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John’s Horror Corner: The Hills Have Eyes (2006), the shockingly brutal remake reflects Wes Craven’s and Tobe Hooper’s cannibal cult classics.

December 12, 2018

MY CALL: A close scene-by-scene remake (for the first hour) that brings a new level of brutality to the dated franchise, particularly in the last 30 minutes of goretastic mania as it deviates from Craven’s original. It gets a bit extreme. MOVIES LIKE The Hills Have Eyes: I’d stay really close to home if you liked this movie. Start with the similarly brutal The Hills Have Eyes 2 (2007). You could also see how it all started with the original The Hills Have Eyes (1977) and The Hills Have Eyes Part 2 (1984), classics which today feel overly tame. Then go with movies like Just Before Dawn (1981), the Wrong Turn franchise (2003-2014) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise and remakes (1974-2000s).

Opening caption: “Between 1945 and 1962 the United States conducted 361 atmospheric nuclear tests. Today, the government still denies the genetic effects caused by the radioactive fallout…” What follows is a scene more brutal than both of Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes films combined as a team of researchers are pickaxed to death by a hulking deformed man. It’s pretty entertaining when an impaled victim is stuck on the pickax and the mutant just swings it back up in the air to slam him down yet again. What follows is a propaganda-like medley of bomb-testing clips and images of deformed children. Needless to say, you get a good idea of what you’re getting into in the first five minutes.

In many ways, director Alexandre Aja (High Tension, Mirrors, Piranha 3D) follows in the footsteps of his predecessor Wes Craven. He opens with a more detailed primer about the history leading to the cannibal family, and he features shots of the mountains to tone-informing music. However, rather than showing obscure nighttime silhouettes of the mountains to eerie scoring (as in 1977), he shows the mountains in clear daylight to a more “heavy” score foreshadowing the brutality to come. Much as the 1977 and 1984 originals influenced the Wrong Turn franchise (2003-2014), I cannot help but to wonder if director Aja wasn’t also influenced by Wrong Turn (2003) with the utility of the hillbilly family pickup truck, which we see in this remake dragging away its opening sequence victims across the rocky terrain on chains. Our monsters’ more Neanderthal posture and skittish movements are also more like West Virginia’s cannibals than the Texas stock.

And then we meet the Carters, a typical average American family traveling across the country in a camper and making their way upon a rather uneasy gas station attendant on the wrooooong side of the mountains. Big Bob (Ted Levine; The Silence of the Lambs, Joy Ride) and his wife Ethel (Kathleen Quinlan; Breakdown, Event Horizon) are accompanied by their kids Bobby (Dan Byrd; Salem’s Lot, Mortuary), Brenda (Emilie de Ravin, Santa’s Slay), Lynn (Vinessa Shaw; Stag Night) and her husband Doug (Aaron Stanford; Fear the Walking Dead). Adding to the crowded camper, they also have their two German shepherds, Beauty and Beast.

Conveniently, but also credibly, the remote desert confers no cellular service. In both 1977 and 2006 the Carter family ends up stranded and forced to split up seeking rescue. I can’t help but to wonder if Craven (and now also Aja) wasn’t making a statement on his views of religion when the Carter family pray together for safety only to be met by the most horrible fates—among them Big Bob being crucified and burned alive on the cross, being raped with your child in the room, and abruptly shooting the matriarch in the gut with a shotgun!

Moreover, Craven’s original focused almost equally between the Carter family and Jupiter’s cannibal clan (in terms of understanding both family dynamics) whereas Aja focuses much more on the relatable protagonists and much less on the cannibals (i.e., treating them more as monsters unworthy of our sympathy than the feral humans perhaps “created” by other humans as Craven did). Even Beauty and Beast get less character-like attention in the remake, which felt to me like an unfortunate oversight considering the dogs are used just as much scene-wise. The greatest character improvement was that the 2006 Carters felt more relatable than in 1977—perhaps a product of writing, or simply the reduction of dialogue for the cannibals.

The Hills Have Eyes miners-turned-mutants are like the The Texas Chainsaw Massacre slaughterhouse Sawyer family. They refused to leave their land in harsh times and succumbed to a violent change in the wake of economic tides. There are a few more than in the original: Pluto (Michael Bailey Smith; A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 5, Chain Letter), Lizard (Robert Joy; Land of the Dead, AVP: Requiem, Fallen), Ruby (Laura Ortiz; Chillerama, Hatchet II, Victor Crowley), Goggle (Ezra Buzzington; Mirrors), Papa Jupiter (Billy Drago; Vamp, Tremors 4) and Cyst (Greg Nicotero; The Walking Dead) among others.

This film features a lot of “really gross” stuff for its decade, placing it in close competition with the Saw (2004-2017) and Hostel (2005-2011) films even if lacking the psychologically brutal torture component and likewise changing the target audience a bit from Craven’s more tame approach. We find a really gross outhouse, a really gross (and really chunky) exploding head suicide scene, generally more chunky and visceral gore, more imagery of human butchering, and a couple really gross mutant mountain people (e.g., Pluto is quite deformed from his original 1977 model). The bird-eating scene was also more gross (and mean-spirited) and there’s graphic sexual abduction (including forced breast-feeding). Everything about this remake is, to put it simply, much more brutal, much more gory, and much more mean. Basically, this is more in line with disturbing “shock cinema.”

The cannibal lair and disfigured family SIDEBAR: In The Hills Have Eyes (1977), the cannibal family simply lived in a cave—nothing special, nothing shocking. It’s interesting how the “seemingly” abandoned cannibal lair is approached by our protagonists in The Hills Have Eyes Part 2 (1984) much as the apparently empty house in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)—which also featured a culturally displaced and disfigured family of cannibals butchering twentysomethings—yet The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986) seems to have borrowed and vastly improved the underground lair and its macabre accoutrements found in The Hills Have Eyes Part 2 (1984). This chain of borrowing butcher’s blocks festooned with human parts and disgusting subterranean lairs would additionally be followed by Wrong Turn (2003), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) and House of 1000 Corpses (2003) among others (including this 2006 remake). But as far as I can tell, we owe the disfigured cannibal family motif to Wes Craven’s 1977 classic. Much to my surprise, however, this 2006 remake made the cannibal lair much less macabre—instead resting on a more uneasy, socially eerie, awkward domestication in the bomb test-site mock suburb.

Once Doug finds himself captured, doused in blood and laying among diverse severed fragments of human body parts, he makes the kind of wild-eyed Nic Cage transformation you may have recently enjoyed in the Mandy (2018). But yet more appropriately similar, is how Doug follows the same trajectory from frightened pacificism to a crazed killer as Stretch (Caroline Williams) from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986).

Similarly extremified, Pluto has become a massive, mentally slower and wildly violent iteration of his 1977 self; more like Leatherface (or even an unmasked Jason Voorhees) down to the mangled gummy teeth and hokey simpleton laugh, and Lizard (assuming the role of 1977’s Mars) more like the maniacally giggly Chop-Top (Bill Moseley), who may very well have been based on the zany Mars in the first place. Meanwhile Cyst takes after the double-amputee patriarch from 1974’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

A notable difference from 1977, in which there were survivors from both families at the abrupt end, 2006 finishes with more Carter survivors and fewer (in fact, presumably zero) cannibal survivors. Thus, 2006 fits a more standard horror/slasher model in that all the evil is vanquished… for now, at least. However, it ends with a stinger suggesting there was at least one more!

I really like this remake… a lot. Some criticize its shock-style brutality and gore leading to a completely blood-soaked Doug. But I think this film is very well-done and, as a fan of ultra-violent cinema, fun to watch!

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