Wes Craven, creator and director of 1977’s pioneering The Hills Have Eyes, deemed Alex Andre Aja the future of horror, then handed the director creative control over the current remake. If you remember Craven only for inflicting Freddy Krueger on the world (and have forgotten that 1984’s Nightmare on Elm Street was scary as fuck), it’s a dubious endorsement. But it got my attention.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s Craven created engrossing worlds where characters’ internal corruptions destroyed them from the outside. The Hills Have Eyes, Craven’s second film, was one of the best of the anarchic, low budget, Godless, anti-American horror films that cropped up in the 1970s. These films developed most of the genre’s terrifying and enduring tropes, which through much usage have been rendered clichés. The template: warts-and-all Americans, vastly removed from their comfort zone, fight for their lives against unholy monsters, with a twist.
The quality of each film depends on the novelty and thoughtfulness of the twist. A gory tale of kids fighting cannibals, 1974’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre was unnerving because Leatherface, the film’s villain, was death’s relentless pursuit made flesh. The dead skin masks that Leatherface wore were so shocking that the idea still seemed novel when the secondary bad guy in 1991’s Silence of the Lambs did the exact same thing. While not as brutal as Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the twist in The Hills Have Eyes is more profound. Summed up by the ambiguous tagline “A Nice American family. They didn’t want to kill. But they didn’t want to die,” The Hills Have Eyes is about families. Plural. The Carters —an obnoxious, bickering heartland bunch comprised of out-of-touch, insensitive parents and self-absorbed, vaguely incestuous children —are pitted against a clan of vicious cannibals mutated over generations through exposure to nuclear testing.
Craven early establishes the mutants as creatures to be feared, not pitied. Ruby, the youngest mutant daughter and only sympathetic character in the film, is shown pleading with a gas station attendant to help her escape the hills. He turns her back from the border of civilization, telling her that not only would she never survive, he could never endure the retribution her family would lay on him. He is still shaken by the thought when the Carters arrive in their shiny RV to refuel. The dutiful gatekeeper warns the Carters that only trouble lays down the road they are following, but they ignore him. At this point it’s apparent that The Hills Have Eyes is not about a nice American family forced to do not-so-nice things. The Carters court their fate. So, it’s hard to care if they live or die; they have it coming. If they weren’t traveling with two dogs and a baby, the audience would root for the buzzards. Once they realize they’re screwed, the Carters pray. Their prayer, shown from the viewpoint of the mutants looking down from the hills reinforces that god, did he exist, would root against the Carters. Huddling down below, desolate alongside their wreckage, is indeed how Heaven would see the Carters. As the Carters pray, ambient sound drops away, and Craven makes it clear they pray to complete emptiness. There is no god in the barren landscape (or anywhere else).
The rest of the film goes like this: the two families fight each other and fight amongst themselves; both take serious casualties and remain unredeemable, but it’s irrelevant since there’s still no god. It’s brutal and poignant, and it’s a relic from before Wes Craven yanked the veil from all of horror’s functional secrets in Scream. Today we know that it’s unwise to gallivant in the desert. And we know you listen to the old man standing at threshold shouting, “don’t go that way.”
Current distaste for these conceits has created a challenge for recent horror remakes. Recycled 1970s films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Amityville Horror, and Dawn of the Dead have been updated in one of two ways. Either they’ve become pre-Scream period pieces or have been tied into biological warfare, the last boogeyman standing.
The current remake of The Hills Have Eyes uses neither of these devices. It presents its storyline as no less plausible for being familiar. A plucky choice for what turns out to be a plucky movie. A more plucky than successful film, but commendably plucky. Like fellow big-budget films, it’s heavy-handed, especially when delivering its message. Like many remakes, it overplays its pivotal scenes. You can almost see Aja drifting into reverie, and holding his own shots a beat too long as he admires Craven’s taut constructions. Aja sticks closely to the original storyline and dialogue, and uses each deviation to cue the audience when he’s developing a theme. He gives no other clue that its time to pay attention. Without these clues, the film comes off as just another well-styled hacker, and an often-annoying one. Still, Aja fights to add his vision to The Hills Have Eyes, and when I catch his drift I believe he might help define the future of horror.
Aja’s The Hills Have Eyes opens by presenting the back-story of the mutant villains. When the U.S. began using the New Mexico desert for nuclear testing, some mining families refused to leave. Photos of these families, faux news clippings, images of mushroom clouds and Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange pepper the title sequence. This Frenchman is no fan of the American military-industrial complex. Again and again, Aja goes off the original script to mention that the government turned this clan into potato-looking monsters. Each time, I revulse—I don’t want my movie monsters to be victims; I don’t need a lecture on why chemical and nuclear weapons are bad. It’s needless – and very French – preaching to the choir. The atomic exposition took one line of dialogue in the original. In 1977, everyone was terrified of atomic destruction. Today, while most oppose nuclear war, the thought of it keeps few awake. Aja posits that we should be more afraid. Our opposition to annihilation has no more power to save us than prayers in the desert. The old demons are still with us, and we remain impotent against them.
