As I think I’ve made clear during my time writing at Wicked Horror, I am an avid fan of Wes Craven. Most of his films work for me, even a few of the features that were notoriously panned by critics. But in any director’s filmography there are some you love more than others. I count The Last House on the Left, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Serpent and the Rainbow, New Nightmare and Scream among my favorite horrors, easily.
But while I respect the hell out of it and admire everything it did for the genre, I’ve never had the love for The Hills Have Eyes that many fans seem to. I certainly like it. Even still, when I first watched it I couldn’t shake the feeling that the stuff that was the most interesting to me seemed to be borrowed from Last House on the Left. I think it’s still one of Craven’s most primal, guttural movies, but I never made an emotional connection with it the way I did with so many of the director’s other works.
So I wasn’t as skeptical as so many other fans were when the remake of Hills was announced. I was in high school at the time and had seen Alexandre Aja’s previous film, High Tension, which blew me away. I thought then and still think now that he was the perfect director to take on this project. We like to talk about how so many of the 2000s horror remakes failed without ever really talking about why they failed. Most of the time, it’s because they weren’t made by people who really enjoyed or knew the genre. They were pre-existing titles that had some name recognition, so it didn’t so much matter to the studios who was at the helm.
I think the Hills Have Eyes remake benefited from having Wes Craven as a producer, because he was one of the forces that stopped that from happening. They chose a director who was clearly passionate about the decade in which Craven started making movies and the kinds of films he made because all of that is presented clearly and impressively in High Tension. But all of the best remakes put their own spin on the material. Carpenter’s The Thing and Cronenberg’s The Fly are very different from their predecessors.
Aja’s film is still recognizable as The Hills Have Eyes, but it tells its own story and that’s its greatest strength. It plays into the location and is a very interesting commentary on American politics and family structure, considering the director is French. This is about the death of the nuclear family in a very literal way, using the locations to tie the original story into atomic bomb testing sites. The remake turns the mountain dwelling cannibals into mutants, which makes for a very different tone and style. It’s not science fiction necessarily, but it is somewhat more stylized. At the same time, much of its success lies in keeping the rawness of High Tension intact.
The family in the remake fit all of the same character types as the original, but the new backdrop makes for an experience that’s more of a thrill ride. It’s different from the first, as every remake should be, but it succeeds because the new choices are often the right choice in terms of setting itself apart. The themes are much clearer.
Much like Aliens, Aja’s Hills Have Eyes is simply a story of two families with the same goal: they’re trying to protect their own. While it can be deeply uncomfortable and hard to watch at times, Hills makes this point quite clearly. The film is constantly straddling a line, but it knows when to go for the shocks and when to hold back. I don’t think anyone would still be discussing it ten years later if Doug had failed to save his baby. Despite all of the horrific things that happen, there’s still a strange sort of optimism to it. Yes, Doug loses a lot, but when he emerges victorious at the end, we’re relieved. It feels very different from the hollow, downbeat victory of Craven’s Last House on the Left.
There’s a strong element of satire to Hills Have Eyes that tends to go unnoticed. It’s an element of the film that I think works so well simply because Aja is not American, because there are quite a few moments in the movie that work to take the piss out of our over-patriotic nature. Even in a picture as bleak as this, there are several tongue-in-cheek moments, with one mutant actually getting stabbed in the head with an American flag.
The family we’re introduced to is a very stereotypical, patriotic clan. They’re the All-American family and find themselves put through what essentially adds up to an actual warzone. Much of this simply makes Hills Have Eyes a product of its time, as the mid-late 2000s especially were filled with post 9/11 horrors that were all in their own way statements of terrorism and America’s involvement in the Middle East. Plenty of people in the ten years since the release of Hills Have Eyes have examined it through that lens.
I think the biggest, most simplistic takeaway on that level is the fact that Hills Have Eyes is good enough to lend itself to being talked about in such a sincere, academic way. The film easily stands up as one of the best remakes in a decade that was absolutely filled with them. It’s a remake that Craven himself was openly proud of, to the point that he went on to script its sequel with his son, Jonathan. There are far too many modern remakes we won’t be talking about ten years after their release. In fact, there are some we’ve already forgotten. But I think Aja’s Hills Have Eyes will live on to be discussed in the same way we talk about The Thing.