The Hills Have Eyes

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One thing that became fairly noticeable during the glut of horror remakes that peppered the landscape back in the noughties, is that sometimes they lacked the teeth of the originals. Oh sure, there was some striking violence and more than a little human offal sprayed around the place, but even when the shiny new versions of classic horror villains got down and dirty, it still all felt a little sanitised somewhat, a little safe even.
One movie that never felt particularly safe was Wes Craven’s gritty opus of carnage was brutal family vs. freak classic The Hills Have Eyes, a movie that saw an all-American unit succumb to a mutant clan of cannibals living out in the desert and so any attempt to bring this movie to a modern audience would have to retain that sence of uncompromising viciousness that made the original such an endurance test to sit through… enter Alexandre Aja, a man no stranger to uncompromising horror thanks to his debut feature, the bestial French slasher flick High Tension.

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The Carter clan are travelling by truck and trailer from Cleveland to California to celebrate the silver wedding anniversary of walrus-moustached, retired police detective patriarch Bob and his wife Ethel – and before you openly wonder why the hell they didn’t just fly or take a cruise instead, rest assured the rest of their brood are all asking the same questions. Eldest daughter Lynn and her phone salesman, Democrat husband, Doug, are trying to make the best of things with their baby daughter in tow while youngest siblings Bobby and Brenda bicker endlessly as the merciless heat beats down on their trailer.
However, boredom and a little sunburn are the least of their worries when, after receiving some directions from the crustiest gas station owner in all of New Mexico, they suffer a suspicious, four tyre blowout and end up marooned in the middle of the desert. Yup, it seems they’ve fallen for the oldest trick in the book and are now at the mercy of a commune of mutant cannibals whose ancestors were bathed with radiation after refusing to leave their towns after nuclear tests by the military back in the 50’s.
When it finally comes, the first assault is devastating, leaving half of the family dead, crucified and burned alive and the other half raped, traumatised and fearing for their lives, but when the dust settles, Doug realises that his has to take snarling, family pooch, Beast and track the creatures in order to get his child back before these misshapen marauders enjoy some literal baby back ribs, while Bobby and Brenda stay back at the trailer and get their shit together in order to prepare for an inevitable second assault. But can the remains of this once wholesome family hope to weather another attack from hulking, axe wielding, barely human assailants, who know the terrain like the backs of their four-fingered hands?

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While most modern remakes tend to feel like awkward replacements for old school classics made specifically for audiences who can’t be bothered to watch a movie that’s 30, 40 or 50 years old, The Hills Have Eyes feels weirdly different – you see, despite having virtually the exact same plot and characters as the original, the remake does an oddly good job at working in tandem with Wes Craven’s 1970’s version. What I mean by this is that all the aspects about the first movie that haven’t aged particularly well are nicely brought up to date thanks to updated filming techniques and special effects without losing that visceral punch. The mutants, instead of being actors in shaggy wigs and gappy dentures (with the exception of Michael Berryman’s Pluto, of course) are now all massively deformed thanks to some sterling prosthetics work with Pluto now a hulking, lumpy headed Jason clone, Mars reimagined as the hair-lipped sadist, Lizard and Papa Jupiter now being realised as -er… Billy Drago in a long coat. They even have their own, desiccated, 50’s town to reside in, complete with those creepy dummies sitting at the dinner table like you see in those atomic bomb testing movies and even though the villains aren’t an opposing family anymore, they still are just as an imposing force as the original clan was. Another update that benefits the movie is some pretty spot on casting with Ted Levine being a perfect choice for the brash, right wing Bob while Aaron Stanford’s put upon Doug gives off massive Dustin Hoffman in Staw Dogs vibes, tight down to the cracked glasses. In fact, the whole family are natural and have good natural banter before the bloodlusting, desert people descend and deliver a harrowing vacation experience you won’t find on Trivago.

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When that moment finally comes, Aja certainly doesn’t hold back, somehow making the rape and debauchery even more nasty than it was nearly 30 years earlier with an added moment where a riled up Lizard realises that Lynne is lactating adding some maximum revulsion – in fact, the violence as a whole is ramped up exponentially with axes, screwdrivers and baseball bats all being liberally utilised in the name of desperate survival tactics and it leads to some genuinely exciting action and brawls that carry some surprising weight when even the victor still walks away with some missing fingers.
However, despite the faster pace, modernized characterizations and state of the art gore, this new Hills Have Eyes is admittedly missing a lot of the poetry of Craven’s Craven’s orginal and that’s where the 70’s version comes in: the fact that the mutants aren’t portrayed as a family anymore means that the movie loses some of the original’s symmetry and it also means that they don’t have an immediately recognizable hierarchy. We’re told that Jupiter is in charge, but we never see him interacting with any of the rest of the group and it’s the bulbous skulled Big Brain who seems to actually calling the shots, but at any rate, this means we no longer have a movie about two families locked in a battle of survival which is a real shame and it pushes the movie a little more into Wrong Turn territory, which is weird considering that Wrong Turn is just The Hills Have Eyes with trees. The other thing is that Craven infused the first movie with the notion that to survive, the family have to put aside their morals and humanity to survive, meaning that the ones who make it out alive look dazed and almost repulsed with what they’ve had to do to remain in one piece, however, when weak-willed Doug finally manages to fight back against his towering foe – and stab him with an American flag, no less – we’re now supposed to cheer as he regains his masculinity with the swing of a blade. The score even gives him a Clint Eastwood-esque theme as he yanks an axe from the brain pan of one of his tormentors and while it legitimately is a deserved punch the air kind of moment for a relieved audience, it interestingly kind of betrays Craven’s original vision for the movie a little. But that’s what I meant earlier about the ’06 and the ’77 versions weirdly complimenting each other – when one falters, the other one picks up the slack. Think the effects are primitive or the action is awkwardly staged? Go new. However, if you want a clearer subtext or better thought out symbolism – go classic. Not since the ’56 and the ’78 versions of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers or the ’51 and the ’82 versions of The Thing have an original and a remake had such a symbiotic relationship with one another that means they both continue to remain relevant.

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The hills will always have eyes, but thanks to the correct choice of a director and a dedication to a distinctly uncomfortable tone, thankfully it still has guts too…

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