The Hills Have Eyes (2006) **
There are a handful of questions that I would like all would-be remakers of old movies to ask themselves from now on before they plan a single shot, write a single scene, or even consider making a pitch to a studio. They are: What is your version going to have that the original does not? What variant perspective, sensibility, or intent do you bring to the project? What previously unavailable technique or technology will you use, what newly won freedom from censorship or convention will you exploit, and how will doing so enable you to retell the story in an interesting and meaningfully different way? In short, what makes you think your version is going to be better than what we already have? Anyone who cannot answer those questions, or whose answers are unconvincing when stated directly, should forget all about whatever remake they were developing, and go do something worthwhile instead. Note also that the standard for what constitutes “convincing” rises in tandem with the quality of the film to be remade. If Patrick Lussier says, “My My Bloody Valentine is in 3-D,” or if Marcus Nispel says, “The killer in my Friday the 13th isn’t someone you’ve never even heard of until the climax,” that might very well be good enough, considering the mediocrity of those movies’ 80’s namesakes. Dennis Iliadis, meanwhile, might have credibly defended his version of The Last House on the Left simply by saying, “I plan on making mine not suck.” But when the template is something like The Hills Have Eyes, a rather more compelling justification for a remake is called for. Sadly, however, all Alexandre Aja has to offer is, “My cannibals are uglier, and there are more of them. Also, my version is about how America is evil.”
One of the ways in which that evil has manifested itself is the “331” (actually 216, but who’s counting— right, Alex?) above-ground nuclear weapons experiments that the United States military conducted between 1945 and 1962. If you’re asking me, that condemnation would sound slightly more credible coming from a guy whose country didn’t conduct similar tests until 1974, and wasn’t the only nation other than the US to operate an arsenal of neutron bombs during the 80’s and 90’s. Be that as it may, a bunch of containment-suited technicians are tromping around in the New Mexico desert, checking up on the residual radiation levels from one of those long-ago detonations, when they are set upon and pickaxed to death by a massive and almost inhumanly ugly man (Michael Bailey Smith, from Clawed: The Legend of Sasquatch and Cyborg 3: The Recycler).
Early in a somewhat later morning, at a gas station that bills itself as the last stop for 200 miles, the proprietor (Tom Bower, of Raising Cain and Three) is awakened by what he takes to be the sound of somebody snooping around his property. Arming himself with a pump-action shotgun, he cautiously goes outside, demanding all the while if it’s somebody named Ruby prowling about. Eventually, he comes to the entrance to some sort of mine, at which point he changes his tune, shouting down the shaft to the effect that “If that’s you, Jupiter, I got some buckshot for you, you hear?!” There’s a large satchel on the front porch when he returns to the station, the bag laden with everything from expensive-looking jewelry to a digital camcorder to a styrofoam burger-box with a severed ear in it. Calling out once again to the unheeding desert, the station manager protests that he can’t do this anymore, but nevertheless carries the bag inside and begins sorting the loot.
That’s when the Carter family pulls in for a fill-up and a fluid-check. Given that characterization is generally the easiest way for a remake to establish its personality as separate from the original’s, it’s remarkable how exactly these people correspond to their 1970’s counterparts. Bob Carter Sr. (Ted Levine, from Evolution and The Silence of the Lambs) is the gruff ex-cop patriarch. Ethel (Kathleen Quinlan, of Warning Sign and Event Horizon) is Bob’s ineffectual, highly religious wife. Bobby (Dan Byrd, from Mortuary and Firestarter 2: Rekindled) and Brenda (Emilie de Raven, from Santa’s Slay and the made-for-TV version of Carrie) are a little younger and seem to have had their relative ages flipped, but they’re still basically the irreverent, smart-mouthed pair we remember from Wes Craven’s version. The Carters have even brought along a baby and a pair of German shepherds named Beauty and Beast. The only significant differences concern Lynn (Vinessa Shaw), the eldest daughter, and her husband, Doug Bukowski (Aaron Stanford), the parents of the infant girl. This Doug isn’t nearly as welcome in the family as the old one was, and he’ll be the first to admit that his wife has him pretty thoroughly emasculated; considering how much effort Big Bob invests in constantly projecting his own masculinity, I tend to suspect that the latter fact has a lot to do with the former, although there are differences of philosophical and political opinion in play as well. Anyway, what brings the Carters to this little corner of the New Mexico desert is Bob and Ethel’s 25th anniversary, in celebration of which the whole clan is making a cross-country road-trip to San Diego. Big Bob, being my kind of road-tripper, has insisted on taking the scenic route, and thus it is that the family is out here in the middle of nowhere, living out of an Airstream trailer. (“Airstream is so shiny, and it’s made of aluminum. You can’t tell if it’s a ‘64 or an ‘81...”— turns that goes for ‘88’s, too. The Vandals really did know whereof they sang.) The station attendant dismissively snorts that there’s nothing to see in the desert while he’s gassing up Big Bob’s Suburban, but he starts taking a slightly different line after Lynn’s efforts to corral the wayward dogs bring her into a part of the building where she might— just maybe— have been able to see the contents of that sack that got left on the porch a while back. Far from trying to talk the Carters into heading back to the highway whence they came, the attendant now tips Big Bob off to a supposed shortcut through the hills that he says will dump them right out onto the main southwestern thoroughfare, although it will take them even farther away from any well-traveled areas first. What do you want to bet that’s precisely the thing he was saying he couldn’t do anymore right before the Carters drove up?
