CINE-WEEN: Elbee Defends A Remake THE HILLS HAVE EYES (2006)

Over the years, remakes — especially horror remakes — have gained such a sour reputation that even the mere mention of the word is immediately followed by groans, sighs, and rolled eyes. Of course, the main problem with remakes is that we can’t help but compare them to the original works. The other problem is that hardly anything is capable of conquering that beast called nostalgia. We have endless discussions of “what’s wrong with the original?” and “is this even necessary?” with points and counterpoints so meticulous that the whole argument has become exhausting. But what if we took that element out? What if neither is “better”? In this series, my goal is to examine remakes as if they’re their own things entirely, and not waste time with comparisons. And, by doing so, hopefully I can encourage a broader appreciation for some of the more well-made remakes out there by spotlighting certain elements about them that maybe haven’t been considered. Welcome to Elbee Defends A Remake.

Today’s concentration is the 2006 version of The Hills Have Eyes, by Alexandre Aja. Warning: I will be spoiling this all to hell.

I’m going to begin with an opinion: I think it’s worth paying attention to how European creators seem to have a bit of a fascination with the American landscape, in both the figurative and literal sense. Not only is it a cultural landscape, but a topographical one, where we have the desert or mountains symbolizing the American idea of expansion and freedom. We have multitudes of spaghetti westerns and even parodies of spaghetti westerns like Alex Cox’s film Straight to Hell, which I think serves as a bizarro love letter to those Italian-made movies (even though it’s set mostly in Mexico). And while we’re on Cox for a second, I don’t think it’s very much of a stretch at all to include Repo Man in the same category of uniquely American. We typically credit Wim Wenders as some sort of king of “the road movie”: a quintessential look at what drives us as people as far as where we’re going and where we want to go, which is exemplified perfectly in his film Paris, Texas. Hell, I’d even cite a more cartoony (get it?) version of this idea with Jamie Hewlett’s artwork, as he has Tank Girl listening to Ennio Morricone on a few different occasions, and no doubt American antihero Dirty Harry was a direct influence on Gorillaz. But the creator I want to focus on here is Alexandre Aja, who, in childhood, was so enamored with Wes Craven’s 1977 film The Hills Have Eyes and its depiction of a certain kind of American experience (albeit completely fantasy-based) that he decided to freshen up the story with an entirely new take. And that, first of out of everything, is what I think is so remarkable about this 2006 version: it’s America, seen through the eyes of a Frenchman. It’s a story of us — our triumphs and pitfalls as characters — told without a lick of patriotism or bias.

Now, we can say The Hills Have Eyes belongs to a few different subcategories of horror. There’s the Road Chase (think: The Hitcher, Joy Ride), the Lost In The Wilderness (Southern Comfort, Wolf Creek), and most obviously, the Mutant Monster Attack (The Descent, Wrong Turn). We can even loosely say the Under Siege While Holed Up In A Random Place (like Feast or Assault on Precinct 13) since a bulk of this picture takes place in the family’s recreational trailer. But, most assuredly, the major jeopardy in the film is simply a family vacation gone horribly wrong.  

Bob and Ethel Carter are driving across country with their children to celebrate their silver wedding anniversary, traveling by truck and trailer headed to San Diego all the way from Cleveland. They stop at a gas station in a very scenic part of the New Mexico desert, and take the attendant’s advice on a short cut. Along the way, they have a blowout and wreck their vehicle, leaving them stranded with no cell service on a road that isn’t featured on any map. Soon, they realize they are being hunted by a mysterious group of people, and thus begins their struggle to survive.

I guess now I can mention that regardless of the cute categories I listed above, The Hills Have Eyes is, at its core, survival horror. There’s some revenge thrown in there, too, and we’ll get to that, but foremost, the film is about remaining alive both against all odds and at all costs. And, to that end, we have to start at the beginning, and examine just how the Carter family is set up. But before we get into specific characters, let’s talk about what the family unit as a whole represents and what makes this film a distinctly American story.

