Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #74
Number of Views: Three
Release Date: March 10, 2006
Country of Origin: United States/Morocco
Box Office: $69,623,713
Running Time: 108 minutes
Director: Alexandre Aja
Producers: Wes Craven, Peter Locke, Marianne Maddalena, Cody Zwieg
Screenplay: Alexandre Aja, Grégory Levasseur
Based on The Hills Have Eyes by Wes Craven
Special Effects: Franco Ragusa
Visual Effects: Jamison Goei
Cinematography: Maxime Alexandre
Score: tomandandy, François-Eudes Chanfrault
Studio: Dune Entertainment, Major Studio Partners
Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Stars: Aaron Stanford, Kathleen Quinlan, Vinessa Shaw, Emilie de Ravin, Dan Byrd, Ted Levine, Billy Drago, Robert Joy, Desmond Askew, Ezra Buzzington, Michael Bailey Smith, Laura Ortiz, Tom Bower and Greg Nicotero as Cyst
Suggested Audio Candy
 François-Eudes Chanfrault The Hills Have Eyes
 Sunna “Power Struggle”
It must be a daunting prospect tackling a remake of an old classic. First you have to decide whether or not you are going to stray from the original template and that, in itself, poses quite a problem. Gus Van Sant opted for an almost shot for shot approach when updating Psycho and his film was universally panned as a result. Likewise, John Moore’s reimagining of The Omen didn’t fare much better and was accused of being lazy and lifeless. One the other hand, deviate from the path too much and you will be criticized for being disrespectful. It seems that you’re damned if you do and also if you don’t, leaving a perilously fine line to walk if you wish to come away with your reputation in tact.
Somehow you need to capture the spirit of the original, while making it accessible for a modern-day audience. A great example of a remake getting it bang on the money is Zack Snyder’s 2004 Dawn of The Dead reboot. Admittedly the fact that the zombies were far more athletic than the shufflers of George A. Romero’s classic original was a bone of contention for some, including Romero himself. However, it managed to find a way of staying true enough to his theme, while changing both the personnel and structure and telling its own tale. Of course, it couldn’t hold a candle up to its predecessor but, having said that, Snyder didn’t attempt such an audacious feat. He honored the source material enough while trusting his own ability as a storyteller and the positive response was pretty much unanimous.
Two years later, another seventies classic was provided with a fresh lick of post-millennium emulsion. Wes Craven’s grimy 1977 exploitation flick The Hills Have Eyes arrived five years after he had explored the theme of family vengeance with The Last House on the Left and provided him the opportunity to consolidate his position as one of the most promising filmmakers on the circuit. It charted the woes of the Carter family, an all-American suburban family who, while making their way across the New Mexico desert, took an unwise detour through a site previously known for nuclear testing. Their diversion led them straight into the hands of a family of cannibalistic inbreds who proceeded to make the Carter’s lives a living hell. Eventually they fought back, but not before being subjected to both maltreatment and mutilation at the hands of their demented persecutors.
It cleverly showcased the lengths an obliterated family unit will go to in order to secure the safe-keeping of their remaining members. His story drew influence from the sixteenth century Sawney Bean clan of Ballantrae, Ayrshire who lured unsuspecting travelers into traps, before putting them through their paces in similarly sadistic fashion. The clan who took their names from Greek mythology with names such as Pluto and Jupiter, and made their victims’ lives a living hell before discovering the Carters’ resilience courtesy of a swift turn of the tables.
If the original wasn’t bloodthirsty enough for you or is simply a little long in the tooth by modern standards, then the fact that Frenchman Alexandre Aja was hand-picked to helm its remake (written by Craven and his son Jonathan) would have been encouraging news. Three years prior, he announced himself as one of the hottest properties the scene had to offer with High Tension turning heads and stomachs on both sides of the Atlantic. This afforded him the chance to spread his wings and ply his trade across the pond and The Hills Have Eyes became his first project under American jurisdiction.