The shortcut is totally bogus, of course. Where it really leads (before dead-ending in a humongous crater) is into the territory of a tribe of mutated cannibals descended from the last inhabitants of an extinct mining town. After the mine played out in the early 40’s, the Federal government bought the surrounding land to serve as a testing ground for nuclear weapons, but some of the miners didn’t want to leave. Even when the Army Corps of Engineers bulldozed the settlement, these holdouts and their families retreated into the mine itself. Thus were they spared the worst of the immediate effects when the Air Force commenced nuking, but the ensuing seventeen years’ worth of experimental detonations generated more than enough fallout to fuck up their chromosomes for good. Now operating out of one of those mockup towns the Corps of Engineers used to build for the sake of studying the effects of hydrogen bombs on population centers, the mutants evidently have an arrangement worked out with that gas station attendant, whereby he sends them outsiders to eat in exchange for a share of the victims’ valuables. The Carters drive right into a nifty tire-shredding trap laid by a cannibal called Lizard (Robert Joy, from Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem and Land of the Dead)— functionally equivalent to Mars in Wes Craven’s version— and from that point until well into the third act, this The Hills Have Eyes has very little to distinguish it from the old one. Big Bob and Doug tramp off in opposite directions in search of help, but find nothing of the kind. The dogs run off, and Bobby finds Beauty’s gutted carcass when he goes to retrieve them. Big Bob is captured by the mutants when he reaches the gas station, and is burned to death in a macabre gambit to distract the remaining menfolk from a raid by Lizard and Pluto (that really big, really ugly guy with the pickaxe we saw earlier) on the trailer. The cannibals steal Doug and Lynn’s infant daughter after leaving half of the Carter family dead. Beast kills the mutant (Ezra Buzzington, of Mirrors and The Haunting of Marsten Manor, playing a character called Goggle here and Mercury in the original) who had been assigned to keep watch on the trailer from the overlooking hills. And Doug sets off to rescue his child, while the other survivors dig in for an attack by Jupiter (Billy Drago, from Hunter’s Blood and Mirror, Mirror IV: Reflection)— a minor character in this version, and identifiable by name only through process of elimination— of which they have been warned by intercepted CB radio traffic. The big difference is that Doug, having been portrayed all this time in contrast to his in-laws as socially conscious and liberal to the point of wuss-hood, now effectively bears the entire weight of Craven’s old descent-into-savagery theme. His attack on the cannibal colony is a great deal more effective than anything one might plausibly expect of a man who probably hasn’t been involved in any sort of physical confrontation since fifth-grade recess.
For the first third or so of The Hills Have Eyes, I was taken quite aback by how good it was, and by how much I was enjoying it. I continued to enjoy it through the second third, too, but by that point I had made a connection that had eluded me initially— of course Aja’s remake was good; Craven’s original was brilliant, and Aja wasn’t doing anything differently except in a few trivial details. Hell, even many of the trivial details were carried over intact, right down to the size, shape, and color of Big Bob’s moustache! Consequently, I was forced in mid-stream to demote the new version from “surprisingly good” to “surprisingly good, but almost totally pointless.” Then the remake finally started to assert its independence a little, and everything went straight to hell.
