It’s bad to be stranded in the desert. Especially when you’re surrounded by flesh-eating human mutants. Horror aficionados know this all too well, and yet, the situation recurs, as victims wander into wastelands and there meet their dreadful ends. What makes this same story in The Hills Have Eyes resonate — in Wes Craven’s 1977 original and now again in Alexandre Aja’s well-crafted revisitation — is its particular arrangement of aggression and revenge. The film pits two sets of victims, two families, against one another.
In one corner of the New Mexico desert traipse the Carters, grumpy but making an effort to please retired cop Big Bob (Ted Levine). He means well, but tends also to take his instinct and desire as his roadmap, neglecting to notice the discomfort of his onetime “hippie chick,” now churchy wife Ethel (Kathleen Quinlan, who, when the onslaught begins, might only be wishing she were in that other movie and that other desert, with Kurt Russell) and their mostly grown kids. They do their best to make their displeasure known, sweating and kvetching in the heat, arguing with one another, and wondering out loud just what Bob has in mind for their “vacation.”
In the hills, the other family hides and watches the Carters, until it’s time to strike. These are the mutants, introduced as (sometimes binoculared) point-of-view shots early on, then made visible in increments, their shadows flitting across the screen, their hands filthy and malformed, their faces doughy and twisted. And their teeth: snaggly and sharp, they’re obviously perfect for ripping flesh from bones.
Because the Carters have no idea they’re being observed, you’re left to worry for them as they head into the kill zone, following directions for a dirt road “shortcut” offered by a gnarly gas station attendant (Tom Bower). When their tires are shredded by a barely hidden trap in the road, you know the violence has begun, and your anticipation of the series of attacks puts you in the usual and uncomfortable position of the assailants. The first Hills refined and reimagined (as multiple) the “stalker cam” framing that would become the signature shot in Craven and others’ 1980s slasher films (see also: Tobe Hooper, John Carpenter).
The new Hills recalls this generic development but also elaborates on it, such that the surveillance is ominous but also mundane — this is what the world is about now, the invasion of privacy and imminent aggression is more routine than exceptional: all hills have eyes now, as do all traffic lights, all elevators and malls and taxi cabs. Cameras and listening devices are everywhere, and the mutants here only represent the creepiest physical incarnation of such invasiveness, not new, but only exceptionally ugly.
The spectacle they embody, in digitally deformed features and a 28 Days Later-inspired herky-jerky motion, is a sign of its time. This works two ways: first, the more technically capable of visceral nastiness horror filmmaking becomes, the more detailed and explicit the imagery becomes. And second, the ugliness can’t begin to compare to the devastation of war and torture visible in various media. If Craven and his cohorts emerged in the wake of the Vietnam war, Aja (along with other young, thoughtful horror makers, like Wolf Creek‘s Greg McLean and Cabin Fever/Hostel‘s Eli Roth) are conjuring their nightmares amid increasing rage against America as well as U.S. invasions, neglects, and abuses.
As before, Hills‘ mutants are products of a 1945 military-industrial experiment gone wrong and right at once. When miners in the desert refused to leave their homes, the government ran its atomic testing anyway, irradiating the poor, stubborn, and resistant folks who couldn’t or wouldn’t leave, then leaving them to stew in their own genetic grotesqueries. The victims and their progeny now live among the nuclear-family manikins the military set up in fake houses and fake shops and fake cars to test the experiment’s effects, their airless misery framed now by symbols of a familial ideal that never existed to start.
The fact that the mutants have also turned to eating folks who happen through their domain makes the obvious point about the immoderation and willful blindness of U.S. consumer culture (a point made even more explicit in Hooper’s 1974 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). It’s also plain enough that the mutants’ first victim — one of the Carters’ two vibrant German shepherds — means to solicit despair and expectation both. When Bobby (Dan Byrd) finds the dog’s corpse eviscerated and bloody (and you see one of the mutants gnawing on a limb), his terror mirrors yours. Now it’s only a matter of time before the lost family, including new mom Lynn (Vinessa Shaw) and her liberal-leaning husband Doug (Tadpole‘s Aaron Stanford, completely changing up his image), as well as pubescent Brenda (Emilie de Ravin), meets its fate.
Bobby is so alarmed by his discovery (not to mention his brief unconsciousness, during which blood from the mutant’s meal drips on him, so he wakes with a bloody face as well as no dog), that when he makes his way back to the broken down Gulfstream trailer where the rest of the family awaits a never-coming rescue, he doesn’t tell them what he found, concerned he might scare them too. His effort to play the man while his dad is off scouting help (with that same gas station attendant — very bad idea) is ineffectual, to say the least. This is a film about family structures collapsing, not being reinforced.
Most all the mutants are men (including eager and awkward rapists Billy Drago and Robert Joy), which doesn’t account for the fact that they do have kids, such as the sunny-dressed little girl asking a visitor to “play” (seen in the film’s trailer and another girl, Ruby (Laura Ortiz), who early on steals Bobby’s red hooded sweatshirt, so she resembles the fairy tale character as she keeps her own watchful eye on him. Ruby also provides an emotional and moral counterpoint to her elders, though she’s more like a mascot than a developed character.
When the time comes, the mutants descend on the hapless travelers in veritable droves. Aja and DP Maxime Alexandre’s mobile, precise camerawork creates a perverse elegance in these attack scenes, even as the film insists on their ugliness. Doug’s eventual rise (or descent) to vengeance makes him heroic, pitiful, and awful all at the same time. There is no winning in this desert, only stranding.