In 1977 Wes Craven pit the modern American family against a savage, feral cannibal clan in the low budget grunge-horror classic "The Hills Have Eyes". Now Alexandra Aja has brought us a faithful remake of the cult movie, but with a greatly increased budget and up to date special effects. The result is enjoyable, if a little flawed.
The remake closely follows the plot of the original film. Bob Carter (Ted Levine) and his wife Ethel (Kathleen Quinlan) are celebrating their 25th anniversary. They have planned a family trip and dragged along their three children, Bobby (Dan Byrd), Brenda (Emilie de Ravin) and Lynne (Vinessa Shaw), as well as Lynne´s husband, Doug (Aaron Stanford), their infant daughter and two dogs named Beauty and Beast. Unfortunately, they stop at a classically creepy gas station and unwisely take a "short-cut" suggested by its creepy proprietor. Never a good idea. It is not long before their tires have been sabotaged and they find themselves stranded in the desert with some very unfriendly locals.
Although the plot is very similar, Aja went one step further than Craven to explicitly state that the cannibals have been mutated by exposure to nuclear fallout. I think that Aja clumsily overstated this point and it seems oddly silly. I think it was meant to make the "baddies" more terrifying, but it doesn´t really work. In one scene a severely disabled man in a wheelchair rants at Doug about Nuclear testing and the American Government to justify the rape and murder perpetrated by his family, even although he had already dropped copious hints about the testing. This is like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. However, he manages to top it with an image of an American Flag protruding from someone´s head soon after.
Aja also changes the central dynamic of the cannibal clan. In the original, there is a distinct comparison between the inbred family and the "white bread" family. Bobby, the patriarch of the family, is clearly a Republican, but he is not as openly racist and unpleasant as the father figure in the original. Similarly, in the original the inbred family were more personalised by their relationships, and the film subtly makes the point that the survivors in the "white bread" family had become like them in their fight for survival and lust for vengeance. In Aja´s version it is not clear who any of the mutants are, or how many there are, and Jupiter (the patriarch) himself appears only briefly. The character of Ruby (the mutant child who helps Doug get his child back) is retained, but without the obvious family structure around her there is no poignancy to her wish to belong to a "normal" family.
One of the most interesting characters in both the original and the remake is the mild-mannered pacifist Doug. He is a Democrat who is constantly belittled by his father-in-law and who, apparently, has none of his aggression. Yet, when he is pushed too far he retaliates against his aggressors in a brutal fashion with only the faithful Beast to help him. His appearance at the end is clearly an homage to the Dustin Hoffman character from Sam Peckinpah´s Straw Dogs. The rest of the cast do their jobs well, but do not really stand out as there is little character development.
Aja´s skill seems to lie in the direction of the action scenes and his use of the camera. Despite the slow start, the action is fairly expolsive and the tension builds up reasonably well. The sets are beautifully shot, in particular the nuclear test village complete with creepy dummies which seem to mock the imperfections of the present inhabitants. There is plenty of gore, and the budget was high enough to guarantee that it is fairly convincing. Yet it still feels like a fairly lightweight slasher flick, and is not as disturbing or thoughtful as the original film was.