As you may remember, I fucking DESPISED the Texas Chain Saw remake, but I thought the Dawn of the Dead one was fun. I can definitely be a purist at times but not always. I just calls it like I sees it. For me THE HILLS HAVE EYES is a remake with alot of potential because the original is a movie that I like alot, but I know it’s flawed. It’s got these great archetypal type themes, a perfect setup, lots of great horrible gruesome fun, but it’s pretty sloppy and cheap looking, and not always in a good way.
The remake, by the same frenchmen who made HIGH TENSION, had a couple things here and there that bothered me, but I think it goes in the pantheon of the good remakes. It stays very true to most of what I like about the original, and in some areas it even improves. TEXAS CHAINSAW I felt like was made by people who had no fuckin clue what was great about the original; DAWN OF THE DEAD was a good action movie but had none of the substance of the original; also please note I used two semi-colons in this sentence, which I think is pretty god damned professional in my opinion. To me, THE HILLS HAVE EYES feels like a new production of the old classic, because it stays very close to the original story for the first half, and when it veers off in a different direction it still stays true to the themes of the original. Shit, I’ll say it: THE HILLS HAVE EYES = Shakespeare. Hopefully we’ll have many different versions of THE HILLS HAVE EYES – we’ll have it modernized, we’ll have it set during WWII, or in space, we’ll have it done entirely by puppets or animals or children.
But that’s later, for now let’s deal with the first remake. The basic story is almost the same as in the original. The whitebread Carter family are on a trailer trip to California, taking a stupid route through New Mexico. They stop at a gas station called Fred’s Oasis, take a dirt road shortcut and then crash and break their axle. Then a pack of weird mutant/inbred bastards terrorize them, kill some of them and steal their baby. And the survivors turn savage to get the baby back and exact revenge on behalf of civilized man. the end.
Wes Craven was a college professor once so it’s not surprising he put alot of pretentious subtext into his early movies. I’m not trying to say it’s deep, but the way he set up this story has some kind of mythic quality or something that elevates it as far as I’m concerned. You got this family (named after the president at the time) that represents Middle Class America (in the new one they even have flags on their truck and on the mom’s shirt, and Big Bob makes fun of his son in law for being a democrat). Then you got this other family that represents pure savagery. But they’re two sides of the same coin, assuming the head side is all melted and fucked up. That’s why the Carters have two dogs named Beauty and Beast. If they only had one it would be named The Duality of Man. Notice that Beauty gets mutilated early on, Beast starts chewing on people and knocking them off cliffs.
That’s right, man is both beauty and beast so when the families face off it quickly becomes clear they’re not that different. The non-mutants turn completely vicious when the chips are down (just like in LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT). And in both versions the mutant pack also has the younger sister Ruby who wants to be normal. In the original version, she actually ran off and lived a normal life (if you believe the horrible HILLS HAVE EYES PART 2). In this one she steals a hoodie from the Carters and wears it for the rest of the movie, which to me represents that she wants to be part of their family instead of Jupiter’s.
Like I said, if you MUST remake a ’70s horror classic, this is a good one to do. Because the original HILLS HAVE EYES is not perfect. Alot of the acting and dialogue is pretty bad. The production values are low. Craven and his boys made an entertaining movie but they didn’t make a low budget sing the way, say, Tobe Hooper did in CHAIN SAW or George Romero did on NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. It always bugged me how they just shine a bright light on the side of the trailer at night and you’re supposed to believe it’s moonlight or something. But on the other hand they got the great themes I mentioned, they got scary looking Michael Berryman as Pluto, they got some bits of weird production design by Robert Burns (the same dude who did TEXAS CHAIN SAW and TOURIST TRAP), they got a couple hilarious moments between the mutants and some savagery that still feels fresh today. Because I don’t know another movie where the heroes are pushed to the point of using their mom’s dead body as bait.
