Wes Craven‘s The Hills Have Eyes is a seminal “Sunny Scary” horror flick renowned for its cannibalistic hilltop clan, but it certainly presents as one of Craven’s earliest works. The sorely missed master of horror went on to hone his craft as a writer and director, tidying visions and coaxing stronger performances. Craven’s 1977 The Hills Have Eyes is a microcosmic take on roadside roving mongrels enacting extreme violence on innocent passersby, and also a prime example of works that could benefit from a remake. The bones are sturdy but licked cleaner of meatiness, while choppy editing or ’70s technological restraints limit what can be accomplished. It’s a wonderfully demented slice of horror history that I proudly own and rewatch, serving as a reminder that remakes aren’t enemies to their originals.
Alexandre Aja‘s 2006 revamp under Fox Searchlight Pictures takes what’s there and mutates pure evils with nuclear negligence. Backstories are juicier, the scares are scarier, and the gore is gorier with extreme extrapolation. Craven’s foundation is fundamental to Aja’s success, but it’s never a direct copycat. Aja understands remakes are an opportunity to build upon legacies and inject personal flourishes, ensuring that Craven’s namesake is honored yet never regurgitated without reason. Hordes consider Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes a sunbaked classic, and Aja rises to the challenge of ensuring that historical reverence isn’t sullied nor lazily recreated.
Alexandre Aja and co-writer Grégory Levasseur embellish every detail Craven could not and aim to expand their 2000s The Hills Have Eyes beyond prior-known boundaries. The family’s patriarch doubles down on his republican politics, ruthless villains are no longer just smudged with dirt to denote vagrancy, and America’s derelict treatment of bombing site fallouts haunts massive craters. Wes Craven contained his attack against an unfortunate road-trippin’ family to the crash site’s immediate area while Aja adventures into surrounding atomic suburbs and mineshafts. Go big or go home, as the youths say (if they even say that anymore).
Big Bob (Ted Levine) and his wife Ethel (Kathleen Quinlan) celebrate their silver wedding anniversary by driving from Cleveland to San Diego with their daughters, son-in-law, and granddaughter. Bob veers off course to soak in the scenic grandeur of New Mexico’s desert nothingness, where their sweaty-yet-idyllic vacation turns into a nightmare. After a shifty gas station attendant (played by Tom Bower) gives Bob fake shortcut instructions, they’re stranded between rocky mountain ranges after crashing thanks to Lizard’s (Robert Joy) spike strip. Of course, Bob’s flock doesn’t know their accident is by nefarious means — but they will once Papa Jupiter’s (Billy Drago) radioactive family starts hunting them for meals.
The little tweaks stand out like Bob’s American flag fastened to his truck dragging a more contemporary Airstream or gnarlier cosmetic work on the faces of an uglier cannibal collective. Aja and Levasseur ditch the weirdly incestuous undertones between brother Bobby (Dan Byrd) and sister Brenda (Emilie de Ravin) while still allowing Bobby to make that inappropriate Freudian rattlesnake joke to his mother. As 2000s horror trends go, The Hills Have Eyes leans into all the gruesome slasher tropes and hyper-adrenalized ferociousness that make for a more violent, in-your-face horror experience. Shades of 2003’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre are present in terms of adapting to more shark-smelling-blood horror structures, making Papa Jupiter’s ranks infinitely more intimidating predators.
Does It Work?
The remake is an immeasurable upgrade in texture and tone without ditching the idea that nobody is safe in the daylight. It’s one of the original film’s undeniable contributions to horror — the stark reminder that danger lurks anywhere, at any time. Alexandre Aja doesn’t abandon any of the sweltery terrors that sting like scorpion bites yet injects more of Leatherface’s shadowy, tight-corners territory chases through houses or Michael hiding behind drying laundry lines. The finale’s focus on cell-phone salesman Doug (Aaron Stanford) — a passive democrat who Bob mocks for his aversion to guns – grants the film permission to be the more impactfully frightening horror experience as he must escape a limb-filled meat locker, then mini boss Pluto’s (Michael Bailey Smith) swinging weapon.