Take the scene at the gas station— not the opener, I mean, but the one that ends with Big Bob in the cannibals’ clutches. Bob learns the mutants’ back-story not from interrogating the gas station guy, but from perusing his murderer’s-shrine-style display of newspaper clippings detailing the struggle over the condemned mining town 50 years earlier. It takes only a few seconds to realize that the attendant has absolutely no apparent reason to maintain this Wall of Exposition, and once we’ve noticed that, it becomes equally inescapable that he has no very convincing reason to act as the hill tribe’s intermediary, either. He’s plainly not one of them, after all, and I don’t see him getting much chance to pawn the loot they bring him, living out there alone on the edge of an irradiated wasteland, 200 miles from jack shit. The ensuing clash between Big Bob and Jupiter loses the vast majority of its power, too, now that the cannibals are no longer set up as a distorted reflection of the Carter family. In Craven’s handling, it was patriarch against patriarch, alpha-male against alpha-male, and Bob Sr.’s swift and total defeat (on much more even terms than in the remake, I might add) established at once exactly how outmatched the Carters were. The scene here still serves that latter function (insomuch as Big Bob is easily the family’s most credible fighter, by training, physique, and experience alike), but the thematic resonance is gone.
Two much more serious thematic failures present themselves during Doug’s adventure in the village. The first of these I’ve already hinted at— Doug simply is not capable of supporting the movie’s survival-horror aspect all by himself. The mainspring of Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes was the idea that the most decent, civilized people imaginable will do things that they’d normally find appalling even to contemplate when their lives (or the lives of those they care about) are on the line. That’s an important consideration in the remake, as well, but it’s complicated detrimentally by the great emphasis the new version places on the friction between Doug and his in-laws— friction which is all too often framed in explicitly sociopolitical terms. In effect, the remake assumes that Doug, as a forward-thinking, gun-phobic, godless, white-collar Democrat, is more civilized than the old-fashioned, well-armed, working-class, prayerful, Republican Carters, and that it therefore doesn’t really count when the latter slough off civilization in order to combat the mutants. Bobby, for instance, has an itchy trigger finger from the moment his dad pulls the guns out of storage, even when he has little reason to anticipate shooting at anything worse than a rattlesnake, and he waves around the loaded Beretta entrusted to him with a wanton recklessness that ought to horrify his ex-cop father. Meanwhile, a simple comparison between the amount of time spent with Doug at the mutant village and that spent with the surviving Carters at the trailer reveals that the latter confrontation held little interest for the present filmmakers. And why should it, if they regarded the Carters’ worldview as half-savage to begin with? But having thus heaped implicit scorn upon the red-state types, Aja and co-scripter Gregory Lavasseur then go on to make Doug exactly the sort of effete caricature that the Carters believe him to be. By the time act three rolls around, it’s impossible to accept Doug as physically or kinesthetically capable of any of the feats he performs at the mutant village after he finally does go stone age, however much we might agree that he’d want to do that stuff. Note that this is so even though Aja has clearly gone to some lengths to avoid the usual action-movie bad-ass crap during the climax. I’d have bought the thoroughly ordinary 1977 Doug handling himself this well, but the current incarnation is just too big a sissy, while the current mutants are all too exaggeratedly powerful.
The implications of Doug’s bloody counterattack also come together in a most unfortunate way with the one moment in which Aja and Lavasseur permit us any insight into the interior lives of the cannibals. Among those Doug faces in the village is a mutant who is rendered literally immobile by the weight and fragility of his hypertrophic brain (Desmond Askew, from Jekyll and Turistas). This mutant’s main function is to turn subtext into text by directly stating the premise that has lurked in the background of virtually every backwoods horror film since Deliverance: that the homicidal country people’s depredations are acts of justified retribution against a society that has systematically wronged them. “Your people asked our families to leave the town,” he says, “and you destroyed our homes. We went into the mines. You set off your bombs, and turned everything to ashes. You made us what we’ve become.” Leaving aside the point that stating the thesis so baldly is just a plain terrible idea, doesn’t the significance of this scene kind of get knocked sideways by the fact that the mutant is giving his speech to a man who would almost certainly have sympathized with the cannibals’ plight had they not stolen his baby, murdered his wife and most of her family, and raped his teenaged sister-in-law? And isn’t it knocked even further sideways by the fact that the stubborn sanctification of property rights for which the miners were willing to spend seventeen years dodging nukes and inhaling fallout has been, since at least the 1930’s, a core political value of the very segment of the American public that favors things like above-ground nuclear weapons testing? I have no problem with turning The Hills Have Eyes into a political allegory per se— as I’ve already mentioned, a certain element of that is almost inherently present in backwoods horror as it is— but if that’s what Aja and Lavasseur wanted to do, then they should have thought a lot more carefully about what sort of metaphors they were setting up.