It’s safe because it’s not a note perfect masterpiece like TEXAS CHAIN SAW, it’s a great idea with the execution only halfway there. Sure enough, the two frenchmen have made a real entertaining movie that I will go so far as to say is in some ways better than the original. I wasn’t ready to say that right after I walked out of the theater but the next day I watched the original again. And usually that would be a bad idea that would make you notice more flaws in the remake. But actually it had the opposite effect, really making me notice that the Carter family is more sympathetic and believable in the new version (and more silly than I remembered them being in the old version), and it made me really appreciate the spooky desert atmosphere of the remake. Of course, there’s a charm (yes, violent horror movies have charm) to the primitive/raw/sloppy feel of the original that can never be recreated, but these guys do a great job of reinterpreting it.
Now, don’t get me wrong. There are a couple of fuckups here and there. They changed up the backstory, which is fine. Instead of tying the family to the gas station attendant, there’s a story about miners who refused to evacuate their homes for the government’s nuclear testing and apparently gave birth to some mutants. But they don’t trust the audience to figure that shit out on basic clues (or DAWN OF THE DEAD remake style opening credits montage), so in the scene where Big Bob Carter (played by Ted Levine this time) finds a stash of stolen credit cards and jewelry in the gas station and figures out this guy is preying on tourists, he also has to see a series of pristine newspaper clippings detailing the entire history of the miners, nuclear testing and disappearances. This was even worse than the scene I wish they had cut out of WOLF CREEK. We already figured out what’s going on here, fellas. You don’t need to draw us a picture.
But the very worst scene is close to the end, when an Elephant Man looking dude in a wheelchair makes a speech about “your people” and what they did to us, somehow blaming the Carters for nuclear testing and unwisely turning the hills pack into whiny victims. This speech was so bad I was afraid the movie was gonna pull a HIGH TENSION and end on a note so stupid it would erase my enjoyment of everything that came before it. Fortunately the scene is over quick and you can pretend it never happened. Like that time you (insert joke about jerking off while thinking about your friend’s girlfriend/mom/whatever).
Also, the climax of the movie takes place in a nuclear testing site with houses full of mannequins. I thought that was a little too cute. But I understand how the idealized mannequin family fits in with the themes and why they’d want to have a new setting to set it apart from the original.
My only other major complaint is that in the opening scene and a couple scenes at the end they use a skipped frames/handcrank type deal to make the footage look all modern and hyperreal. It makes it hard to look at and doesn’t fit with the more timeless feel of the rest of the photography. That’s the problem with the young directors and Tony Scott, they rely on these type of dumb stylistic gimmicks that they think will make the audience more excited but they just date the movie like those cheesy video effects you used to see in the early ’80s.
Those are small complaints though. The story has the same dread and primal thrills as before but with protagonists that feel more like real people. The mom especially. Big Bob is still a macho gun toting republican but he’s not a racist or a complete asshole, he’s pretty likable, and less of a coward. And there’s a little detail where brother-in-law Doug checks out young Brenda in her swimsuit, which I think is supposed to imply that somewhere in his id or whatever the fuck that thing is called, he has something in common with the mutants who try to molest her later. And he does, because by the end of the movie he has fucked up more than a couple genetically deformed individuals, using a gun, a pick ax and even an American flag. As he stumbles out victorious and covered in blood, triumphant spaghetti western guitars sarcastically tell the audience that he’s our hero. I mean obviously you can’t blame the guy for going to extreme lengths to get his baby back, but the circumstances are so horrible that maybe a more civilized audience would be sad about the whole ordeal instead of cheering him for coming out on top. But not us.
I actually think it’s scarier than the original. It helps that the Carter family is more believable, better actors. And they spend a while setting up the mutants as an unseen presence, making you really dread them before you actually see them.
