“Brennan Went to Film School” is a column that proves that horror has just as much to say about the world as your average Oscar nominee. Probably more, if we’re being honest.
WARNING: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE HILLS HAVE EYES 1977 AND 2006. READER DISCRETION IS ADVISED.
The Horror Heat Wave continues as we take a trip to the sweltering New Mexico desert in Alexandre Aja’s 2006 remake of Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes. Now there’s no way to approach this film from a subtextual standpoint and not bring up how it reflects the fears and catharses of a post-9/11 America, á là this academic essay and many like it. But it would be boring as hell to sit through yet another lecture on terrorism in sandy countries as it relates to the bloody mutant mayhem playing out onscreen.
What I’m here to talk about today is something the movie is saying that people frequently ignore in favor of the juicier, more political themes at play. The Hills Have Eyes is clever enough to be working on more than just one level, and that second level is actually far more interesting now that the immediacy of 2006 politics has simmered down somewhat.
That level begins and ends with the character of Doug Bukowski, a Democrat who has married into a Republican family (whoops, there goes that politickin’ again) and is one of the only people to live to tell the tale. He survives in the original too, because this remake is surprisingly faithful, but the way he survives is worth taking a look at.
As with many Wes Craven films, the original Hills uses themes of discord between the generations as a driving point, with two mirror-image families duking it out in the desert, both aided and hindered by the disagreeing youths at the center. But Aja’s Hills takes that one step further. Sure, Doug has times where he locks horns with the Carter patriarch Big Bob (who fundamentally disagrees with everything about him), but this film kicks things up a notch by engaging with the very idea that, as a remake, this film is essentially the child of the original movie. That generational discord exists within the plot, but also in the very fact that the movie exists at all, and dares to defy the text that the original set out in any way.
Every new generation must take the legacy of the old and carve their own path with it, and that’s exactly what Doug does here, both on a story level and a meta level. His character is definitely a techie – or at least what passed for one in 2006. He’s a cell phone salesman whose mantra seems to be “out with the old, in with the new,” as evidenced by a scene where he gives up attempting to fix a broken AC unit, complaining that they need to completely rip out the “ancient” wiring. While he’s whining, his brother-in-law Bobby figures out the problem and gets it running again.
Bobby exemplifies where Doug needs to get by the end of the film, and what the film itself is attempting to do with the Hills legacy: He understands that just because something is old, it doesn’t mean it’s worthless. You can embrace modern developments and philosophies, but if you respect the old ways and apply those new ideas to them, you’ll create something that works. It’s not necessarily better, but it becomes its own thing that can continue on to future generations.
In fact, the reason Doug survives this film is exactly because he resorts to the “old” ways of doing things. He has to drop the phone and use his gun, his hands, and his wits to survive. He might not be better for it, but he’s alive and so is his baby, who he rescued from the clutches of a mutant cannibal family.
This mirrors the way that The Hills Have Eyes doesn’t leave its original source material behind, unlike a lot of in-name-only remakes of the time like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, April Fool’s Day, or Prom Night. Aja’s remake takes a lot from the original film: its characters, their names, its plot structure, and many key scenes. But it adds its own layer of material and meaning on top of that (the aforementioned Bush stuff – you had to know it would always come back to that).
By combining the new with the old and letting that idea play out in the arc of one of its own characters, The Hills Have Eyes examines both what it means to be a remake and how its possible to have value when you’re just copying the ideas of an older movie. And it does all that in a mirror of Wes Craven’s favorite theme of exploring generational discord and the legacy left behind by one’s parents. The way Aja’s idea plays out couldn’t have been done with any other 70’s shocker, because it’s inherently in conversation with Craven and the ideas he always worked to get across.
The Hills Have Eyes isn’t a rip-off. It’s a loving, respectful take on what Wes Craven left behind for us. It doesn’t discount the value of the original, it just adds value by bringing its own ideas and letting new audiences experience both movies for the first time. Honestly, if we’re talking opinions, I don’t even particularly like the movie, but it’s a near-perfect remake for the very reason that it knows exactly what its doing every step of the way.
Brennan Klein is a writer and podcaster who talks horror movies every chance he gets. And when you’re talking to him about something else, he’s probably thinking about horror movies. On his blog, Popcorn Culture, he is running through reviews of every slasher film of the 1980’s, and on his podcast, Scream 101, he and a non-horror nerd co-host tackle horror reviews with a new sub-genre every month!