*. I’ve talked before about how the first decade of the twenty-first century launched a whole whack of short-lived horror franchise resets. There was a new Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a new Friday the 13th, a new Prom Night, a new Omen, a new Amityville Horror, a new Nightmare on Elm Street, a new Halloween, a new Last House on the Left, and even a new I Spit On Your Grave. I think in every case these movies failed to step over the low bar that had been set. And I say a low bar because let’s face it, most of the originals were dreadful.
*. The one exception to this general rule of inferior remakes is Alexandre Aja’s The Hills Have Eyes. In part this is because I’ve always been underwhelmed by Wes Craven’s 1977 original, but I think it’s also in large part due to the fact that Aja takes the material, does his own thing with it, and does it very well.
*. To be sure, Aja’s “thing” isn’t for everyone. The back end of this film is a full-throttle splatterfest, the gore doled out by a variety of weapons (shotgun, spiked tire trap, baseball bat, pick-axe). But given that this is what the audience would, justifiably, be expecting I didn’t have any problem with it and overall I thought it was handled very well. I also really liked the new wrinkle of making the feral family into mutants generated by atomic bomb testing in the New Mexico desert. Throw in some inspired art direction and you’ve got a bloody good time.
*. The mutation back story does have the effect though of undercutting the original juxtaposition of the two families. Are the mutants a family, or just townspeople too lazy to get out of the way of the bomb? Is Papa Jupiter, now a minor figure who can only growl and is left “quite far in the background” in Craven’s eyes, still the patriarch? And what relation is the gas station owner to any of them? In the original he was Jupiter’s father but here he becomes a somewhat superfluous character, for all the information he gives, and his initial act of treachery is mystifying. (According to Craven’s commentary it was because Lynn had seen his stolen jewels so he thought she was going to turn him in. But this wasn’t clear to me even on several viewings.)
*. In short, the political thrust of Craven’s film, insofar as it had a political thrust, is scrambled. In this movie Aja seems more interested in taking it to various American myths, like the frontier and the bright-and-shiny façade of life in the 1950s. Note the emphasis on the American flag flying from the SUV, which is later planted in a corpse’s skull, only to be dug out and used as a weapon in a re-enactment of Iwo Jima. And of course there’s the freak “Cyst” (Greg Nicotero) giving a raspy rendition of the national anthem. There’s still the family prayer before they split up after the crash, but American nationalism has become the new religion to be mocked. To which we might just say that the filmmakers are French and let it go at that.
*. More bothersome, sticking with the French spin, is that I don’t think Aja’s ear for English dialogue was all that good. He keeps a few of the lines from the original (though sadly loses the best), but they get run through by the actors without the proper emphasis. Which seems odd because I think most of the cast were American. But the director makes a difference in such matters.
*. Is it another bit of French business to have Doug casting an eye on the nubile body of his sunbathing sister-in-law? There really seems to be something going on there, and I thought it was a great touch for being both unsettling and sexy.
*. I kept wondering where I’d seen Big Bob before. It took a while, but the penny finally dropped. That’s Buffalo Bill himself, Ted Levine. Raw and then cooked.
*. Is it a movie that demands you silence your inner critic? Probably, but here’s some carping to go along with the praise.
*. Once again we have mutants who are clearly suffering from terrible deformities and radiation sickness but are also superhumanly strong and have Wolverine-like healing powers. Multiple gunshot wounds and stabbings don’t even slow them down. “That’s a mortal wound, right?” producer Peter Locke asks on the commentary as Pluto gets the broken bat stuffed into his abdomen. Alas, no. I thought they were at least being plausible with Lizard walking with a limp after being stabbed in the leg, but then (just as in the original), he’s out bouncing over the hills like a mountain goat chasing Ruby. And when he finally gets blown away with the shotgun, three times!, and is left lying there I was saying to myself “I don’t think even this movie can go so far as to have him get up again”. Alas . . .
*. Boy do I hate this cliché of the unkillable villain. I mean, I know it comes with the territory, but Papa Jupe gets vaporized in that trailer explosion and he’s still alive?
*. There have to be a couple of nominees for the award for biggest idiot in an idiot-plot horror movie in here. Like Bobby, with his pants drooping halfway down his legs, firing his gun blindly over his shoulder when running away from Jupiter. Though the sheer stupidity of the family was also very much an issue in Craven’s film, where the dog was the smartest character.
*. Speaking of the dog, Beast, he really has a hard time of it here. First he gets locked in a car in the burning desert, then he saves Doug only to have Doug run away, leaving him to fight Pluto on his own (something that even pissed Craven off). You have to wonder, as I often do, why dogs think humans are even worth it.
*. Man that fire extinguisher has a lot of agent in it. Sort of like one of those guns that never run out of ammunition. Of course there’s no way in hell a little kitchen unit like that would put a dent in the monster blaze that Big Bob is roasting on. But this is a movie.
*. They scouted sites all over the world but settled for shooting in Morocco. Because it looked just like New Mexico. They also scouted sites in New Mexico, but according to Locke on the commentary track the locations in New Mexico were too remote and hard to get to. Which seems odd when you’re comparing it to a town on the edge of the Sahara. Originally Craven had wanted to shoot at the same location as the original (in California) but condos had been built around it.
*. I’ve mentioned the neat art direction — sort of retro, ’50s Western gothic, right down to that awesome Airstream trailer — but the photography by Maxime Alexandre (who would go on to do two more horror remakes, shooting The Crazies and Maniac) is also worth mentioning. This is a surprisingly bright movie, which is something Locke mentions in passing, drawing the comparison to what movies looked like in the ’70s. “It’s the juxtaposition of something really gorgeous with something insane happening inside of it. If you look at the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre or the original Hills Have Eyes, it looks rough and mean and you know it looks like the landscape of it. This thing sort of made everything glossy and beautiful, and then something terrible happened within the glossy and beautiful landscape.” True, and I don’t think this approach works very often, especially when dealing with such grungy material. But here it does, reflecting the bright desert sun and post-WW2 atomic-age optimism that gave birth to these monsters.
*. In sum, Aja got it right. Which must have pleased Craven, who was producer (the fact that it made money probably helped too). Of course you’d expect a lot of it to be better than Craven’s original. Though this wasn’t a big production, the crash scene alone (three days of shooting for a few seconds of film!) probably cost more, adjusted for inflation, than the entire first movie did. And of course the mutant and gore effects, with CGI, make-up, and prostheses are miles ahead of what they’d been thirty years earlier. I was surprised that Ruby’s weird face was done by CGI, but it’s quite effective. Throw in some new wrinkles (I loved the mannequin town), decent performances (Aaron Stanford is very good as Doug, whose character was apparently patterned after Dustin Hoffman’s in Straw Dogs), lots of blood, and it’s altogether much better than the original. Craven should have been proud.