An article by Denver Grenell

The first decade of the new millennium saw a glut of horror remakes released as the genre once again rejuvenated itself. This could be seen as partly in response to the self-aware, teen-centric slasher boom that followed Scream in the late ‘90s. Another trend from this era was the problematically (and dismissively) titled ‘torture porn’ sub-genre that gave birth to the Saw & Hostel series of films that some have argued was a by-product of a post 9/11 world.

Horror fans are always vocal when one of their favourite films are remade, and often for good reason. The 2005 redo of John Carpenter’s classic spook fest The Fog satisfied no one with its watered-down remix and digitally enhanced mist. The millennial remake wave consisted of two different currents – American remakes of Asian horror films that kicked off with Gore Verbinski’s take on The Ring in 2002, soon to be followed by The Grudge and others. The other branch was the remakes of classic American films of the 70’s and 80’s, beginning with 2003’s successful Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake from Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes company, who came to be known for slick but mostly empty re-imaginings (Chainsaw & Friday the 13th were the best from this batch).

Looking back now over the last 20 years, which also saw an ill-advised Nightmare on Elm Street remake (Platinum Dunes again), Zack Snyder’s fast and efficient version of Romero’s classic Dawn of the Dead and a brutally satisfying Evil Dead in 2013, there is one film that stands out. One that was more successful at bringing an old classic into the new millennium than the myriad other attempts. That film is Alexander Aja’s 2006 reimagining of Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes.

The 1977 original was a nasty piece of ‘hicksploitation’ horror that played in the dusty, cannibalistic sandbox of Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But it wasn’t just the desert setting and the villains’ taste for human flesh that drew comparison between the two films. They both had a streak of nihilism running through them, while also showing that the gap between the haves and the have nots is a wide gulf that can often be bridged with brutal violence.

Following the success of the ‘03 Chainsaw Massacre, Craven saw the possibility of updating his original film in a similar manner. After watching the 2003 French film Haute Tension (High Tension) Craven decided that director Alexandre Aja was the right person to reinterpret his original vision for modern audiences.

Aja was one of the proponents of the New French Extremity movement, a wave of transgressive gallic horror films that mixed shocking violence with body horror, often invading the home space (and in the case of Inside – the body) and unleashing hell on the family unit and so-called normality. The films also had a polished visual style that almost seemed at odds with the subversive subject matter. Haute Tension was both home invasion slasher and inversion of the identity of the traditional ‘final girl’ figure in its controversial twist. The violence was unflinching, often shown in vivid, realistic detail and no one was safe.

Aja was an inspired choice to bring Craven’s vision of inbred cannibals and their bloody war on outsiders into the 2000’s. The film is often lumped into the ‘torture porn’ camp, and while they do share some elements, Aja’s film is more of a hybrid between Craven’s original and the modern brutalism of the French Extremity movement. The plot hews closely to the original with the Carter family, led by gun toting ex-detective Big Bob Carter (Ted Levine), taking their caravan through the New Mexico desert on their way to California. Eldest daughter Lynn is accompanied by her husband Doug and their baby daughter Catherine. After receiving some dishonest directions from a suspiciously cagey gas station attendant, the Carters find themselves stranded in the middle of nowhere after a spiked strip takes out their tyres and causes Big Bob to crash.

From here on out, it’s a case of catch and kill as the Jupiter Clan, a family of mutated miner’s pick off the Carter’s and kidnap baby Catherine, which spurs the dweebish Doug (Aaron Stanford) to venture into the Clan’s home to seek vengeance and reclaim his daughter.

Aja chose to film in the deserts of Morocco, which while doubling for New Mexico, also has an alien quality to it, letting the viewer know that the hapless Carter’s have ventured beyond the realms of society and literally into the badlands. One of the major changes Aja and co-writer Grégory Levasseur make is the introduction of the nuclear test site angle, which is the cause of the Jupiter’s mutations after they failed to leave the area when testing began, instead retreating into the mines and later taking up residence in an abandoned test village. Doug inadvertently walks into a bomb crater at one point which is filled with the abandoned vehicles of the Clan’s previous victims, but he fails to realise the significance of his discovery.

Around the time the movie was being developed, there were tensions between the United States and France, stemming from France’s opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which led to the short lived boycotting of French products and the renaming of French Fries as ‘Freedom Fries.’ Aja, seems to say that politics don’t mean shit when you’re fighting for your life against bloodthirsty cannibals. Big Bob is a gun toting Republican who openly mocks Doug for his liberal views and his teenaged son Bobby is well versed in the weaponry his father brings along on the family holiday. Interestingly, when Doug ‘mans up’ and goes to rescue his baby daughter from the Jupiter’s, he doesn’t take a gun but a baseball bat and the families’ German Shepherd called Beast, who is handily adept at throat ripping. He later finds Big Bob’s charred corpse with an American flag sticking out of his neck, making a mockery of his patriotism, and commenting on the bloody price of freedom the flag stands for. Doug then uses the same flag to kill a Jupiter as the violent destruction of the family unit is then brought to bear on the antagonists. He receives some help from Ruby, the young, disfigured girl who saves the baby from being devoured by her own family members and then sacrifices herself when she grabs Lizard and dives off a cliff.

As in Haute Tension (and indeed the French horror tradition), the violence here is explicit and impactful. Aja, like his compatriots, rubs the audience’s faces in the wanton destruction of bodies, making the viewer complicit in the violence and dares you to feel a visceral thrill from it all. By showing no mercy to the characters and the viewer, Aja takes us on a rollercoaster ride into hell, only to release us at the climax, like Doug, numb, bruised and covered in bloody viscera. There is no victory here, just survival and loss.

Author

Denver Grenell is an emerging author whose short fiction can be found in various anthologies including Bitter Chills, Follow Denver on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
Visit Blood Rites Horror for more information.
More articles by Denver Grenell
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