Our entire lives we have been told by advertisers and media that the open road equates to freedom. After all, what’s better than getting in your car and just driving, leaving the stress of your banal day-to-day miles behind you? It’s a myth of a free, undiscovered American frontier that’s been romanticized over and over, and, for decades, car commercials would lead us to believe nothing is better than that. Most especially, think about the Southwest, an area of the country so desolate yet also so full of life, with its big skies and big stars, and so much room to breathe. But on the other hand, that means there’s also a lot of room for nightmares to spring to life. When we travel cross country, we have to put a lot of faith into maps and our GPS devices as we go into areas that are, to us, essentially uncharted territories. We put faith in ourselves, too, that we know what we’re doing when we use these tools, and, when we figure we don’t know what we’re doing, we divert that faith to other people when we have to ask for directions. It’s quite a convenient device for horror movies, and is increasingly effective in this feature.

The Carters represent not only our American fascination with the open road, but they are us when we trust in people we shouldn’t. Their naivete makes them believe the gas station attendant’s bad directions with certainty, without batting an eye because of course this man knows what he’s talking about, he’s a local. Easily, this ignorance is what gives rise to the major cause of peril, and still early in the film, the initial danger comes when the Carters do take that unmapped left turn and run over a spike strip hidden in the dirt by an unknown figure. I love the sense of panic in this scene when the truck inevitably wrecks; quick editing and pinpointed focus put us right there in the truck cab with them. What’s cool, though, is that they had just talked about imagining being the first people to cross through this desert. It’s a literal reference to everything we’ve just discussed: the American spirit and westward expansion. And then they have this gnarly blowout, which makes me think again about frontier days and all the hardships and vulnerability those wagon trains must have experienced (To put it in familiar terms, we’ve all played Oregon Trail; we know how devastating a broken wagon axle is.). Sure, it’s a small nerdish note, but isn’t it the best when little seemingly unnoticed details help flesh out a more deeply hidden theme? Anyway, the film sure makes the “stranded in an extremely secluded part of the desert” scenario seem entirely relatable, even if it’s kind of based in a messed-up unreality.

But part of the reason it is so sympathetic is the care put into developing these characters and how their arcs play out. I want to break this down into a few different character groups, the first being the Carter women. What’s interesting about them is that they represent a very specific kind of American woman; basically, they are a cross-section of privileged suburbanites. The mother, Ethel, is particularly intriguing because she’s definitely a “cute mom” type, a hippie-turned-Christian, the kind of woman who acts shocked at, then laughs off, a dinner-time discussion of smoking marijuana. It’s an emphasis on what seems like a contradiction in character, that a free-spirited member of counterculture would grow up to walk the straight and narrow many of us associate with Christianity. What I personally find interesting about that is, thinking back to Alex Cox and his similar (yet highly exaggerated) depiction of Otto’s parents in Repo Man, I wonder if this is something Europeans feel is a genuinely American characteristic, and I wonder if this quirk was something Aja purposely added weight to. Regardless, even though her part in the story ends tragically, Ethel doesn’t have much of an arc (at least, not that we see in this film).

Probably the most promising character here is Lynn, the oldest of the Carter children, joined on this trip by her husband and infant girl. Lynn always keeps her cool, and is sweet and uncomplicated amidst a complicated family; it’s almost as if she used her marriage to “escape.” Watching the first portion of this film, we fully expect Lynn to be a final girl; she is strong and good, but slightly bland enough to function as an audience surrogate. The film subverts all that, though, when she’s killed in the Second Act, leaving us feeling hopeless and confused. We want to see Lynn kick ass, an image of a woman holding her baby in one hand and a shotgun in the other, with dirt on her skin and torn clothing, and a fire in her eyes. It’s an incomplete arc, a disappointment to the audience, and a signal that this shit is real (Joss Whedon, take note: you can kill off a character everyone likes and have it actually serve a purpose).

Which leads me to the one Carter woman who does have a complete arc to follow, daughter Brenda. Throughout the first series of events, Brenda is veritably useless. She shows her self-interest after the wreck by sitting in a lawn chair off to the side of the trailer, suntanning instead of helping. Maybe she figures there’s not much for her to do, or maybe she does really think she’s too cool to do anything. Given her bratty attitude toward her family (especially her brother Bobby) previously demonstrated along the ride, my money is on the latter. But Brenda is actually a really cool character, at least from a writing standpoint, because she subverts what you’d expect from her — and, well, from a movie in general. Like I said, we totally expect Lynn to be the final girl, and Brenda seems almost expendable. But Brenda, as it turns out, is our survivor. Unfortunately, it takes a horribly disturbing, humiliating event to jumpstart her “fight” narrative, but, in that, I think it tells us that we’re all stronger than we think we are, or stronger than we necessarily want to be in our daily lives, and that we do have the potential to harness that kind of power within ourselves. Aja is telling us if a insipid narcissist like Brenda whose main life goal is drinking margaritas on the beach can fight and survive, pretty much we all can.

