Alexandre Aja’s The Hills Have Eyes is the rare horror remake that improves on the original film. That may not have been the consensus among horror fans when the film was released back in 2006, but it’s far from a hot take now. The accomplishment is made even more impressive when you consider that genre-icon Wes Craven was behind the camera for the original 1977 production, and especially since we’ve seen how horribly wrong remaking a Craven film can go (*cough cough* A Nightmare on Elm Street). With the thirteenth anniversary of Aja’s version on the horizon, we’re diving into what makes The Hills Have Eyes one of horror’s greatest remakes.
Aja’s remake is largely faithful to its source material. It follows most of the same story beats as Craven’s film, the same characters live and die for the most part, and there are very few structural surprises for anyone who’s seen the original movie. Even with all of these similarities, though, the latter Hills is presented in such an extreme manner that viewers can’t help but be shocked by its rush of horrific adrenaline.
Mostly absent is the camp factor that coursed through Craven’s version. It’s instead been replaced by the graphic, in-your-face brutality that horror cinema offered viewers in the early-to-mid 2000’s. It isn’t a torture film in the same sense that Saw and Hostel are torture films, per se. There is undoubtedly an abundance of sickening violence, but it’s always handled in a way that highlights its weight on the story. This isn’t the fun kind of splatterfest that audiences were accustomed to at the time of its release – it’s an assault on the mental health of its characters, where every tragedy has repercussions and every survivor finds strength in weakness.
The protagonists of The Hills Have Eyes are put through the wringer. The three grown survivors – siblings Bobby (Dan Byrd) and Brenda (Emelie de Ravin) and their brother-in-law Doug (Aaron Stanford) – are helpless in the initial, masterfully-plotted attack on their family by the mutated hill-people, which results in Bobby and Brenda losing their father, mother and sister, as well as one of their two German Shepherds, and Doug losing his wife and baby, who has been kidnapped by the mutants. They are rattled by the events, especially Brenda, who was raped but managed to survive the attack, and are forced to tap into their primal instincts in order to survive.
This is essentially the same setup as the original film, but what sets it apart is that Aja and writing partner Grégory Levasseur handle the events with a morbid seriousness that allows for a gratifying bout of vengeance from the survivors. Doug, specifically, has an unforgettable hero arc, whereas he starts the film more even-tempered and passive, especially in comparison to his wife’s police detective father. When his wife is murdered and his child stolen, though, Doug courageously journeys through the hills in search of his child and revenge, with only Beast, the surviving German Shepherd, by his side.
When he arrives at the run-down desert town where the antagonists live, Aja wrings every ounce of tension of the scenario as Doug sneaks around and silently uncovers new horrors and threats. With a newfound purpose and the help of Beast, who is particularly vicious in his heroic bloodlust (i.e. he’s a good boy), Doug proves to be a far more capable survivor than the characters of the film initially believed him to be. He handles his own, even managing to gain the upper hand and kill the physically-imposing Pluto after having two of his fingers cut off and appearing to be on the verge of death. This transition into the film’s main hero is accompanied by a pitch-perfect musical score from duo tomandandy, which allows Doug‘s turn into a badass to be a remarkably gratifying and crowd-pleasing moment.
Though it plays second fiddle to Doug‘s central rescue mission, Bobby and Brenda manage to dish out their own comeuppance as well. Bobby, who is trying his damnedest to hold things together, plans a trap, but it’s Brenda who gets the ultimate revenge for the atrocities committed against her and her family when she murders the cannibalizing Papa Jupiter with a pick-axe. While they manage to survive, the siblings are hardly optimistic that they’ll ever see Doug or their niece ever again, which makes for an even sweeter reunion when Doug, his daughter, and Beast soon return – worse for wear, but alive.
Perhaps even more so than Aja’s extreme vision for the story, The Hills Have Eyes remake benefits greatly from its core performances. As mentioned, the characters in both versions of the film are faced with essentially the exact same nightmarish scenario, but the performances in Craven’s original don’t carry the same weight as those on display in Aja’s film. They are a product of their time, before movies such as this were typically filled with heavy, serious performances. The remake, however, features harrowing, deeply-affecting acting showcases from every member of the traumatized family. The audience is forced to feel their anguish and the lasting mental effects that the events of the film will have on these characters long after the credits roll. The way that we buy in to the lives of these characters makes their survival resonate infinitely more after the hell that they’re forced to endure.
To claim superiority over the 1977 version of The Hills Have Eyes in no way detracts from Wes Craven’s version, which is a fine horror film in its own right that blends seriousness and campiness in a way that few horror films are successful at. It’s simply a testament to how great the remake is, and how truly excellent remakes can be.
What do you think of both the original and remake of The Hills Have Eyes? Sound off with the Nightmare on Film Street Community over on Twitter, our Official Subreddit, and the Horror Fiend Club Facebook Group!