We remain continually endangered in a godless world. We choose, over Aja’s vociferous begging, to ignore that. He becomes the old man screaming don’t go that way, and as sophisticated as we think we are, we still don’t listen. Aja takes over the gatekeeper’s role, too. After the credits, the Carters arrive at the gas station. Ruby, the sweet mutant, is there. This time she has no direct contact with the attendant and no illusions she can escape the life she was born to. Instead she looks on at the shiny airstream trailer, the shiny iPod, and the dazzling banality of the family before her. They incarnate some of the most spectacular casting of Americanism in some time. One of the actors is on Lost, and they all have the peculiar lack-of-presence TV rewards. It suits the film. The original Hills Have Eyes, like most horror movies, featured a mix of veteran character actors and unknowns, but here real faces would break the overbearing mood. These TV types, however, are pretty enough to blend in, but come off just a bit too small for the tasks facing them, be it filling up the screen or fighting off the baddies.
Like Ruby, they have fewer illusions than their 1977 counterparts. The Carters now want to take the main roads, but the attendant mentions a shortcut. They’ve learned, only too well, to listen to the man standing at the crossroads. They take the shortcut. But, this time, the attendant is on Team Mutant and they’re on a dead end road. The gatekeeper, who was both a rich character and enduring archetype in the original, is reduced to a “detour” sign. He’s still a metaphor, but now stands in for the last few decades. Civilization is no fortress against threat and all of the lessons we think we take from the past 30 years of horror (both on screen and in life) are wrong. It’s a shame that the film is so often incoherent that it seems stupid. The use of the attendant is a nice move. Aja has some damn good directorial moments.
Aja made his name with 2003’s ultra violent French film Haute Tension (High Tension in the U.S.) Haute Tension, a hypersexual lesbian horror film, is about gender and power. Aja tries to highlight those themes again in The Hills Have Eyes. This time, his focus is masculinity. The key question is, “who is a man?” Aja overlays the film with a boring analogy of America and patriarchy, but he also tackles the theme in other, better ways. When Big Bob Carter leaves his family by the RV to try and right this mess, he puts his 15-year-old son in charge, saying “you’re the man now.”
The encounter shows yet another reason not to root for these morons, and it mimics the original, wherein Big Bob hands the son a gun and gives him a primer on how to use it. However, the 1977 film does not include that explicit line, and even then it was strange that Big Bob overlooked his wife, and two older daughters. But, in 1977, people expected the older generation to be inappropriate and out-of-sync. That was, in fact, the tension that drove the family apart. Today the scene is recast to be about gender, not generation. When the father hands over his gun to his son, he overlooks his wife, two daughters, and son-in-law. In the original, the son-in-law is not denied a gun. Setting him, by definition, outside the circle of manhood plants the question: why isn’t he a man?
Over the course of the movie, three reasons are given. The family speaks the first two—Doug Bukowski is a Democrat, and hates guns. These are obvious answers, and pandering anti-American cheap shots. But the third is shocking (though in retrospect, the most obvious) and unsettling. The son-in-law is sent off in the opposite direction of the father, without any protection. He is framed from above, his clothes and skin are washed out, but something glistens. After a moment, it’s clear that it’s a Star of David. He’s not a man because he’s a Jew. It’s quite a moment. Aja must know that the French are stereotyped as anti-Semitic. And he must know that his film does not have nearly enough gravitas to make people think past that stereotype. If you don’t catch on that Aja was making a film about manhood (and it’s easy to miss) the shot’s only purpose is to brand the character as a Jew. Even if you did get a glimmer of masculinity as a theme, it’s easy to read the shot as a cheap illusion to the question of male identities. But it’s too brazen for that. Controversial throwaway moments don’t make it into the final cut. Aja’s trying to say something, but I’m not quite sure what. It’s frustrating.
Which pretty much sums up the movie. It’s frustrating. I want to see horror films go in a new direction, and again have the depth of 1977’s The Hills Have Eyes. I understand why Craven wants a brave and occasionally inspired director like Aja to be a part of the future of the genre. The new The Hills Have Eyes offers those with a decoder ring plenty to think about. Still, I cannot in good conscience tell people to pay to see this movie.
And if that keeps happening, horror has no future.
The opinions expressed by Walter Matthau are his own and do not represent the views of the editors of the Brooklyn Rail or Sarahjane Blum.