When I was 15-years-old, I watched Alexandre Aja’s 2006 remake of Wes Craven’s, The Hills Have Eyes, and when I say I darn near had my blanket covering my eyes, I mean I darn near had my blanket covering my eyes. I can still remember my visceral reaction to the film. I can still remember the intensity I felt while watching. And most importantly, I can still remember the absolute sense of hopelessness and dread I felt while watching the film. The only comparable experience in terms of a horror film affecting me to such a degree is 2008’s Martyrs.
The film is a remake of Craven’s 1977 film, but it’s in the capable hands of two crazy Frenchmen. I’ve previously written about the New French Extremity movement in 21st century film, often horror films. Well, Aja is one of the names at the forefront of the movement; prior to doing this remake, he did 2003’s High Tension. He also recently did the wonderful, claustrophobic creature feature, 2019’s Crawl. Receiving a screenwriting credit is Grégory Levasseur, who seems to be Aja’s longtime collaborator on his films.
Retired detective “Big Bob” Carter (played Ted Levine) and his wife, Ethel (Kathleen Quinlan), are celebrating their silver anniversary (25 years together), so they’re traveling cross country from Cleveland to San Diego inexplicably through the New Mexico desert. Their three children are quite literally in tow (a mobile home attached to the vehicle), Lynn (Vinessa Shaw), Brenda (Emilie de Ravin), and Bobby (Dan Byrd), along with Lynn’s husband, Doug (Aaron Stanford), and their baby daughter Catherine. You must mention that they are also with two German Shepherds, Beauty and Beast (great names!).
The thematic and plot context of the film is that between the 1940s and the 1960s, the United States government tested a number of nuclear weapons in the New Mexico desert, destroying a local town of miners and causing deformities and their rage against anyone traveling through. Apparently, they’re also in league with the gas station attendant (Tom Bower), who directs wide-eyed travelers to a “short-cut” through the hills, which inevitability brings them to the mutants, for lack of a better word.
That is exactly what happens to Bob and his family. Bob, in his hubris, not only wanted to take the off-road drive through the desert, but for some reason, trusted a random stranger in the middle of nowhere for directions. One of the mutants sets the hidden spike strip while Bob is driving along and they crash into a rock. The truck is totaled. So, let me say this. At this point in the film, let me pretend that mutants don’t exist. Being stuck in the middle of the New Mexico desert with no conceivable way out and being miles from the nearest highway (which itself might still be miles from any help) is nightmare fuel. Add violent, cannibalistic mutants to the mix and well, you can see why I cowered behind my blanket!
Through the first 45 minutes of the film before the crap initially hits the fan with the spike strip, Doug is presented as a pretty unlikable guy; he’s all about his cell phone sales business, he doesn’t want to be on this trip, as he’s constantly whining, Big Bob clearly doesn’t respect him, and even Bobby thinks of him as a coward. Let’s keep that in mind.
After the truck crash, Big Bob’s big brain idea (I can’t help but be derisive of it!) is for him to go back to the gas station attendant and for Doug to go the other direction, ostensibly toward the short-cut that leads back to the highway, all the while leaving three women, a young boy, a baby and two dogs all alone in the middle of nowhere. Now, to be sure, Big Bob a.) left Bobby a gun, but Bobby is inexperienced and a kid; and b.) I think he’s primarily banking on the fact (hubris again!) that they are in the middle of nowhere, so what harm can befall them? As it happens, when Big Bob gets to the gas station, he finds the gas station attendant, who commits suicide and then is attacked by one of the mutants. The mutant started calling him, “Daddy,” which rightly terrified big bad Bob. Now, when Big Bob is attacked by this mutant, it was a, “Holy crap!” moment, but I still wasn’t feeling a sense of absolute dread. That’s coming.
Meanwhile, Bobby chases Beauty into the hills and finds her mutilated corpse in a terribly sad moment, but upon trying to return back to the mobile home, he falls off the hill and knocks himself out. One of the mutants, a younger girl named Ruby, seems to protect him. Meanwhile still, Doug is elated by the fact that the shortcut wasn’t a shortcut at all and instead a giant crater filled with abandoned cars and belongings, some of which he takes with him. I mean, again, I guess at this point, they’re thinking they are in the middle of nowhere, so he’s not reading anything nefarious into that crater.
Bobby hasn’t told anyone what happened to Beauty because he doesn’t want to scare anyone. But he’s unnerved by it and spends the night shining a light on his mother, keeping watch. Then he begins hearing noises and alerts Doug and Lynn to it. They try to assure him it’s okay. That is when all freaking hell breaks loose.
