Following fast on the heels of High Tension, a well crafted but ultimately soulless homage to the hunt n’ slash horror films of the ’70s, director Alexandre Aja remakes one of the films that inspired him in the first place: Wes Craven’s “mutants attack the American family in the desert” shocker The Hills Have Eyes. When it comes down to slick technical mastery, Aja has the edge over Wes Craven, whose best films were low-budget, gritty assaults on the senses. Craven lacked polish, but those very imperfections are what made his films interesting. That said, the original Hills Have Eyes was little more than a Death Valley variation on Tobe Hooper’s superior The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, following the old familiar pattern of Car Breaks Down, Mutants Attack, and Those Who Died First Were the Lucky Ones. The only novelty was the thin subplot of how the inbred cannibal family existed as survivors of ’50s atomic testing (a bit of undernourished social statement), and their exotic names—Jupiter, Pluto, Mercury—hinted at astrological fears larger than one’s self (lifted from a throwaway van conversation in Texas Chainsaw Massacre).
Certainly, this ghoulish fairy-tale template deserves a ramped-up treatment, and if you’re going to remake a retro-horror show why not tackle one that never made good on its potential in the first place? But the only progress of this remake is its ability to take its larger budget and make bigger variations of the exact same set pieces. This time, since the filmmakers have money behind them, a ghost town is created for the mutants, as well as an underground mine. Like the remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it’s an excuse for ultra-sleek cinematography and state-of-the-art production design, which makes for nice eye candy but takes away from that sense of gritty, you-are-there realism that brought the ’70s terror shows so close to home. There’s no reason to keep telling yourself “It’s only a movie,” since the high production values makes one constantly aware that you’re watching pretty pictures on a screen. And even when the bloodletting happens, the crimson hue looks like it belongs in a glossy Super Bowl commercial.
In effect, this remake is a cover song recorded in a slicker studio with the best equipment. But the song is still the same. That means we’re stuck with the same familiar slasher story that’s like a checklist of plot points, so what’s the difference between this remake or the equally insipid and derivative Wolf Creek? There aren’t any surprises in store, other than the order the American family will get killed off. Will Mom die before or after little sister is raped and mutilated, or will we see Dad get butchered when he leaves the camp to go to the old abandoned gas station? If one is holding out hope for a fascinating parallel story between the functional mutant clan versus the dysfunctional suburban family, don’t hold your breath. While their names remain colorful evocations of the solar system, Jupiter and Pluto might as well be called Mutant Thug #1 and Mutant Thug #2 for all the personality they exhibit.
No moment in Aja’s Hills Have Eyes is as offensive as the camera moving through the CGI bullet hole in Marcus Nispel’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which took serial killing into the realm of MTV’s wow factor. When the movie transforms into a grindhouse slaughter show, where good guys get their limbs chopped off Hostel-style, Aja really seems in his element, covering his cast from head to toe in buckets of gore. It’s executed with precision and well-timed scares, refusing to turn the camera away when the horror unfolds. Like Wolf Creek, this one has the guts not to be PG-13—but the problem with both films is that when the horror kicks into gear you’re watching the filmmaker shoot fish in a barrel. What makes Hills Have Eyes even worse is how much it lacks novelty.
Aja has talent and knows what to do with the camera and sound to maximize fear, even when he’s beating his point into the ground, but he needs to study the difference between remakes like The Thing, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and The Manchurian Candidate, each of which took the original premise in a fresh new direction, versus Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Fog, and even Peter Jackson’s lavish King Kong, which are at best fan-club love letters and at worst inferior photocopies. If the horror genre is to move forward, guys like Jackson and Aja need to be mining and innovating new territory, not falling back on the familiar. With Hills Have Eyes, I didn’t much care for the 1977 version, and now I like it even less.