“The lucky ones die first.”
Man, what a tagline. And how true it is. Ten years ago today, Alexandre Aja unleashed his remake of Wes Craven’s 1977 horror masterpiece The Hills Have Eyes upon the world. With all do respect to the late Mr. Craven: I’ve never been a huge fan of his original film. Don’t get me wrong. I think that it was probably very effective at the time of its release, but it was only his second film (and he made it five years after The Last House on the Left) and in all honesty, it has not aged very well. That is not a popular sentiment, but I stand by it. None of that is meant to criticize Craven’s film, but more so to lean into my next point on the subject of remakes: a remake’s purpose should be to take what doesn’t work in the original film (and maybe hasn’t aged quite as well) and improve upon those things or at least make some new choices with them to see if it works better. All too often, remakes take the easy route and just become a watered-down carbon copy of the original.
The Hills Have Eyes is not a watered-down carbon copy of the original. It is a relentless assault on the senses that doesn’t pull any punches. It amps up the tension and the gore, creating one of the most visceral filmgoing experiences that you’ll ever have. The Hills Have Eyes is a mean, nasty film, and I mean that as a compliment.
After seeing the success of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 2003 (it made $80.7 million on a $9.5 million budget, thus starting the horror remake craze of Hollywood), Wes Craven went on the hunt with his frequent collaborator Marianne Maddalena for someone to remake his classic film. After seeing Haute Tension, Alexandre Aja’s third shot at directing, Craven was captivated. He picked up Aja and his longtime collaborator Grégory Levasseur, who served as screenwriter on Haute Tension and the soon-to-be remake of The Hills Have Eyes. It would be their first English-language film.
While the film does stick fairly close to Craven’s original, it does update the plot in a few ways. Namely, the film is set in New Mexico rather than Nevada (though it was filmed in Morocco), and the mutants are victims of nuclear testing as opposed to just an inbred hill family. The subtlety in the film’s political statements is lost by the time Doug (Aaron Stanford) makes his way to the nuclear test site modeled after an actual small town, but it’s still an effective update on the plot. Also new to the remake is the multitude of trials that Doug is put though in the final act of the film. It all requires a large suspension of belief (seriously, he would have died at least 10 minutes before the credits rolled), but it serves to make the audience just as exhausted as he is by the film’s end.
One thing many people may remember about the movie is its fantastic trailer:
For some reason, horror remakes have a knack for having a great marketing team. This trailer came after the famous (at least in my eyes) Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake trailer and, like that trailer, also utilized music to great effect. This time it was “California Dreamin'” by The Mamas and The Papas.
Of course, the trailer alone wouldn’t be able to get everyone in the theater. Aja had to assemble the perfect cast, and boy did he get one. How he was able to get the likes of Ted Levine (Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs), Kathleen Quinlan (who at the time was most well known for her role in Apollo 13 or the CBS TV series Family Law), Aaron Stanford (Pyro from the X-Men movies), Vinessa Shaw (Allison from Hocus Pocus), Dan Byrd (known at the time for A Cinderella Story but now famous for Cougar Town and Easy A) and Emilie de Ravin (who was making a name for herself on Lost as the pregnant Claire), I will never know. These extremely talented actors and actresses came together to make one of the most memorable and likable families in horror movie history.
Fun random factoid: I was fortunate enough to meet Dan Byrd back in 2012 at a promotional event for Cougar Town here in Austin (What? It’s a great show.). He’s a super nice guy and had (mostly) fond memories of filming The Hills Have Eyes. I may or may not have drunkenly asked him his opinions on all of his female co-stars (Hillary Duff, Emilie de Ravin, Emma Stone, etc.), but that’s a story for another post.
Surprisingly, The Hills Have Eyes wasn’t panned by all critics upon its release. Sitting at a comfortable (for a horror movie, anyway) 49% on Rotten Tomatoes, the film had it’s supporters. As good as the film is, it’s certainly not for the faint of heart. It features some of the most brutal deaths seen on screen, and they are made all the more difficult to watch because these characters feel like they could be a part of your own family. The film had to be cut to get an R rating (it was originally branded with the notorious NC-17), but luckily the unedited version can be purchased on Blu-Ray.
Aja certainly has the makings of an auteur. His distinct directorial style is noticeable just by the amount of carnage shown on screen. The man has an affinity for gore and brutality, and that is never more apparent than in the trailer attack scene, which he somehow makes even more harrowing than it was in Craven’s original.
Once can’t discuss The Hills Have Eyes without mention of the Jupiter family. The makeup effects were created by Gregory Nicotero’s K.N.B. EFX Group Inc. over the course of six months. Using a mix of practical and rather convincing CGI effects, the mutants were brought to hauntingly realistic life for the screen. Until doing some research, I really had no idea that CGI was even used (it was mostly with Ruby), which shows just how much effort went into the making of the film.
The Hills Have Eyes opened at the number three spot with $15.7 million, behind the Sarah Jessica Parker/Matthew McConaughey romantic comedy Failure to Launch and the Disney reboot of The Shaggy Dog. It went on to gross $47.7 million domestically and $27.8 million internationally for a worldwide gross of $69.6 million, quadrupling its $15 million budget.
Something I like to do in these anniversary posts is recount my first time viewing the film I am discussing, and turning the discussion over to you, dear reader. So here is my account of my first viewing of The Hills Have Eyes.
I was just 17 when the remake opened in theaters on March 10, 2006. At the time I had just discovered the beauty of entering contests for advanced screenings of movies. You know, the ones where seating is not guaranteed and is provided on a first-come-first-serve basis so you have to get to the movie an hour or two early just to wait in line? Yeah, those screenings. I had to leave school and drive to a theater in downtown Houston during rush hour in order to meet my dad (who was and will forever be my R-rated horror movie buddy) so we could stand in line. I lived in the suburbs at the time so that was actually an hour-long drive in the traffic. This outing was sort of a big deal for us because I wasn’t allowed to watch most R-rated movies until I was 17, and The Hills Have Eyes came out almost two weeks after my 17th birthday. Needless to say, we were excited. We also thought we were hot shit since we were sitting right by the press rows. I don’t think I have to tell you that sitting right by the press rows does not make one “hot shit.”
Anyway, both of us adored the film and I spent the next several days trying to convince people at school to go see it, to no avail. The remake caught on though, as evidenced by its impressive box office take. It was no Texas Chainsaw Massacre (which is one of the best remakes out there, horror or otherwise), but it remains one of the best horror remakes out there today.
What are your thoughts on The Hills Have Eyes? Are you a fan? Or do you think it pales in comparison to the original? What was your first viewing of it like? Let us know in the comments below or shoot me a Tweet!