The recent boom in horror remakes has been something of a hit-and-miss affair. Far from resulting in a universal dumbing down of our cinematic heritage (as some critics have complained), films like The Amityville Horror (2005) have shown that a new generation of directors can take old ideas and make them more focussed, coherent, and relevant. However, for every Amityville there is also a House of Wax (2005), a film so narcissistically insipid that the only possible explanation for its existence is that it is some kind of high-budget Al Qaeda recruitment film showing the moral and aesthetic decay of the West. Alexandre Aja's remake of a 1977 Wes Craven classic continues the trend by being a decidedly mixed bag.
An American family find themselves travelling through the desert on their way to California. They unwittingly stray into the territory of a band of mutant cannibals, the last remaining offspring of the mining communities moved out to make way for the nuclear testing of the '40s and '50s. After luring the family into a trap, the mutants attack, escaping with a baby and leaving a number of family members dead. This forces Doug to travel into the hills to seek out his child, with predictably violent consequences.
Craven's original is fondly remembered largely because of its heavy-handed discussion of what makes a person civilised and how the people you think of as civilised aren't necessarily the ones who are moral. Some have argued that this "substance" is not present in the remake, but this is unfair. Aja's version of The Hills Have Eyes is not devoid of substance, it is simply confused as to what it is it wants to say.
Aja begins by suggesting that the mutants are the victims because the nuclear testing destroyed their homes—despite spending no time establishing that the mutants are any kind of community at all. In fact, they are rarely on-screen together. He then revisits the theme of Straw Dogs (1971) by suggesting that the final confrontation between Doug and the mutants is what happens when you push a civilised man too far, but where Peckinpah's protagonist was agonisingly pleasant and reasonable, Aja spends the first half of the film portraying Doug as a deceitful, bitter, and unpleasant man who hates his wife and family. Aja then plays the 9/11 card by portraying the mutants as desert-dwellers made powerful by America's actions during the Cold War only to turn on their creators (at one point a mutant is brought down by an American flag). This refusal to pick a theme and stick with it robs the film of a unifying artistic vision or emotional focus, meaning that Craven's admittedly overbearing message is replaced with some incoherent ramblings about killing mutants being somehow . . . like . . . really profound. But such intellectual incontinence stretches further than the "meaning" of the film.
Even if you set issues of substance and meaning aside, the film is still far from satisfying. Despite clearly being a fan of Straw Dogs, Aja fails to grasp that what made Peckinpah's film so fantastic was the time and effort devoted to establishing characters and slowly ratcheting up the tension level to the point where the main character's reasonableness becomes almost unbearable. As a result, he squanders the first two acts of cheap jump-scares by refusing to commit to a central narrative and use it to build characters and context. When the final act does arrive, Aja finds himself struggling to build tension one minute only to release it the next, resulting in a sterile and toothless bloodbath robbed of any emotional power and likely to appease only the most simple-minded of gorehounds.
While technically competent, Aja's The Hills Have Eyes is plagued by the same lack of intellectual rigour as his breakthrough film, Switchblade Romance (2003) [Ed. note: released in the U.S. as High Tension]. Never actively boring, the film lacks a clear emotional centre, resulting in a shallow and unchallenging cinematic experience during which you spend your time spotting references (like True Romance and The Company of Wolves) and enjoying the special effects rather than taking in the story or the characters.
Jonathan McCalmont lives in the U.K.