The Hills Have Eyes is a truly American horror film. Like Manifest Destiny gone horribly awry, the film reflects our obsession with the danger of the West: Its forbidden, desolate landscapes, the rugged masochism it inspires. For Americans, the West is a place where anything can and does happen. And in The Hills Have Eyes our nastiest nightmares are bloodily realized.
Wes Craven’s brutal 1977 micro-budgeted The Hills Have Eyes was a post-hippie scream of horror, both at the collapse of the youth-led revolution and the dreadfulness of the Vietnam War. Craven turned his eye to home, to the desolate stretches of vast American desert where he could posit a family of bloodthirsty mutants preying on those who stumble onto their fallout abode, and it could almost (almost) seem plausible. With a world of misery at large, how strange would it be to find murderous maniacs in our own backyard? Sure, the original film suffers from some notably outré moments and jagged pacing, but Craven succeeded in bringing a grimly gleeful sense of humor to what was essentially a Texas Chainsaw Massacre riff. Article continues below
Alexandre Aja (Haute Tension) retools Craven’s classic and turns it into a bold, spaghetti western-inspired tale of revenge, family, and American politics. Funny that, huh? The amazing thing is that it works. Aja explores the depths only hinted at in Craven’s good vs. evil shocker; the monsters in Aja’s film are more or less subjective.
The plot is simple: a family outing goes awry in the nuclear test sites of the New Mexican desert. Big Bob Carter, virily played by Tim Levine, is a retired detective and red-state everyman who’s dragged his family out for a road trip to California. Along for the ride is his wife, Ethel (Kathleen Quinlan), the two met as hippies in the ‘60s, his older, married daughter, Lynne (Vinessa Shaw, The Weight of Water), her husband, Doug (Aaron Stranford, X2) a cell phone slinging-liberal, their cute infant daughter Caroline, and two teenagers, the hipster, Bobby (Dan Byrd), and his sister, the popuar, Brenda (Emilie de Ravin). Beauty and Beast, two German Shepherds, round out the caravan.
Unlike most films these days, the family isn’t on the rocks; they seem to function well together under pressure. And they need every ounce of that stability when they are led into the wastes of the desert by a sinister gas station attendant and find themselves fighting for their lives against not just a family (as in the original film) but a whole, degenerate town of mutant cannibals. And here is where Aja’s film veers wide from Craven’s. The cannibal mutants on display here (while very much the result of the nuclear testing they were exposed to in the ‘50s) aren’t just deformed boogeymen but real people with real families. Yes, they do have a taste for human flesh and yes, most of them are clearly deranged, but that’s par for the course. What horribly deformed cannibal living in a desolate, contaminated wasteland wouldn’t be a tad crazy?
I suppose that may be making light of their violent and thoroughly disgusting predilections, and when Aja steps into Straw Dogs territory the film turns unreasonably nasty, but these aren’t the nameless monsters of the ‘70s. These are, dare I say it, nuanced fiends.
I did mention that the film leans heavily on spaghetti western tropes – the soundtrack buzzes and stings with electric guitar licks straight out of a Corbucci oater, the landscape (not the American Southwest at all but the red rock plains of Morocco) is otherworldly, and the characters, by the end, are consumed by revenge, the screen literally burning. Cinematographer Maxime Alexandre brilliantly captures the soul-searing heat and spiraling dust of the Moroccan desert. If a gunslinger in black were to saunter into frame on some thin horse it wouldn’t have fazed me a bit.
The violence in this movie is extreme, the gore effects both realistic and outlandish, even more so than those guffawed at in last year’s A History of Violence. But these sequences aren’t just geek show tableaus meant to just titillate sick members of the audience; they are part and parcel of the primitive brutality of the picture. Essentially, the film is a bold, depiction of the urban man’s worst nightmare. When your family is slaughtered, brutalized by an uncaring, almost inhuman force in a place where cell phones won’t work, it’s enough to turn a lily-livered liberal into Conan the Barbarian and force him onto the slaughtering trail. What adds depth and intricacy, is that the monsters – examples of great special effects work, especially the suitably named Big Brain – have families they want to protect as well. One of the film's most poignant and powerful scenes takes place after a wash of violence, when Doug, covered in so much thick blood he looks as though he’s been dragged from the mud that nearly swallowed Yves Montand in Wages of Fear, runs across two mutant toddlers playing house, their faces horribly deformed, who innocently ask him, “Will you play with us, mister?”
Perhaps Aja goes too far in linking the nuclear testing of the ‘50s with America’s failed social program, and he does overdo the grotesquery at times, but The Hills Have Eyes is a carefully plotted, brilliantly coiled example of suspenseful horror filmmaking. That’s quite a feat these days, with theatres glutted with cheap debris like Saw II. A bold and brutal film, The Hills Have Eyes gets under your skin on an almost primal level.