In the spirit of our March Break theme this month on Nightmare on Film Street, let us take a moment to think about the family vacation. In ye olden (pre-pandemic) days, March Break sometimes meant piling into the family car and heading away to parts warm and familiar, a place where the family can relax and recharge together in all their loving dysfunction. But sometimes vacations don’t go according to plan, and the movies remind us to be weary of gas station owners in the middle of nowhere that encourage us go off the beaten road.
Under the theme of vacations gone bad, there can be no better example than Wes Craven’s 1977 classic The Hills Have Eyes. The low budget original, and its glossy 2006 remake, both follow an extended family on a long drive to California through a rugged and desolate desert, and their subsequent encounter with an area family with cannibalistic tendancies. Both films play off the idea that dark stuff lurks for people brave enough (or foolish enough) to get off the main road, and both play off the vulnerability of isolation.
Blessed (or cursed) by having only so much money to go around, Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes has a visceral, almost snuff film kind of quality. The effects aren’t elaborate, and no stunt performers on set meant Craven couldn’t put the actors in any kind of real danger so the violence is always up close and intimate; POV shorts, frenzied editing and an appropriately erratic score by Don Peake do as much, if not more, to leave you unsettled than buckets of blood and faux dismemberment.
This would be the challenge for Alexandre Aja some 30 years later. With a budget 12 times higher than Craven’s, even after inflation is factored in, Aja had a lot more room to play in terms of make-up, explosions, stunt work, and top of the line gore courtesy of Walking Dead maestro Greg Nicotero, so it’s interesting to watch him hem so closely to Craven’s original story. On the remake scale, Aja’s The Hills Have Eyes is probably closer to Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of Psycho than Marcus Nispel’s one-shot remix of the first three chapters of Friday the 13th.
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“Blessed (or cursed) by having only so much money to go around, Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes has a visceral, almost snuff film kind of quality.”
So the big difference in the remake is that the dessert dwellers to whom the titular eyes in the hill belong are enhanced and given more peculiar character traits thanks to modern prosthetics. Craven’s crew did what they could with wigs, and furs, and funky teeth, not to mention Michael Berryman’s own natural physicality, but Nicotero and his team went wild with all manner of deformities and maladies, largely created with make-up with some occasional CG assistance. It’s like comparing the look of the Klingons of the original Star Trek series to how they appeared in later movies and TV shows.
Aja also lets his bad guys to become somehow more uncomfortably gross. Yes, cannibalism and dog eating is gross enough for your average horror fan, but the rape of the teenage daughter Brenda somehow plays even more obscene in the remake while Brenda’s big sister Lynn, a nursing mother, has her shirt ripped off by another one of the other mutants so he can feed on breast milk. Somehow, in a movie full of blood splatter, people eating, immolation, and mutation by radiation, this one scene feels the most uncomfortable.
It’s also indicative of the broader difference between the bad guys in the original and the remake in that Aja’s mutants are more sadistic, and more organized than the family in Craven’s film. Sadism in horror movies evolves naturally, and both The Hills Have Eyes pressed against the limits of the R-rating, but the remake still takes things up a notch. In the original, it’s an accident that strands the Carter family, while in the remake the mutants lay out road spikes. The trailer raid in the original sees the family focused on raiding it for supplies, while Aja’s mutants are less concerned with supplies than they are assaulting the Carters.
Of course, these mutants are not cave dwellers living on the fringes. They have homes and roofs over their head in an abandoned town set up for nuclear test detonations by the government. They have TV and electricity, an elaborate abattoir to “process” the people they take, and they have a complex back story about how they were screwed over by the recklessness and hubris of the U.S. Government with years of atomic bomb tests. The mutants are getting their revenge one carload at a time.
“Sadism in horror movies evolves naturally, and both The Hills Have Eyes pressed against the limits of the R-rating, but the remake still takes things up a notch.”
By comparison, Craven is not interested much in mythology. His roving band of marauders are stand ins for whatever theme you might want to overlay on top of the film. Could they be the personification of dumb blind bad luck for road travelers stuck miles from help? Perhaps, but the more common theme ascribed to the film is the haves versus the have-nots.
This was the period that U.S. President Jimmy Carter described at the time as a “malaise”, America was stifled by the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate, an economic recession that lasted a decade, and the beginning of an energy crisis caused, in part, by political upheaval in the Middle East. The Carters, as an extended nuclear family with their station wagon and trailer hitch heading for the coast, represent a way of life that many thought was impossibly tenable by 1977. Family patriarch Big Bob Carter is also a retired cop who at one point monologues about the “[N-word]s” and “hillbillies” he had to fend off during his years on the job, only to be nearly killed by his own “goddamn wife and her goddamn road maps and her wrong turns and her goddamn hysterical screaming.”
There’s a definite lack of empathy on the part of Big Bob, which is countered by the startlingly empathetic Ruby, the one member of the family that wants to get out of the desert, and the one member of the family that actually saves people instead of killing them. At the beginning of the film, she begs Fred, the gas station attendant and the family’s beard for luring unsuspecting travelers to the hills, to take her with him when he leaves the desert. The family wants to punish the haves and steal from them, but Ruby wants a chance to join their ranks.
There is a Ruby in the remake, but she’s more of an enigma. Why does she protect teenage son Bobby when he falls off the rock face? Why does she save the baby from the culinary desires of the other mutants? Why does she sacrifice herself to save the baby and the baby’s father in the end? The short answer is that since Ruby is the turncoat hero of the original she had to be again in the remake, but no where in the text does Ruby have any motivation except the suggestion that the vileness of all the other mutants is counted by some measure of humanity in Ruby.
“The Hills Have Eyes is a testament to the worst case scenario, no matter how bad it is, it could be worse.”
Indeed, there’s a lack of subtext in the remake because there’s a larger question of what the mutants are supposed to represent. Nuclear panic? Well, 2006 was an odd time for that. It was also a couple of years early for an economic commentary arriving two years before the Great Recession. At the time, the news was filled with stories of people going out into the desert and being killed by roving bands of killers, but that was in war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan. In that one regard, the remake’s sequel, which follows a regiment of National Guard troops investigating the disappearance of scientists in the desert, has its finger more firmly on a thematic pulse.
But perhaps this is an instance where, as a famous movie serial killer once said, “it’s a lot more scarier when there’s no motive.” Sometimes there’s no rhyme or reason when the family road trip goes wrong, it’s just a matter of course and the real test is in how you respond in a crisis. The Hills Have Eyes is a testament to the worst case scenario, no matter how bad it is, it could be worse.
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