See Wes Craven’s original The Hills Have Eyes on 35mm at Nitehawk Cinema on Friday, June 1 and Saturday June 2 at Midnight!

For the sake of full disclosure, I haven’t seen Wes Craven’s 1977 classic The Hills Have Eyes. It’s been on my (nearly endless) list of movies to see before I die for a long time, but it’s one I have yet to get around to—like, say, Mighty Aphrodite or The Exorcist 3 (I’m just looking at my Netflix queue now). This is why I have a ticket to see it on Saturday at midnight at Nitehawk.

Sounds like a lame promotional line, I know, but it’s the truth. The movie is playing on an old 35mm print, and that sounds like a nice way to see it for the first time.

Regardless, this left me in an odd position to cover the film for the blog this week, as I didn’t want to jump the gun and watch it at home beforehand. Then I remembered that Craven’s film was one of the many horror movies that were remade during that period of the mid-to-late 00’s where Hollywood grinded out remakes of nearly every single horror property possible to diminished artistic return and a handsome profit.

Surprisingly, though, the 2006 version of The Hill Have Eyes doesn’t have the same overwhelmingly negative reputation as its ilk. Look it up on IMDB, and the remake has a score that is 0.1 higher than the original—which is intriguing (in spite of IMDB ratings being basically meaningless). So, to keep myself clean for this weekend’s screening, and for the sake of blog fodder, I decided to put the remake’s lukewarm reputation to the test.

The remake of Wes Craven’s follow-up to The Last House on the Left was put in the hands of Alexandre Aja, a young French director whose Haute Tension earned him a mountain of good will from horror fans. Personally, I don’t find Haute Tension all that impressive, what with its Buick sized plot holes and ridiculous trick ending, but Aja is also the man behind Piranha 3D, a movie whose pure, dimwitted fun almost made the aggravating cash-in that is the modern resurgence of 3D worth the eye-strain.

Now, for obvious reasons, I can’t get into the minutiae of how closely Aja sticks to Craven’s original, but, in broad terms, the basic premise remains the same. Aja’s Hills follows the Carter family as they road trip their way through the barren Nevada desert en route to San Diego. In tow are middle aged Ma and Pa Carter along with their two daughters, two dogs, broody teenaged son, weenie son-in-law and infant granddaughter. Aside from some tension between Pa Carter and Doug the Democrat Son-in-Law, the trip seems to be going well until the wayward family becomes stranded miles from nowhere and violently harried by a clan of mutant cannibal rednecks, deformed by U.S. nuclear testing and mighty pissed off about it.

Like Aja’s other films, The Hills Have Eyes has solid kinetic pacing and demonstrates a knack for extravagantly violent scenes of murder. To his credit, Aja never flinches from the messier side of horror, relishing in scenes of dismemberment, impalement, immolation, and deformities with palpable glee. And though most of the film treads deep into the territory of exploitative nonsense, he handles the film’s ugly rape scene with a careful hand, concentrating on the horror of the moment rather than sexualizing it (like, say, the rape scenes in Craven’s Last House, or the similar I Spit on Your Grave, both of which have been subsequently remade).

Aja has clearly seen enough horror to know which character the audience will expect to meet with the business end of an axe, and he plays with that a bit in the character development. Some characters with “Victim” planted on their foreheads live, while others who most viewers would peg as survivors don’t make it for very long.

But, while Aja grants the Carter family some time to develop before they’re brutally escorted from the mortal plane, the director treats his mutants as two-dimensional kill machines. The mutants’ entire culture, stationed around abandoned nuclear test sites, never really gets any screen time. It’s not clear who’s in charge or how they manage to snatch and eat the amount of people it would take to sustain a populace of such large bodied folks. Hell, it’s not even clear how many of them there are, some are there for just a scene, or basically show up to get an axe to the face or blown up real good.

While there’s an undercurrent in the film that suggests the mutants strike out at travelers as a way to get back at the country that deformed them, Aja’s handling of it is flimsy. There’s an immobile mutant with a watermelon sized head who seems to act as the group’s… strategist, I suppose, who spews some anti-military-industrial quips, placing the blame for his swollen melon on thoughtless suburban yahoos like the Carters. But Aja doesn’t spend too much time nursing that seedling of an idea when there’s so much mutant ass to kick, trivializing what could be sympathetic villains.

Based on Hills and Haute Tension (I haven’t seen Mirrors, because fuck it), Aja seems to have trouble with endings as well. Haute Tension’s asinine twist was so poorly executed that it nearly negates the good work he does in the first half of the movie, and, while not as extravagantly fumbled, Hills is similar. When Aja turns the Carters on the mutants, in that kind of rape-revenge fantasy motif that’ so common in exploitation films, he plays it with such heavy-handed bombast that the irony of the situation gets washed away in a spewing gout of blood.

A mutant getting a pick axe to the forehead gets played like an epic hero moment, complete with a blasting brassy score and slow motion low angle shots of the bloodied, victorious everyman. You could write it off as so-bad-it’s-good silliness, which, when wielded correctly, can make for a great time—like Aja’s Piranha remake; but here it feels more like a crutch for a shoddy ending.

Regardless Aja’s remake of The Hills Have Eyes is better than most of the washed out trash that the Industrial Horror Complex keeps churning out to satisfy our base bloodlust. There’s a nugget of social commentary that, unfortunately, gets played with too light a hand, but Aja’s eye for violence kind of makes up for it with the near constant skull piercings.

It’ no Piranha 3D, but then again, what is?