Happy Spring Break! Hundreds of parents will be herding their kids into cars to brave traffic for a March Break getaway. To celebrate March Break, in Re-Animated, I’ll be looking at the Wes Craven’s classic ‘family vacation gone wrong’ movie, The Hills Have Eyes. Released in July 1977, The Hills Have Eyes was a modest box office success. Over the years, Craven’s low-budget horror outing earned a well-deserved cult status. Nearly 30 years after its release, French horror director Alexandre Aja directed one of the better 2000’s remakes – a visceral horror update.
The Hills Have Eyes and Hillbilly Horror
Wes Craven was a master at crafting compelling small-budget horror movies. Nowhere is this more evident than his work on the original The Hills Have Eyes. Along with Deliverance and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, this was one of the movies 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. Buried deep in the blood an guts is Craven’s own brand of dark humor and subtext. Craven’s contrasts between the ‘civilized’ Carter family and Papa Jupiter’s ‘uncivilized savages’, elicited some dark laughs while raising 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. Liberal son-in-law Doug’s character arc says a lot about the human potential for brutal savagery.
Craven Perfected 70’s Exploitation-Style Violence
Aside from Craven’s insightful story, The Hills Have Eyes is a brutally violent tale. It’s in no way hindered by its low budget. In fact, like many exploitation films from the 1970’s, The Hills Have Eyes benefits from its low budget. The grainy picture quality lends the movie’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 Remake is a Worthy Modern Update
Following the success of High Tension, Aja took up the challenge of remaking Craven’s 1977 classic. No, the remake is not quite as resonant at its predecessor. Nevertheless, this is one of the rare cases of a remake that delivers its own gut-wrenching take on the material. The 2006 version of The Hills Have Eyes does not compromise on the original’s brutality, In fact, Aja ratchets things up a notch.
In terms of the story, Aja follows the Craven film very closely. Deviations are pretty superficial. For instance, the original’s deranged inbred cannibal family is replaced by cannibal mutants. Aja attempts some subtext with a subplot involving a mining community that refused to abandon their homes when the U.S. military commenced nuclear testing. Otherwise Aja includes the same characters and major plot points. Even Craven’s theme of the thin lines that divide the ‘civilized’ from the ‘uncivilized’ remains largely intact. While it’s only a small change, Aja’s alteration of the mutants’ origins does water down this theme a little.
Aja’s Remake Imports the Best of New French Extremity
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 filmed with extreme style. He also manages to balance out explicit gore with well-timed jump scares. Some of the mayhem Aja puts up on the screen is among some of the more brutal imagery in horror.
…Aja orchestrates a relentlessly brutal, tense, and gory action-horror hybrid filmed with extreme style.
From the cinematography, musical score, acting, and make-up effects, the remake is an upgrade on its lower-budget predecessor. All of the mutant make-up and gore effects are top notch. 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 delivering emotionally satisfying thrills. Lastly, the remake is well-paced and edite, 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 deeper subtext under the blood and gore. Arguably, Craven’s story carved out a unique subgenre that’s still being recycled today. Though it doesn’t add many new ideas, Alexandre Aja’s remake delivers 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.
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