My generation’s The Hills Have Eyes works because it’s indebted to all the major beats of Wes Craven’s escape but not beholden to the intricate details. Poor Lynn (Vinessa Shaw) still dies, but she’s executed in a more sadistic fashion. Mama Ethel flies into the flimsy Airstream wall after being blasted by a hand cannon. German Shepard Beast still gets vengeance for Beauty’s death, but there’s more urgency and bite to the canine’s heroics. Alterations to Papa Jupiter’s people-eating survivors aren’t only of the flesh since there’s more stress put on how the American government left innocent citizens as furious freakshows after atomic bombing tests. Whatever implications once existed become ravenous commentaries in Aja’s hands, which make their points beyond physical mutilation.
The depravity in which 2006’s The Hills Have Eyes partakes is a divisive factor, considering the film was once branded NC-17. Aja’s style has always been to overload the senses, and there’s no shortage of brutality on display. “We based all our descriptions and directions on real documents, pictures, and footage that we found on the effects of nuclear fallout in Chernobyl and Hiroshima,” Aja says about his monsters. From the opening sequence where hazmat researchers with Geiger counters are pick-axed to death and hauled away as lunchmeat, you know Aja’s bringing an even meaner streak than Craven — what works for some will disgust others beyond tolerance (thinking of a more explicit and assaulting RV invasion).
The Hills Have Eyes transforms from this already bleak survival story into an outright domestic tragedy that can’t even pass through the credits without flashing images of children deformed by Agent Orange chemicals. The American Dream becomes an American Nightmare as civilians are turned into savage cannibals brought to life by K.N.B. EFX Group Inc. and Gregory Nicotero (who cameos as Cyst). Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur mock firearm-waving cowboys while giving the left-wing punchline their bravest character arc over his “macho” male counterparts. It’s angrier, more rotten, and obscenely graphic from the jump — Aja finds that extra gear that pushes his remake into nitrous overdrive.
The gore effects are spectacular; whether corpses spill guts or mutations are visible. Lizard’s cleft lip, Goggle’s almost alien face, Big Brain’s bulbous cranium dangling off his wheelchair — of course, something with Nicotero’s name attached slays practical effects. The only aspect that might struggle is Big Bob’s immolation because of quick cuts and digital touches; otherwise, there’s far more horror artistry on display. Doug’s fight sequence with Pluto recalls the wall-smashing prowess of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s Fast & Furious collateral damage, as Doug crashes through dividers, windows, and whatever else Pluto desires before Doug delivers the grand finale — Bob’s American flag through Pluto’s throat.
With all due respect to Wes Craven, 2006’s The Hills Have Eyes is the version we deserve. Everything gets a polish from performances to scale to excitement. Craven’s instincts are still present, but Aja washes the narrative in a cynical glaze of warped patriotism. Repugnance reigns supreme without losing the essence of Craven’s thematic explorations because Aja understands 1977’s The Hills Have Eyes is an imperfect starting point begging for further development — which he delivers like supersizing your Salisbury steak to a five-star tomahawk chop.
It’s the same lesson we learned about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Evil Dead. Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes isn’t what most would call an impenetrable horror experience, and almost thirty years of practical effects advancement had passed. Alexandre Aja takes something darn good and makes it damn great, cherishing the source material while introducing improvements that no longer ponder what could have been. In terms of justifications, The Hills Have Eyes showcases why and when you’d contemplate a horror remake.
So what did we learn?
● If Wes Craven wasn’t precious about his movies and wanted to see them remade (Craven chose to remake The Hills Have Eyes), we shouldn’t be outraged on his behalf.
● Outdated effects and techniques are always a reason to update with new technology.
● Alexandre Aja knows his way around a horror remake.
● There’s no such thing as an untouchable horror title — just varying degrees of how well filmmakers pull off high-profile remakes.
The Hills Have Eyes is probably the earliest or one of the earliest 2000s horror remakes that made a lasting impression on younger Donato. It wouldn’t be until a couple of years later that I devoted myself to the blasphemy of horror cinema in total submergence — when I’d start devouring every horror title I could access. There was a worry that 2006’s The Hills Have Eyes wouldn’t hold its acclaim after all these years, which wasn’t the case. Credit Alexandre Aja with two of my favorite 2000s horror remakes since The Hills Have Eyes narrowly edges out Piranha 3D.
In Revenge of the Remakes, columnist Matt Donato takes us on a journey through the world of horror remakes. We all complain about Hollywood’s lack of originality whenever studios announce new remakes, reboots, and reimaginings, but the reality? Far more positive examples of refurbished classics and updated legacies exist than you’re willing to remember (or admit). The good, the bad, the unnecessary – Matt’s recounting them all.