I couldn’t resist. So, as those three are talking by the truck, an explosion occurs at a tree on the horizon: It’s Big Bob, tied to the tree and set on fire while still alive. But it’s a distraction! Because at that point, two of the mutants are inside the trailer attacking Brenda. She didn’t see them coming because she was sleeping with music in her ears. Bobby, Lynn and Ethel freak out and run to Bob. Doug pops into the trailer to grab the fire extinguisher and offhandedly yells to Brenda, “Watch the baby.” He didn’t see that she was being attacked. I believe one or both mutants then rape Brenda off camera, but it’s heavily implied, especially afterward when she has blood all over her legs. Yuck.
Lynn returns to the trailer and sees that one mutant is on Brenda and one mutant has Catherine in his arms. The latter mutant then breastfeeds off of Lynn. Ethel also returns to this chaos and is immediately shot by that same mutant, with such force that she flies back against the trailer. In that moment, Lynn stabs the mutant in the thigh, but he turns and shoots her in the head. The two mutants escape with Catherine as Bobby and Doug are running back to the trailer.
To recap: In the span of only a few minutes, Big Bob is immolated on a tree; Brenda is raped and assaulted; Ethel is blown away by a gun (and she’s not actually dead yet!); Lynn is shot in the head and killed after also being sexually assaulted; and the baby, Catherine, is abducted. That is the sequence that filled me with absolute dread and a sense of hopelessness; I’ve never seen anything crazier in film. It all occurred in maybe less than 10 minutes? Pure chaos. My favorite moment in horror films is when the crap hits the fan, but I’ve never seen the crap so hit the fan. So much carnage and two kids and a man — a man at this point who has been depicted as an annoying coward — are left. How are they possibly going to survive this? And how are they possibly going to get that baby back? Not to mention, Lynn seemed like she would have been a very capable “final girl” and yet, she was killed off, too.
Well, that’s where the good boy comes in. Beast avenges Beauty’s death (a sad moment when he finds her dead body) and kills one of the mutants who was watching the survivors from the hills, which allows the survivors to have their radios to hear their communications. With only a bat, Beast and newfound courage, Doug sets out to get his darn baby back! He encounters a miner town’s cave system, but is attacked by Big Mama and set-up by Big Brain (a grotesque mutant with, well, a big brain) before he can escape with Catherine. In a crazy scene, the giant mutant, who previously attacked Brenda, bursts through the wall and attacks Doug. He’s kicking Doug’s ass, slinging him about like a ragdoll. Doug suckers him in by begging for his life and stabs the mutant in the foot through the wood floor, then puts a flag through his neck and then uses an axe to kill him. When outside, we get the full transformation of Doug from coward to courageous bad-ass: He has the upper hand on another mutant and Aja zooms in on the ax, where Doug flips it from the blade part to the pick side and he sticks it through the mutant’s head.
Meanwhile, Beast, still avenging the loss of his friend, Beauty, attacks and kills Big Brain. Good dog! I need a horror film that allows a dog to be the “final girl,” as it were. That would be awesome. Maybe one exists! If so, let me know.
But what happened to Big Mama?! Anyhow.
While all of this was going on, Brenda and Bobby, who is a genuinely likable big brother trying his best to be “Big Bob,” set-up the trailer/mobile home to explode when a mutant gets close enough and it works!
In the final scene, Doug catches up with Ruby, who has taken Catherine — she saved Catherine because Big Brain decided to have her killed — , but he is attacked by the mutant who killed Lynn and Ethel. They battle, with Doug eventually getting the upper-hand and in full horror movie effect, the mutant we thought was dead tries one more time to kill Doug, but Ruby saves him by launching herself at the mutant off of a cliff. They both die.
In a great moment of catharsis, the mutant Brenda and Bobby blew up is still alive, so Brenda runs at him with the pickaxe and finishes him off. Hell yeah!
Doug stumbles back to Brenda and Bobby with Catherine and Beast. What a character arc for Doug! The four initial survivors of the earlier onslaught survived to the end! At least, so far. Not only does an unknown mutant appear to be watching them, but they are still in the middle of nowhere without any transportation! I’d watch a short film epilogue just to see how they get out of the freaking desert, but I digress.
What a movie. I can’t believe how well it held up to my 15-year-old imagination of it. I felt the same sense of, “Oh god!” dread now at 32-years-old as I did then. I felt the same sense of intensity and toe-curling fear. And I think now, more than then, I appreciated Doug’s arc from coward to courageous even more. The visual of him returning with the baby, Beast, and bloody and darn near death (again, how is he going to walk out of the desert in such a condition?!) was so cathartic and beautiful. That is just good horror storytelling! We cared about these characters! We cared about them overcoming these seemingly insurmountable odds.
As far as horror remakes go, The Hills Have Eyes remake has to rank up there as one of the best.