Hills Have Eyes
Most people know Wes Craven as the man behind two of horror’s biggest moneymaking franchises – Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream. But before those, in 1977, he directed The Hills Have Eyes, a very low budget film about a family that is terrorized by cannibals.
Flash forward nearly 30 years, and the horrormeister decided it was time to bring his sophmore effort to a new audience, and he did this by handpicking French-born Alexandre Aja for the remake. Ironically, this is also Aja’s sophmore effort, having helmed the much lauded Haute Tension in 2003. The French aren’t known for their horror films – you could probably count them on one hand – so Aja represents something very exciting to fans of European cinema and the horror genre.
Based closely on Craven’s original script, the remake finds the Carter family on their way to California via the New Mexico desert. “Big” Bob Carter (Ted Levine), a retired policeman, and his wife (Kathleen Quinlan) are celebrating their 25th anniversary by taking their family on a road trip. In tow are daughters Brenda (Emilie de Ravin) and Lynne (Vinessa Shaw); son, Bobby (Dan Byrd); son-in-law, Doug (Aaron Stanford); their infant grandchild; and German Shepherds Beauty and Beast. No one is very happy about the trek through the hot and desolate landscape, especially not when an unplanned “short cut” leaves them stranded in 100-degree temperatures, miles from civilization. The real horror begins, though, when they realize they aren’t alone.
Many horror fans have come to expect an unrelenting bloodbath from beginning to end, so they might find the pacing of Hills Have Eyes a lot slower than they are used to. With a few isolated exceptions – the opening sequence, for example – the killings don’t begin in earnest until a good halfway into the film. Why? Because Aja and co-writer Gregory Levasseur want you to care about the victims. Because when you are invested in them emotionally, once you see what happens to them, you become all the more shocked and devastated. I actually teared up a few times during the film.
Whatever Aja is doing, it is working. When I saw Haute Tension, I could barely breathe I felt so tense. It was like sitting through 89 minutes of pure terror. (And, yes, I loved the twist ending.) Watching Hills Have Eyes had a similar effect, especially once the cannibals invaded. Furthermore, Aja has a real knack for stirring his audience’s emotions. When the victims begin fighting back you will find yourself stifling a scream of “whack him, whack him.”
As you might expect from French filmmakers, Aja and Levasseur give Hills Have Eyes a political undertone, which gives the story more dimension. The opening montage is particularly good, with alternating archived images of nuclear testing and the resulting biological effects – claw feet, Siamese twins, etc. The cannibals are actually products of those government tests. What’s more interesting, though, is how the film’s hero – a liberal Democrat who eschews guns and violence – changes once the situation becomes more dire. I liked the fact that the hero of this film – a very dynamic Stanford – isn’t a muscled up, one-liner spouting Austrian. Instead, he’s a skinny, bespectacled intellectual. Aja is thankfully moving away from the 1980s idea of a hero, and returning to one that comes straight out of the 1970s. I welcome the change.
Horror needs an injection of new talent, and Aja really fits the bill. I’m not alone in thinking this either. In 2004, Variety named him as one of the 10 Director’s to Watch. All I can say is that Aja could be the future of horror.