The Hills Have Eyes & The Hills Have Eyes
Remakes are inherently a hit or miss thing. When the original is beloved, it’s nearly impossible to make a remake that won’t cause immediate revulsion for the audience. I like to think I’m not judgmental, but even I’m unfair when it comes to remakes. I refused to watch Let Me In in theaters because I watched the original Let the Right One In only two years earlier and it was fantastic; the original might have been in Swedish, but it made little sense to remake it. I was also sad when there was an American remake of Death at a Funeral. Sure, the American remake was pretty funny, but that’s because it was the exact same film. Death at a Funeral didn’t even have the same excuse as Let Me In; it was a British film. However, I clearly don’t hate all remakes, since I was extolling the virtues of The Ring. One of the things I’ve learned in recent years is that watching the remake first highly influences how I perceive the original. For instance, I really enjoy the remake of The Mummy, because I loved it as a kid and the film is just a fun action flick with a great mummy. Yet, having watched the original, I can imagine that some people who watched the original must have thought the remake was terrible. It adheres to the story, but it’s all action and light humor whereas the original is slower and more serious and it has Boris “Total Boss” Karloff. Fans of the original must have thought the remake totally screwed up the original film’s tone. The flip side of that is that fans of the remake, those who watched the remake first, might dislike the original. I loved the remake of The Hills Have Eyes, which I saw in theaters, so I rushed to rent the original at the video store, which I disliked at first. Although it wasn’t fair, I disliked the original because it seemed too similar to the remake and since I grew fond of the remake first, I naturally gave the original the cold shoulder. Thankfully, I gave the original Hills Have Eyes a second chance and I’ve come to love it. To me, these films represent a rare case where the remake is as good as the original.
The gist of the story is the same in both versions of The Hills Have Eyes, though they have a couple of key differences. The Carter family is driving through the Nevada desert to California. The family consists of Bob and Ethel, their three children – Bobby, Brenda, and Lynn – Lynn’s husband Doug, and Katie, who is Lynn and Doug’s baby. The family stops at a gas station where Fred works; Fred has been helping the family of cannibals in the hills. The Carter family leaves the gas station only for the car to break down several miles away; in the original, Bob crashes the car and in the remake, the mutants set a trap that destroys the truck’s tires. Bob walks to the gas station while Doug goes further down the road in hopes of finding civilization. In the meantime, Beauty, one of the family’s dogs, escapes and is killed. Bobby goes looking for the dog, then trips and hits his head while backing away from its mangled body. After nightfall, Bobby returns, but doesn’t explain that he found the dog. Doug returns and reports that he found a huge dumping ground, but no people. Bob arrives at the gas station and meets Fred. In the original, Bob stops Fred from hanging himself and Fred tells him that there are a group of cannibals in the hills; he and his wife had an evil child who became Papa Jupiter, head of the cannibal clan. In the remake, Bob meets Fred, but fails to prevent him from committing suicide with a shotgun. Then the cannibals show up. Back at the trailer, Bobby is getting agitated because his dog has been butchered and his father still hasn’t returned. He resolves to go out and find his father with Doug’s help. They prepare to go, but are interrupted by a burst of fire and screaming. Bobby, Doug, Ethel, and Lynn run to find Bob crucified to a tree and on fire and desperately try to put him out. Meanwhile, Pluto and Mars (orginal)/Lizard (remake) go to rape Brenda and steal Katie. Ethel and Lynn return to the trailer ahead of Doug and Bobby and get shot in the process. Pluto and Mars/Lizard make off with the baby before Doug or Bobby can return. Doug takes the other dog, Beast, and goes to rescue the baby from the cannibals, while Bobby and Brenda stay at the trailer. In the remake, Doug has to go through the cannibal village before he finds that Ruby, the one good mutant, has taken the baby to rescue her from the family. Back at the trailer, Brenda and Bobby build a trap that blows up Papa Jupiter. Doug fights and kills Mars/Lizard; this is where the original film ends. In the remake, Doug beats up Mars/Lizard, but ultimately Ruby kills her brother, pushing him off the cliff. Doug retrieves his child and returns to the trailer. But since this is a horror film, the camera zooms out and we see Doug through a pair of binoculars, showing that there are still mutants hiding in the hills.
