For Canadians it’s officially the first long weekend of the summer. Hundreds of parents will be herding their kids into cars to brave traffic and black flies for a relaxing cottage weekend. At some point, a father will threaten to turn the car around. And 30 minutes into the trip someone will announce that they need to go to the washroom. Good times!
To celebrate the first long weekend, in this edition of Re-Animated, I’ll be looking at the Wes Craven’s classic ‘family vacation gone wrong’ film, The Hills Have Eyes. Released in July 1977, The Hills Have Eyes was a modest box office success that went on to achieve a well-deserved cult status. Nearly 30 years after its release, French horror director Alexandre Aja directed a remake that largely stood on its own, delivering a visceral horror experience.
The Hills Have Eyes (1977) and Hillbilly Horror
Wes Craven was a master at crafting compelling horror films with small budgets. Nowhere is this more evident than his work on the original The Hills Have Eyes. Along with Deliverance and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, for me, this was one of the films that cemented ‘hillbilly’ rural horror as its own subgenre. The very straightforward story of a family making a ‘wrong turn’ and running afoul of backwards cannibalistic hillbillies has influenced countless imitations.
Of course, Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes distinguishes itself from its imitators with his own brand of dark humor and the deeper themes embedded in his story. Craven’s contrasts between the ‘civilized’ Carter family and Papa Jupiter’s ‘uncivilized savages’, played for dark laughs in some scenes, raises some interesting commentary. The Hills Have Eyes is a horror film that can be culturally read in a number of ways. One interesting interpretation is Craven’s commentary on human nature and violence. Son-in-law Doug’s character arc says a lot about the human potential for brutal savagery hidden under our veneer of socialization.
Aside from Craven’s insightful story, The Hills Have Eyes is a brutally violent tale that is in no way hindered by its low budget. In fact, like many exploitation films from the 1970’s, The Hills Have Eyes arguably benefits from its low budget as it lends the film’s violence a sense of gritty realism. Some of the acting performances are a little over-the-top and budgetary constraints do limit other aspects of the film, but the long-term impact of The Hills Have Eyes is undeniable. Besides, at the very least, The Hills Have Eyes gave us Michael Berryman.
The Hills Have Eyes (2006) is Worthy Modern Update
Following the success of High Tension, French horror director Alexandre Aja took up the challenge of remaking Craven’s 1977 classic. This is one of the rare cases of a remake that, while not quite as resonant as its predecessor, still manages to deliver its own gut-wrenching take on the material. The 2006 version of The Hills Have Eyes does not compromise on the original film’s brutality and may in fact ratchet things up a notch.
In terms of the story, Aja follows the Craven film very closely, only deviating in superficial ways. The original’s deranged inbred cannibal family is replaced by cannibal mutants – a mining community that refused to abandon their homes when the U.S. military commenced nuclear testing in the New Mexico desert. Otherwise Aja includes the same characters and major plot points from the 1977 film. Even Craven’s theme of the thin lines that divide the ‘civilized’ from the ‘uncivilized’ remain largely intact. While it’s only a small change, Aja’s alteration of the mutants’ origins does water down this theme a little.
However, for horror fans who are not looking for any deeper subtext, The Hills Have Eyes remake more than delivers on expectations. Anyone who has seen Aja’s High Tension knows that he can deliver on the gore and violence. In The Hills Have Eyes, Aja orchestrates a relentlessly brutal, tense, and gory action-horror hybrid that is filmed with extreme style. He manages to balance out the explicit gore with some well-timed jump scares. Some of the mayhem put up on the screen is among some of the more brutal imagery I’ve seen in horror films.
…Aja orchestrates a relentlessly brutal, tense, and gory action-horror hybrid that is filmed with extreme style.
From the cinematography, musical score, acting, and make-up effects, The Hills Have Eyes remake is huge upgrade on its lower-budget predecessor. All of the mutant make-up effects and gore are amazingly rendered on screen. Liberal Doug’s character arc and transition into brutally capable killer is completely convincing. His confrontations with the massive Pluto and sadistic Mars are expertly choreographed while simultaneously delivering emotionally satisfying thrills. All of the action and carnage are extremely well-paced and editing, leaving little time for the audience to recuperate.
Two Great Horror Films for the Price of One
Wes Craven’s original The Hills Have Eyes is the more important film for the horror genre. There’s a much deeper meaning under the blood and gore, and Craven’s story arguably helped carve out a unique subgenre that’s still being recycled today. With is remake, however, Alexandre Aja gave audiences a slickly choreographed onslaught that holds up to multiple viewings. With The Hills Have Eyes, horror fans have the rare treat of two great films for the price of one.