For a few years in the 1970s, horror films occupied their own unhinged, blood-soaked Wild West zone. Made in the shadow of Charles Manson and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, they became low-budget godless nightmares, with the mystical terrors of old shoved aside in favor of redneck cannibals, rusty power tools, girls in cutoffs getting their limbs cut off, and the trés counterculture image of the American nuclear family under siege. I still remember watching The Hills Have Eyes at a drive-in, and the low-budget grunginess of Wes Craven’s 1977 shocker was integral to its effect; it told you that the film came from outside the system, that it was made with a lack of restriction — on violence, and on imagination, too — that big-studio horror didn’t share.
The remake of The Hills Have Eyes is big-studio horror. Set in the New Mexico desert, it features lots of lavish camera movement and dusty compositions out of early Spielberg, plus a nifty, unsettling credit montage of nuclear-test footage set to a corny country song and intercut with brutal shock images of birth defects. (Yes, folks, it’s a message movie.) Produced by Craven, The Hills Have Eyes follows the original closely. A fractious family, whose members include Lost’s Emilie de Ravin and the gifted Aaron Stanford from Tadpole, move to California in a station wagon joined to a camper and, once again, are stranded in the desert by a broken axle and besieged by primitive, slavering beastie-men who live in the rocky hills.
Now, though, the aggressors are nuclear mutants (in the old film, they were just really nasty), and so when they break into the trailer, pin down the pretty blonde, shoot a few people, burn Dad at the stake, and steal the baby, my God, the baby!, some of this is effective in a garish and reductive way, yet the savagery is so stagey that we never quite feel the dogs of anarchy being unleashed.
Part of the shock of the original was the perception, still novel at the time, that a movie character’s inner goodness wouldn’t save her. Now, after 30 years of slasher films, we expect nice people to die; that, more or less, is what we’ve paid to see. Where Craven and his director, Alexandre Aja, may have miscalculated is in making the genetically damaged demons, with their flesh-potato foreheads and minimal verbal skills (in the original, one of the creepiest things about the hill hooligans is the way they used walkie-talkies), into monster action figures who take vengeance on the world that created them. They’re not scary because they’re victims themselves.