Suburban family the Carters — Mom, Pop, their son, daughters, son-in-law, baby randdaughter and two dogs — are travelling through the Nevada desert to San Diego when they fall afoul of a psychopathic family of cannibals, mutated by long-ago US military atomic tests on their home town. As the tagline says, the lucky ones die first…
When Alexandre Aja first ubmitted his remake of Wes Craven’s 1977 grot-horror to US censors for classification, it was so violent, so gory, so outré — that’s French for ‘out there’ — that it came back with the dreaded, box-office-death NC-17 rating. Yet, about 40 minutes in, you may be wondering what all the fuss was about. Apart from a brutal but brief pre-credits killing spree, Aja (whose French debut Switchblade Romance was fairly drenched in claret) has been remarkably restrained, allowing us time to get to know our heroes and, through creeping camerawork and a pseudo-John Carpenter score, establishing a feeling of scuttling, paranoid dread.
Slow burns, though, tend to be followed by loud bangs, and that’s what we have as Aja orchestrates the sequence that got the MPAA’s knickers in a twist: the mutants’ assault on the Carters’ trailer. It’s a gruelling, blistering 15-minute ordeal that starts with the immolation of one character, ends with the death-by-gunshot of two more, and in between slots in some horrifying sexual degradation. Events play out in much the same way as they did in the original, but Aja cranks up the tension and the viscera. The sequence is not only unmatched by the rest of the movie, but places The Hills Have Eyes firmly in the new so-called ‘horror porn’ movement, along with the works of Park Chan-wook and Eli Roth’s Hostel (with which this shares several characteristics).
Although Aja half-heartedly bungs in a few jump moments and, more gallingly, some old-as-the-hills-have-eyes clichés (Craven, who produced, must have had his back turned), his movie isn’t out-and-out scary. That’s the point of horror porn, where the emphasis is instead placed on suffering, on a downbeat mood and on pushing the boundaries of screen violence. In that sense, Aja’s remake succeeds, especially in a bloodsoaked climax as the human survivors hit back at their unspeakable tormentors.
But for those who hailed the French helmer as the best thing to hit horror since sliced teenagers, The Hills Have Eyes has to count as a step backwards. The best of the recent rash of ’70s horror remakes was Zack Snyder’s Dawn Of The Dead, which reconceptualised the original as an action flick. Aja’s movie isn’t so bold, treading contentedly along in the ’77 version’s bloody footprints while adding nothing substantial apart from a rather heavy-handed post-9/11 subtext. It’s a shame, because this match-up of horror’s old master and young pretender really should have led to something great.
Fans of the original won’t be disappointed, but ultimately it’s just another decent, arguably unnecessary, ’70s horror remake.