Butcher Block is a weekly series celebrating horror’s most extreme films and the minds behind them. Dedicated to graphic gore and splatter, each week will explore the dark, the disturbed, and the depraved in horror, and the blood and guts involved. For the films that use special effects of gore as an art form, and the fans that revel in the carnage, this series is for you.
Remakes are often maligned in the horror community, but without them we wouldn’t have films like The Fly, The Thing, or The Blob. Granted, for all of the gems there are, there’s an equal measure of awful remakes as well. The line that separates the remakes between great and lackluster usually falls upon the director, their vision, and their intent for the new update. In the case of The Hills Have Eyes, it was original creator Wes Craven that saw an opportunity to update his gritty 1977 film after seeing the success of remakes like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in the early aughts. After watching High Tension, Craven approached director Alexandre Aja and his screenwriting partner Gregory Levasseur about the possibility of updating his film with the caveat that it has a new approach and something worthwhile in justifying its existence in the first place. The collaboration between the horror master and the new voices in French extreme horror resulted in one vicious remake that managed to top the original.
The plot is essentially the same; the suburban Carter family are caravanning from Ohio to California with their two dogs in tow, but wind up stranded in the desert. There they are relentlessly hunted and killed by the twisted cannibal family that resides in the desert hills. In Aja and Levasseur’s hands, their version of The Hills Have Eyes is an onslaught of tense violence and the pacing much faster. The cannibal family is also much more monstrous.
When developing the script, Aja and Levasseur knew they needed to make their cannibals terrifying, so they began researching the effects of nuclear devastation. Using documents, photos, and footage from the nuclear fallout of Chernobyl and Hiroshima, the pair wrote extensive descriptions in their screenplay for the mutant characters and used the research in their direction to special makeup effects designers Greg Nicotero (look for Nicotero in the film as mutant Cyst, too) and Howard Berger. Their studio, K.N.B. EFX Group Inc., handled the extensive task of creating the cast of unnerving mutants to Aja and Levasseur’s specifications. The gore-heavy horror film also meant that the studio had to create gruesome death sequences as well.
It’s the way in which Aja shot many of the death scenes, combined with the makeup and effects teams’ work, that gave The Hills Have Eyes such an intense, nihilistic feel despite being a little less graphic than you’d think. For example, in the harrowing sequence that sees most of the Carter family outside trying to save family patriarch Big Bob (Ted Levine) from being consumed by fire, there’s a disturbing battle inside the trailer that culminates Carter matriarch Ethel (Kathleen Quinlan) and eldest sister Lynn (Vinessa Shaw) getting shot to death. Lynn is shot at point-blank range in the head, but it cuts away right as the trigger is pulled and instead shows her brain matter being splattered against her baby’s crib mobile. The shocking imagery of the aftermath is enough for the viewer’s mind to fill in the gruesome blanks, and it was all thanks to blood and viscera canons. And the horrific makeup on the actors, of course. Some deaths, however, were shown in unflinching detail.
The Hills Have Eyes is a great example of how to blend practical effects with CGI. The practical effects are still the star of the show, but the CG is used to augment it in a way that doesn’t feel dated. The visual effects team, with Jamison Scott Goei serving as visual effects supervisor, created over 130 visual effects for the film. K.N.B. EFX Group spent over six months designing and creating the makeup effects for the mutants, even while the film production was underway.
Aja and Levasseur transported their version of the cannibal family from Nevada to New Mexico, bringing a layer of nuclear fallout to the deformed clan. Their knack for intensity and distressing survival horror worked in tandem with the amazing talents of the makeup and visual effects team to deliver one of the most unrelenting remakes of all time. Aja’s take on Craven’s original vision still honored it while making it his own, a common thread among the best horror remakes.