Aja clearly has a great fondness for horror from that period as he has since gone on to reinvent Joe Dante’s 1978 B-Movie classic Piranha as well as having significant involvement with Franck Khalfoun’s recent remake of Maniac. Both were well received while, in my humble opinion, the latter possibly even trumped its predecessor by remaining true enough to its origins but daring to leave its own unique footprint. The Hills Have Eyes made both these projects possible by making an impressive $70m return theatrically and winning over many of the purists who doubted he could make such a transition. On one hand, you could accuse him of taking the easy road Stateside by taking on a remake but, on the other, it shows courage as it would ultimately be harder to judge on its own merits.
First up, we meet the Carters. Retired detective “Big” Bob (Ted Levine) is taking his wife Ethel (Kathleen Quinlan) to California for their silver wedding anniversary. Looking to make this a family outing, the couple have also invited along their daughters Lynn (Vinessa Shaw) and Brenda (Emilie de Ravin), son Bobby (Dan Byrd), Lynn’s husband Doug (Aaron Stanford), newest Carter arrival Catherine (Maisie Camilleri Preziosi), and German Shepherds, Beauty and Beast. Sounds like happy families right? Not exactly.
You see, proud Republican Bob is also something of an authoritarian and likes to consider himself as captain of this ship. Whilst not a bad man per se, his parenting methods can be questionable and he is stubborn in the extreme. For all his good intentions, he has managed to rub pretty much everyone up the wrong way and, when he turns his back, the eyes commence rolling. However, there is nothing like a dash of tragedy to bring a family together and, when they take a shortcut through the hills and fall into a well-placed trap, it is required that they set aside their frustrations and focus on a far more pressing concern. These particular hills have eyes and they have the Carters firmly in their sights.
We spend sufficient time with our family to maximize the impact once things take a sudden shocking turn for the worse and, when they do, Aja’s approach is unapologetically spiteful, reveling in every last one of the antagonists’ perversions. The moment when the shit first hits the fan is genuinely distressing and provides a sucker punch we simply aren’t prepared for, even though we know full well it’s inbound. Moreover, it highlights both the director’s keen eye for incapacitating his audience and the fine cinematography of Maxime Alexandre who makes this wide open space feel insular and suffocating. The ensuing carnage is masterfully handled and leaves us just as compromised as the fast-diminishing Carters.
Once our suburbanites have been chiseled down to bare bones and any initial fallout has settled, the survivors have no choice but to fight tooth and nail, or die trying. Still reeling from the decimation of their family unit, they show resourcefulness and the steely resolve required to stage their proposed uprising. Again, Aja handles this transition well and sets things up for a thrilling final act as our two clans prepare to battle to the death. It’s testament to his execution that I almost forgot I was watching a remake at all as, despite remaining true to its origins, it never once fees like he’s painting by numbers.
So what about the clan then? Granted, without Michael Berryman’s wild staring eyes, they have their work cut out but, while visibly missing a figure as iconic as he, they are suitably objectionable and pose every bit as ominous a threat. Meanwhile, the tone is oppressive throughout and the survivors’ sole compensation for their collective efforts is their mortality so any possibility of a happy ending will ultimately be tainted.
The burning question is how it fares up to Craven’s original and, all things considered, the answer is more than encouraging. Aja pays a great deal of reverence to the source fiction but doesn’t stand in awe and, instead, seasons the dish with his own special ingredient and makes it his own. Whether it is a superior movie is open to debate but, if not better, then it is certainly easier to repeat view and that’s quite an achievement in my book. When a relatively unproven European filmmaker becomes attached to a big budget American venture and jumps ship, the warning signs are both clear and present. However, with The Hills Have Eyes, the Frenchman has made a particularly comfortable transition.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 8/10
Grue Rating: 4/5
For the Grue-Guzzlers: Aja doesn’t bolt the gate and sets up patiently before striking bloody oil and showing what the original was only permitted to hint at. Anyone familiar with High Tension will be all too aware of the lengths this man will go to in order to get a reaction and Franco Ragusa’s practical effects are both fiendishly effective and excessive. The grue is laid on thick, with our reluctant hero waking incarcerated in a freezer lined with various hacked off body parts and then having to suffer the indignity of surrendering a clutch of digits in a fixed game of rock, paper, rusty blunt ax. However, the moment when the clan make their first move sure takes some beating.
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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