pluto a much more viable threat than before. He still has a fanny fit when he gets frustrated so has that man-child thing going on, but also delights in hacking fingers off and pick axing people in the back. He’s great. Less pleasant is, I guess his brother, Lizard. His make up is again superb with his huge hairlip showing off revolting yellow teeth, but the rape scene in this version is less implied and more expicit. I’m not big on rape in film it has to be said. If it really is a vital part of the story then I guess it has to be in it, but here it just seems gratuitous and unnecessary. For me, its the one sour note in the film.
Finally, let’s face facts here, what helps make this film better is that the original isn’t much cop. Remaking Psycho or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was always going to fail because what is the point in remaking perfection? In fact its not possible – a perfect film is a one off, it rarely happens anyway and it certainly doesn’t happen twice. The original Hills isn’t a great film by any stretch of the imagination. Craven was still finding his feet when he made it and didn’t have the resources to pull it off. It was still a hit and is fondly remembered but you can’t consider it a classic.
The Hills of Eyes of 2006 is, however, on the cusp of being a classic. It takes the original’s story beats and creepy idea and tightens everything up to make a tense, violent cinematic experience. Bringing in a French man’s perspective to make such an American film works wonders on the story. Aja is clearly able to show the different sides of the American citizens through the various characters and link them to the nation’s obsession with violence. He even does this literally with one character being killed by having an American flag shoved through his throat. If Aja (and Craven before him) were trying to say that an acceptance of violence will only lead to the American people destroying themselves, either through weapons or eating each other, then he is saying it loud and clear here.
You know what, thank god for The Hills Have Eyes 2006, and not just because the noughties really went through a glut of bad American horror movies, and here was a shining light in a desert of dullness. Also because without this version there wouldn’t be any good Hills Have Eyes movies at all. Then this whole let’s-review-the-whole-lot-in-week idea of mine would have been a waste of time. Okay I still have one more film to watch, and I’m forever hopeful. However I hear bad, bad things…