To me, both versions of THE HILLS HAVE EYES play out like a very straight faced, very dark comedy making a pretty obvious but always enjoyable satirical point about american culture. Through the medium of cannibalistic mutant attacks. It could be called THE DELICIOUS TASTE OF THE BOURGEOISIE, but that would be stupid because THE HILLS HAVE EYES is one of the best movie titles I ever heard. So please hollywood, don’t change the title to this new not as good one I just made up. assholes.
The big question I had when I first heard they were doing a remake is, how are they doing the mutants? Is Michael Berryman gonna be in it? No, but this time Pluto’s not the only one who looks strange. They’re all wearing birth defect makeup, some of them very extensive. I was skeptical about this idea but I think they did a real good job, making it look very disturbing and realistic. And best of all is Ruby, who in the original looked like Helena Bonham Carter dressed as a lost boy in Peter Pan, now has a digital effect to make her eyes look too far apart and uneven, an effect so convincing that everyone I’ve talked to about it thought the actress actually looked like that. (Stanley Kubrick talked about doing a digital effect like that in A.I., but it took several years, one former college professor and two weird french dudes to make his dream a reality.) Ruby is definitely the most improved aspect in the remake. She looks younger and weirder, and she’s much quieter, speaking through actions instead of words.
The mutants are almost the same as before personality-wise, but you don’t hear them talking quite as much, they stay in the shadows a little more and some of them are unintelligible. I missed some of the funny conversations from the original (like the one after the dog knocks Mercury off the cliff) but I liked the mysterious approach to the family. You’re even less sure who’s who than in the original, and most of these guys are huge and menacing. One guy likes to bust through walls and throw people long distances. I also really liked the smaller, wiry guy Lizard, played by Robert Joy who we all know from LAND OF THE DEAD and that one episode of BRUCE WILLIS’S MOONLIGHTING where he’s the concert pianist who keeps getting beat up.
I do have to warn fans that in the remake they do not use their mom’s dead body as bait. But this is by no means a watered down remake like WALKING TALL or something. In most other respects it’s more brutal than the original. In fact it has one thing that happens, involving mutants and a baby in a trailer, that has upset some people when they heard about it, even though they would never dirty their asses by sitting in a theater that plays a low life movie like that. To be honest it didn’t occur to me as all that shocking at the time, I was too distracted by what they were doing to the parakeet to think much of the baby. Also, in my opinion, this is a fictional movie and not something that actually happened. (Just my two cents.) But still, the mutants’ irresponsible behavior has called forth Regurgitated Argument #5,067, in which today’s horror movies are cast asperison upon and judged too shocking and repulsive for civilized human beings to watch or coexist with. You may recognize this argument from such movies as NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT, WOLF CREEK, and ten thousand horror movies in between. Do we really have to go through this shit again? The bottom line is, this is a well made horror movie. If you don’t like horror movies or don’t like this type of horror movie, I have good news for you: there’s other movies you can watch. Personally I have no interest or understanding of the appeal of shit like CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, GUINEA PIG, CHICAGO, or RENT. But some people like those movies, for some reason, and somehow life goes on. I happen to like a HILLS HAVE EYES type of movie and I don’t think it’s gonna destroy civilization, especially since the subtext of the movie itself is saying the exact thing you are about the degradation of our culture and civilization!
Plus, you’ve had almost 30 god damn years to find out what THE HILLS HAVE EYES is all about. I can’t feel that sorry for you if you’re surprised when the mutant cannibals invade the tourists’ trailer and then – in a shocking twist – behave in ways not befitting of gentlemen. Are you asking for a movie about mutant cannibals who steal a baby and then raise it in a safe and loving environment? Because I don’t think I would like that movie as much. (I’d watch it, though.)
Look at it this way. For the past, what, 7 or 8 years, horror fans have been whining about watered down, PG-13 studio horror movies replacing the serious horror that they love. Now that we finally got a handful of more gruesome adult oriented horror movies, do we really have to hear people whining about horror movies being too R-rated? For god’s sake man go rent DARKNESS FALLS or something and leave us alone.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.