The film spends a lot of time on the male characters, therefore so will I. The leader of the Carter family is Big Bob, a burly son of a gun and a retired cop. Bob’s representation in this 2006 version borders on caricature, a small exaggeration on modern Republicans. He’s the sort of man who actually says things like “I’ll take my bullets over your prayers any day,” to his wife before setting out on foot in the desert to seek help. Now, I say “caricature,” because although I’m sure many of us have dads and uncles who behave just like Big Bob, this was 2006. This was before “good guy with a gun” was a recognizable phrase, before characterizations of these types of men mutated into a depressing part of real everyday life. Plainly, Big Bob definitely represents one side of America in this story (the other we’ll get to in a moment). He doesn’t have so much of an arc, either; but honestly, he doesn’t really need one — he serves a purpose otherwise. Big Bob’s death causes despair not only to his family, but to us. Again, it’s a subversion from what we’ve come to expect from movies, that the big guy must be the hero. So here’s this family who has always been able to rely on Big Bob for guidance and safety, and suddenly that is ripped away from them. It’s horrifying, but it’s a great motivator. It affects teenage son Bobby greatly, giving him responsibility that’s mostly beyond his years. Bobby exhibits a bit of self-sufficiency beforehand, though, and no doubt he learned to always be aware of his surroundings from his dad at some point. We can see that in small details like how he picks up a rock in case he needs to protect himself as he searches for Beauty, one of the family’s German shepherds that’s run off into the desert. Later, Bobby takes on a protector role when he returns to the trailer and doesn’t want to tell his mom and sisters that he’s just found Beauty dead and mutilated (surely another cue from his dad). I think we can all relate to Bobby a bit in some way or another; even if it’s only by stuff like our bosses deciding to give us lots more job responsibilities than we feel qualified for. That’s an important arc, too, and one to watch: Bobby may be naive, but he now has serious decisions to make, and seeing him “grow up” in a matter of a few hours is nearly as compelling as his sister’s story (although hers is much more traumatic, obviously). And that makes their eventual team-up all the more exciting (family bonding through fighting humanoid mutants, hooray!).

But, with almost the entire second half devoted to him, the intended focus in the film is Doug, Lynn’s husband and father to her baby. Men like Big Bob might describe Doug as a “pansy”: he’s a pacifist, a Democrat, and has a fancypants job in cell phone tech. Basically, Doug is the “city boy” in this, and we all know from Pace picante sauce commercials how much clout that gives him. Anyway, after the villains have marauded the trailer killing his wife and taking his child, Doug understandably snaps. But, again, Aja subverts our expectations by instead of having his character break down into an incompetent wimp afterwards, Doug takes charge. At this point, the film shifts from a story of a siege into a story of revenge, and Doug is the driving force behind that. What’s remarkable is that he doesn’t let having to do these horrible things turn him into a demented killer; he hates it. It’s a Straw Dogs-type scenario in which he’s doing it — he’s going against his pacifist principles — because he has to. This is what mainly fascinates me about this picture, about Aja’s choices in it, that he’s showing us two sides of the American political spectrum, and how neither of them exactly work. Big Bob as the tough-guy Republican doesn’t work; Doug as the anti-gun Democrat doesn’t work. It’s somewhere in the middle that survival stands to reason; we’re being told that sometimes we have to pull from an opposing side to persevere – even if we hate it. Aja, as a Frenchman, is on the outside looking in, and he’s offering us a third party perspective which I think doesn’t explicitly tell us to compromise our values, but prepares us to use our passions in previously unthought of ways. Really, if this isn’t Aja’s commentary on how the division in American politics leads to stagnation, I’d be well surprised.

