“Nobody you’d wanna meet, lady, believe me.”
Once upon a time, a long time ago, I found a copy of Alexandre Aja’s 2006 remake of The Hills Have Eyes on a fence post in front of a grocery store. I have no idea how it came to be there, but I chose to view it as a sort of omen and took it home and watched it, even though I didn’t expect to like it and had absolutely hated Aja’s previous film, the 2003 “New French Extremity” flick High Tension.
Adding to the unlikeliness of my watching Aja’s remake, I had never actually seen Wes Craven’s original and still haven’t, at the time of this writing, seen his similarly bleak breakout film, Last House on the Left. Not because I have avoided the films assiduously, per se, I just also haven’t gone out of my way to watch them. When you get right down to it, this brand of exploitation flick just isn’t generally my cup of tea, even when it’s done exceptionally well.
I would not say that Aja’s remake was done exceptionally well. I didn’t hate it – my expectations having been, perhaps, suitably inoculated by prior exposure to High Tension – but I certainly didn’t like it. See above re: this stuff not really being my thing.
So, why have I devoted three paragraphs to writing about the remake, rather than about the new 4K Blu-ray release from Arrow, where I finally saw Wes Craven’s original for the first time? Because when I started watching the 1977 classic, the remake is the first thing I thought of. Specifically, how that film – or my memories of it – seemed to largely retread the beats of this one, while stripping them of basically every single one of their themes.
Alongside their taboo-breaking subject matter, almost cinema verité style, and the grain of their film, their deep and textured political themes are the hallmark of most of the horror classics of the 1970s – sorry, Joe Bob. The Hills Have Eyes is no exception.
Within minutes, the film’s harsh criticism of the patriarchal norms of the nuclear family are apparent – criticisms that I do not remember from Aja’s version, though I’ll admit that it’s been a few years since I’ve seen it.
Much has been written about the mirror image that the film’s two families hold up to one another, and the “crisis of confidence” that both America as a whole and American masculinity, in particular, were undergoing in the real world and on cinema screens. What has received perhaps less ink is the film’s criticism of the nuclear family as the microcosmic expression of the macrocosm of the geopolitics that the film is clearly addressing.
Both the tragedy of the film’s “good” family” and the very existence of the “bad” one can be traced not only to failures of capitalism and governance but to the patriarchal structure of the family itself. Among the Carters, the “normal” family who become the prey of desert-dwelling cannibals, the women are rendered largely ineffectual by the men’s infantilizing of them, while the men fare little better due to their inability to confront their own limitations.
Even the dogs, big German shepherds probably acquired at least partly for “protection,” may ultimately play a role in helping to save (some of) the family, but spend much more of their time inadvertently luring them into danger.
Like the Sawyers in Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre from a few years before – a film with which this one shares more than a little cinematic DNA – Jupiter’s clan are as much victims of deprivation and negligence as their own victims ultimately are of their predations. Despite the efforts of Grandpa Fred to position Jupiter as “a devil kid who grew up to be a devil man,” it’s pretty clear that a number of factors are at work in shaping Jupiter and his offspring into the feral monsters they have become.
Ultimately, the system that created Jupiter’s brood and made their rampage inevitable is the same one that created the people they prey upon, rendering the two clans less mirror images and more simply two different points on the same wheel – both destined to be ground out by the very system that created them but does not care for them.
Like many of the “New Horror” films of the ‘70s, The Hills Have Eyes is thematically dense while rarely didactic – content to generate these themes and let them simmer in the desert heat, exploring the ways they intertwine but rarely offering up potential solutions. The 4K Blu comes with two different endings, but in the most familiar one, the film simply fades out on a grisly mise en scene, the screen sinking to red on the suggestion that maybe there is no solution to this brutal reality.
While the remake may have upped the ante on, say, the sexual violence that it inflicted upon its female characters, it forgot that the reason these early films were so effective was not because of what they showed us, but because of the implications of what they showed for the world in which we live. Which is why The Hills Have Eyes remains resonant, nearly half-a-century later.
None of which is to say that I necessarily liked this version of The Hills Have Eyes, even while I appreciated it a great deal more than Aja’s remake. Whereas Texas Chain Saw managed to overcome my prejudice against these sorts of tales on subsequent viewings, becoming a film that I both like and admire, despite my personal predilections, Craven’s desert cannibal flick doesn’t quite perform a similar conjuring trick, at least not on first watch.
I can respect what it’s doing without necessarily liking it, though. And ultimately, it doesn’t matter much whether I like it or not. More than forty years on, there are probably very few among the unconverted when it comes to The Hills Have Eyes. If you’re ever going to have an opinion on it, chances are you already do.
For those who love it, this deluxe 4K release from Arrow, complete with slipcover and lengthy booklet of essays and stills, is probably the best exposure it has yet received. For those, like myself, who respect it but don’t care for it, there is perhaps no better way to enjoy the pleasures that it does have to offer. And for those who hate it, well, why did you even bother reading this far?
Besides his work as Monster Ambassador here at Signal Horizon, Orrin Grey is the author of several books about monsters, ghosts, and sometimes the ghosts of monsters, and a film writer with bylines at Unwinnable and others. His stories have appeared in dozens of anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year and he is the author of two collections of essays on vintage horror film.