If you remember the 1977 Wes Craven film The Hills Have Eyes, which was and remains a piece of Milwaukee-beer shit, it’s because (a) you had a memorable fuck-or-puke night at the aging neighborhood drive-in; (b) Michael Berryman’s uniquely hairless mug, which glared from video-store horror sections for decades, sucked you into a rental and still represents a moldy teenage sense memory; or (c) critic Robin Wood made Craven’s crude quickie seem like essential pop-cult altness. In his infinitely reprintable 1979 essay “An Introduction to the American Horror Film,” Wood included Craven’s cannibal-redneck-mutant-family bloodbath in his Freudian exaltation of “the return of the repressed,” asserting that Hills‘ urge-vs.-guilt “reflection pattern” could be seen in the “stranded ‘normal’ family besieged by its dark mirror-image, the terrible shadow-family from the hills, who want to kill the men, rape the women and eat the baby.”
It’s a sweet sell, and accurate enough, although reading Wood is typically more thrilling than watching most of the movies he analyzes. (Tobe Hooper’s original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, obviously the cash cow Craven was looking to milk, may be the exception, remaining a distinctly unsettling and subtextually resonant piece of work.)
In any case, the new, big-budget remake of Craven’s film follows the same flow chart and, because it can afford to show us things in mucky detail that the original couldn’t, ramps up the savagery several notches. French phlebotomist Alexandre Aja — who earned his power-tool pay grade with High Tension — sets up the bickering vacationing clan (ex-cop dad Ted Levine, starchy mom Kathleen Quinlan, an array of baby-faced teens and post-teens) with no particular skill, though in Wood’s universe, the gun-toting, neocon flavor of the grown-ups suggests a puzzling sensibility for their opposite numbers. Bloodthirsty, torture-happy, predator Democrats?
Actually, no. The repressed have returned anew, and the evil desert dwellers are remaindered out of the atomic dustbin of New Mexico bomb testing, complete with still-standing faux villages peopled by fire-scarred mannequins. By themselves, the images of a posed, plastic America built for annihilation, then waiting motionlessly for the destruction to come, can sometimes be startling, as the 1982 found-footage documentary The Atomic Café made potently clear. And Aja’s movie is the first I’ve seen to use the Bikini Atoll-era ghost-town template as a genre-movie background. But it is, in the end, merely background, a context for more mano-a-mano gore, which is hardly affecting. If Aja wanted to curdle young America’s complacent milk for good, he should have skipped the flesh wounds and focused on what really happened.
Why, one wonders, does Craven’s quite craven original film — made for nothing, tasteless as hell, and out for a few bucks — get to be read as a signification of subconscious cultural stress, whereas its go-for-broke remake, even more dedicated to its own mercenary greed and ardor for suffering, does not? Craven had some newish ideas fueled with a certain degree of subversive relevance; Aja has only Craven’s 30-year-old ideas, redressed, rebuffed and rehydrated with corn syrup. If it’s intended only as a brand-exploiting gross-out ordeal for teenagers, then it’s not worth a fart in the wind.