But you know, there’s another family in this story that we haven’t really mentioned yet: our villains, the Jupiter clan. Again, we’re not here to compare the two films, but we can objectively say Aja took Craven’s villains up a couple notches by making them not just feral people, but actual mutants — giving them depth beyond just some weirdos you might meet in the middle of nowhere. Our setting is the New Mexico desert, home to the real life Trinity nuclear site where the United States government secretly tested the atomic bomb prior to its use in World War II (Aja plucked this small detail from Craven’s film — a literal blip on the map —  and ran with it. Here, Aja dares to propose, “What if the ‘traditional’ American nuclear family was actually a nuclear family?” Cool, right?). In the aftermath of testing those bombs, many people suffered appalling illnesses and rare forms of cancer, with little to no help or even acknowledgment from those in the government who were responsible. So it’s not too far of a stretch to imagine a family of mutants affected by nuclear fallout living an isolated existence in the desert. Not only that, but they’re bitter and resentful. One character, Big Brain, a monster of a man with a giant head who’s confined to a wheelchair, helps us understand: “Your people asked our families to leave our town, and you destroyed our homes. We went into the mines, you set off your bombs and turned everything to ashes. You’ve made us what we’ve become!” They’re victims who grew into villains, and maybe they’re looking for revenge, too. Or, maybe, like a lot of us, they’re just trying to eat. Regardless of motivation, their acts are horrible and unspeakable, which kind of leads me to ask how far removed they were from society to begin with. By any rationale, they’d just be deformed or disabled people — like, even the real life radiation-damaged citizens of what later became Los Alamos, New Mexico were, of course, “regular folk” before the nuclear fallout. And I find it weird how the Jupiter clan kind of know societal “norms,” like how one of them puts on the apron and woman’s hat inside the Carters’ trailer and starts pantomiming what he thinks a stereotypical housewife might do. But, I suppose that goes back to the “nuclear family” idea. Anyway, I think how this film depicts the Jupiters as a mix of fantasy and reality is very clever: it helps us sympathize with them just a bit, enough for us to understand their humanity, but not enough for us to glorify or even remotely excuse their horrific actions. How Aja makes us care where the Jupiter clan came from and contemplate if they can possibly be reformed is important. Often we talk about how unmasking a villain makes him less mysterious and scary, but sometimes a villain with a background can be just right for the story we’re telling. None of this means we necessarily root for them; it just means we understand them. For someone like me, who digs characters more than anything else, this nod to sympathy and humanity is both surprising and refreshing.

Ultimately, though, all this makes me think about how nihilism is used in horror films, and how it’s supposed to signify how life is meaningless and nothing matters. Normally when a horror film has that kind of nihilistic tone, we’re forced to endure the pain along with our heroes, to live their struggle so to speak, all the while thinking surely they’re going to triumph over the monsters. But there’s that moment when we realize it’s all over for them, and when they die, it turns out that their effort — their drive to survive — was all for nothing. It’s devastating, isn’t it? Sometimes I get mad at nihilistic films for making my movie-watching experience so useless. And here, the nihilism in both versions of The Hills Have Eyes is no exception. For our heroes, in both tellings, the American Dream — all that freedom and comfort and staking claims — ends in nothingness. In Aja’s film, there is a bit of hope at least that Doug and his brother- and sister-in-law can live a happy enough life following the tragedy, but still, their family has been torn apart and destroyed. How can they come back from that? I’m not sure if it’s a decidedly European commentary on the American Dream, given this story is still initially Craven’s, but I do appreciate where Aja might have been trying to go with it.

But, none of this is to say I think Aja’s film doesn’t leave a bit to be desired. The ending, although not outwardly nihilistic, leaves me with an odd taste in my mouth. When the credits roll, I’m not entirely sure how I feel — or how I should feel. Is it relief? I don’t really know. There’s so much more story to go until Doug, Bobby, Brenda, and baby Catherine theoretically get to safety. We’re definitely set up for a sequel, and guess what? We got one. It came the following year, but followed a completely different group of people, and had none of the charisma or chutzpah of this film — despite being crafted by another European filmmaker (this time producer Craven embraced German pop music video director Martin Weisz — such an odd choice for a horror movie, don’t you think?). Honestly, I can’t begin to speculate what a good treatment for furthering the Carters’ story would have been, but regardless, I hope I’ve convinced some of you diehard Cravenites to see what I see in this 2006 remake, and to understand just how special (and badass) it is. Alexandre Aja made a smart movie, y’all. Please watch it.

Elbee

Elbee grew up in Tennessee, but please don't hold that against her. She (mostly) lost her Southern accent by taking a radio job in high school -- a career that, for some reason, she didn't pursue. However, she's still living the dream by hosting and appearing on podcasts, and by writing lengthy articles on movies that may or may not deserve it. She now lives in South Texas ("basically Mexico") where she's discovered the bliss of chamoyadas and Hot Cheetos with cheese.
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