The reason The Hills Have Eyes is such a great pair of slasher films is that they are not only gruesome and gory, but also they have themes. Just in terms of grue and gore, the scene with Bob crucified to a tree, screaming and burning, while his daughter is being raped (or just seemingly because she’s wearing clothes?), is among the more brutal I’ve seen and consequently one of the best. However, the violence also seems to be an object of commentary. In both versions, the movie is about a civilized, probably suburban family pitted against a group of savage cannibals in the desert. By the end however, the civilized family has become as violent, almost as savage, as the cannibalistic family. The original ends with a shot of Doug sitting on top of Mars, repeatedly stabbing him, until the screen fades to blood red. The remake makes this bit of social commentary much more blatant by showing that Doug is a liberal who hates guns and is ostensibly a pacifist. By the end of the film, he’s killed almost all of the mutants by himself in the most brutal manner possible and he’s completely soaked in blood. Combined with the fact that the original was released only two years after the Vietnam War and the remake was released while the Iraq War was still going and it seems clear that The Hills Have Eyes are commentaries on, if not simply products of, their violent times. The connection between The Hills Have Eyes and the Iraq War becomes much more explicit when you take into account the petty squabbles between the conservative Bob and liberal Doug, that the film is set in the desert, that Doug stabs Pluto with an American flag, the mutant Brain singing the American national anthem, and Doug’s vengeful retaliation against the mutants for killing his family. Whether the film is critiquing humanity’s tendency toward violence by showing an ostensibly civilized man slaughter mutants or implicitly supporting the use of violence as a means of protecting ones family from other violent people is up for debate.
Although the plots are largely identical, excepting Doug’s bloody quest into the cannibal’s town, the cannibals are strikingly different in these films. In the original Hills Have Eyes, the cannibal clan is descended from Papa Jupiter, who is Fred’s twisted and savage son; although Fred helps Papa Jupiter and his clan, he’s not nearly so evil. In the remake, they’re the descendants of a group of miners who were mutated by nuclear testing. The end result is that the family is much more human in the original and much more monstrous in the remake, both of which have advantages and disadvantages in terms of how scary they are. The regular cannibals, as opposed to the mutant cannibals, are much more talkative, so what they say is part of what makes them frightening. Papa Jupiter goes on a rant where he yells at Bob’s severed at how the Carter family is weak; he has a great line where he says, “I’ll eat the brains of your kids kids.” The mutant cannibals don’t speak as much, but they’re visually much scarier because they have pronounced deformities; the best speaking lines go to Brain, who wheezes the national anthem and explains to Doug that his people are responsible for the A-bomb testing, hence they deserve to be murdered and eaten. The only thing I don’t like about the mutants in the remake that I like about the cannibals in the original is the character Pluto. In the original, Pluto is played by Michael Berryman, who doesn’t wear any prosthetics or makeup. As much as I love the facial prosthetics on the mutant Pluto, I have to admit that Berryman’s stony glare and tall head are still cooler. Furthermore, I liked that Pluto has a speaking role in the original because it makes him seem smarter; violent, mute, and potentially mentally retarded seems more likely to inspire pity than terror, at least in my case.
The reason I love both versions of The Hills Have Eyes is that they complement each other. The films show different sides of the same story, so to speak. The original is about violent, inbred cannibals who have inherited their father’s evil, but they’re human and by the end of the film the Carter family is not much different from them. The remake is about cannibals who are the unfortunate victims of nuclear testing, but they’re terribly violent; the surviving Carter family members and Doug turn out to be just as violent and the film parallels some aspect of the Iraq War; parallels could probably be drawn between the original film and the Vietnam War, but I couldn’t think of anything except for the distressing necklace of ears that Mars wears. The differences between the films are enough to distinguish them and make them interesting, but they share the same story and spirit, which effectively makes them two sides of the same coin. It’s a fearful symmetry and I’d highly recommend you watch either or both versions of The Hills Have Eyes.