French director Alexandre Aja divided genre fans with his breakout hit “Switchblade Romance” (a.k.a. “Haute Tension”), mainly due to the inclusion of an ending which could be politely termed ‘wacky’. Given this, the decision to make his Hollywood debut with a remake of Wes Craven’s 1977 classic “The Hills Have Eyes” may at first sound suspiciously like an unadventurous one, needlessly adding to the ever growing ranks of similarly pointless films. Thankfully, Aja exceeds all expectations, producing a slice of unrestrained and unashamedly adult horror which makes little concession to the usual teen demographic.
The film is surprisingly faithful to the original, both in terms of plot and spirit, possibly due to the credibility-enhancing presence of Craven himself as producer, though with an unmistakable dash of Gallic insanity. If anything, Aja actually improves on the original in many ways, and though far from perfect, his film is certainly the best of the recent crop of remakes, and more importantly, a great piece of genre cinema in its own right.
The film follows the unfortunate Carter family as they travel through the desert en route to San Diego , falling victim to a vicious band of mutant cannibals along the way. There is very little to the film beyond this simple, brutal premise, which in a sense is why it works so well. Aja, who also scripted, largely ditches Craven’s vague attempts to compare the two families as an ironic commentary on civilisation and the savagery inherent in the human condition, though to be fair this was never more than a minor thematic concern. Instead, Aja focuses on the fact that the mutants are a result of U.S. nuclear testing, and as such are played almost as grotesque, vengeful by-products of modern society.
In narrative terms, aside from an amusingly bloody introduction, Aja keeps things fairly close to the original, and as such the first half makes for familiar viewing. However, given the advantage of a bigger budget, he expands on several ideas, in particular the role of one character whose protracted exploration of the cannibals’ home basically accounts for the significantly longer running time. These scenes fit in quite naturally, and give the film a more convincing back-story and a more satisfying conclusion. Interestingly, Aja aims for a bizarrely upbeat tone during these final scenes complete with bombastic music and heroic posing, though this actually works well and, given the torments the characters have had to suffer, is certainly justified.
Aja’s direction at times feels like an assault on the senses, complete with screeching noise and unflinching, leering close ups of the grisly action. He makes full use of the desert setting, playing it as an unforgiving and primal environment that perfectly reflects the characters’ desperate struggle to survive. Although the film has a markedly lunatic streak, Aja keeps things fairly coherent, and more importantly keeps the pace up throughout, wisely never giving the viewer a chance to draw breath.
Helping enormously is that “The Hills Have Eyes” is a fiercely visceral film and is one of the bloodiest efforts from a major studio in several years. The atrocities flow thick and fast, far outstripping the original and providing some fairly shocking scenes. The mutant family themselves are truly horrible, a nauseating freak show that makes for great villains, even if they do lack the characterisation of those in the original.
The only real problem with “The Hills Have Eyes” is the unshakable feeling of pointlessness which hangs over all remakes in general. Although Aja’s film does transcend this malaise and makes for great entertainment, it serves yet again to underline the depressing lack of originality in the genre today. Nevertheless, the film certainly confirms Aja as a major talent, and as one of the few directors brave enough to actually try to horrify and repulse viewers, which is no little thing in such anaemic times.
Alexandre Aja (director) / Alexandre Aja (screenplay), Wes Craven, Gr’gory Levasseur (1977 screenplay)
CAST: Aaron Stanford …. Doug Bukowski
Kathleen Quinlan …. Ethel Carter
Vinessa Shaw …. Lynne Bukowski
Emilie de Ravin …. Brenda Carter
Dan Byrd …. Bobby Carter
Robert Joy …. Lizard
Ted Levine …. Bob Carter