The Hills Have Eyes. 2006. Directed by Alexandre Aja. Screenplay by Aja & Grégory Levasseur.
Starring Tom Bower, Ted Levine, Kathleen Quinlan, Dan Byrd, Michael Bailey Smith, Emilie de Ravin, Aaron Stanford, Vinessa Shaw, Robert Joy, Laura Ortiz, Ezra Buzzington, Billy Drago, Desmond Askey, & Greg Nicotero.
Major Studio Partners/Craven-Maddalena Films/Dune Entertainment
Rated R. 108 minutes.
Not often the case a remake is better than the original. Only rarely do new filmmakers come to an old story and breath better life into its lungs than the people who first created it. The fact 2006’s The Hills Have Eyes is better than Wes Craven’s is frankly shocking, both for the fact Craven is one of the genre’s finest filmmakers, and also due to his 1977 original being a damn good movie. Alexandre Aja— who gave us High Tension, one of the greatest modern horrors, other critics be damned— swept in with his writing partner Grégory Levasseur to put a whole new spin on this horrifying tale.
Craven’s screenplay was loosely based on the Scottish legend of Sawney Bean and his inbred family who roamed the Highlands killing and eating people. He wanted to tell a story about supposedly civilised people and their ability to devolve into vicious primitiveness. This fit well with the trajectory of his main character Doug, whose arc takes him from a sheltered modern man to one consumed with violent revenge.
In the hands of Aja and Levasseur, Doug remains the same. Alongside this representation of humanity as civilised and primeval there’s a focus on the role America’s played in its self-destruction. Nuclear weapons become a premise for this remake’s tribe of mutant cannibals, acting partly as a critique of America’s nuclear arsenal, as well as of the divide between Americans and the violence it causes. The original movie was already seen as political. Seeing the remake follow suit in its own right is a treat.
“He’s a Democrat— he doesn’t believe in guns.”
The opening credits begin with a 1950s-era commercial, cutting from a woman blowing out candles on a cake to an atomic blast in the Nevada desert, as a juxtaposition of two sides of the American psyche: one light and cheery, the other dark and devastating. This extends to the vacationing family at the centre of the story, symbolic of a classic American family, out on the open road enjoying freedom and the American Dream. They stand in stark juxtaposition with the mutant family, who represent the American Dream’s ultimate failure, all those destroyed and deformed promises to the working class never much an actual concern to the U.S. government in the first place.
There’s also the gas station attendant (Tom Bower). He’s not totally part of regular America and not a mutant. He’s literally at the border of the nuclear test areas. This geographic isolation is also an isolation of economics— he’s not given the chance of an American Dream, which is why he helps the mutant clan, getting back at the bourgeois.
No better targets for him than the vacationers, led by Big Bob Carter (Ted Levine) and Doug Bukowski (Aaron Stanford). Bob was a cop, part of the repressive state apparatus (RSA) allowing a subjugation of the middle and working classes, and Doug’s a cellphone salesman catering to bourgeois class needs. Perfectly symbolic characters for the disenfranchised mutants to attack.
Aside from the division of class is a division in politics. From the start, Bob and Doug are widely different men. Bob’s a former cop who carries a large gun, the typical Republican dad with a knowledge of vehicles and a stubborn need to listen to a gas station owner’s directions over his own wife. In opposition, Doug’s a typical nerd-type with Harry Potter glasses, wearing a dress shirt with slacks on a road trip through the desert, and, as the above quote makes clear, a Democrat with disdain for the Second Amendment. Like real life, the inability of Democrats and Republicans to come together is part of America’s self-destruction. Sadly, the use and testing of nuclear power has never been an area where the two parties are different, resulting in worse destruction. Democrats act like they’re not a bunch of nuclear maniacs, when it was liberal democrat Harry S. Truman who came into office dropping Fat Man and Little Boy on Japan in 1945.
“You made us what we’ve become.
Boom. Boom. BOOM!”
The mutants’ attack on the Carter family and Doug, plus what follows is a giant allegory for the wide reaching variety of effects in the wake of America’s nuclear testing on its own soil. Once Doug travels to the home of the mutants there’s plenty sociopolitical commentary. To test nuclear weapons, the U.S. built fake towns, while ironically real towns were affected by the aftermath of the Nevada Test Site and the Trinity test. Aja envisions the mutants literally taking up residence in a constructed town as living symbols of the genuine corporeal effects of nuclear testing. Pluto (Michael Bailey Smith) is named after Project Pluto, an American government program to develop nuclear-powered ramjet engines, and a closed city within the Nevada Test Site was also called Mercury. Considering these planetary references, and Paper Jupiter (Billy Drago) as the clan’s leader, there’s a suggestion of significance in the use of planets as names for the characters.
The country’s nuclear tests caused effects from their fallout. The worst recorded were in St. George, Utah. From the mid-’50s to 1980, St. George saw an increase in leukaemia, lymphoma, thyroid cancer, breast cancer, melanoma, bone cancer, brain tumours, and gastrointestinal cancers. There are areas affected by fallout for which the American government, to this day, refuse to take responsibility. Aja’s mutants are symbolic of ugly human collateral damage.
Perhaps the worst indictment of American culture in relation to the nuclear bomb is how mushroom clouds from the Nevada Test Site became like tourist attractions in Vegas, watched from downtown hotels. In a sense, we can parallel these people watching the blasts in bourgeois hotel rooms and lobbies— effectively distancing themselves from the destruction by viewing it as entertainment— with the Carter family vacation, passing through the desert as tourists to the affected areas.
Finally, American imagery is strongly connected to extreme violence and death. The American family— a nuclear family, if you will— are a specific target of violence. Initially in the RV, as Lizard (Robert Joy) and Pluto lay brutal siege to the Carters, the worst reserved for Brenda (Emilie de Ravin), one of the family members has their blood spattered on the wall covering a family photo and the baby’s mobile. Later in the fake nuclear town, Doug has a showdown with Pluto ending inside one of the fake houses. Their fight occurs right in the dining room, where mannequins sit at the table like a quintessential image of an American family— a charred Bob sits at the head of the table with an American flag stuck in his head, as if the mutants treated him like the surface of the Moon planting a flag to reclaim it for THEIR America, a forgotten America.
A single image from this scene sums up the movie’s entire American critique: at the mannequin family table, Doug holds a baseball bat in a stance like he’s up at bat in a baseball game, the flag flying from his dead father-in-law’s head, and mutated Big Brain (Desmond Askew) starts singing the National Anthem. This happens to be the creepiest moment of the whole movie, where Big Brain elaborates on why the mutants do what they do, cementing the screenplay’s themes.
Although Doug successfully finds his child and defeats the mutants, his planting of the American flag in Pluto’s throat isn’t a sign of American triumph. In the end, the divide between Americans continues to exist, and despite the remaining Carters along with Doug surviving, mutants remain out there, somewhere. This final moment of dread was excellent fodder for a sequel, though the sequel’s unbelievably awful. It’s better as a nihilistic end where nothing’s actually fixed, just like America, and irreparable damage has been done to everybody.
The Hills Have Eyes is a brutal modern horror flick. Aja’s directing never lets up, giving the audience relatively little time once the chaos commences to take a breather between bursts of violence. Underneath, yet only barely concealed, if at all, is a seething contempt for all the horrors of a country obsessed with war. One of the most American scary movies. Nothing as frightening as facing the horrors of reality dressed up in a backwoods cannibal-style flick.
The only thing Father Gore knows with absolute certainty? You won’t be hungry or horny after watching this one. If you are, seek professional psychological help.