NOTE: As this is an article and not a review, spoilers abound. Proceed with caution, etc.
Over the course of my life, or at least over the course of the last thirty-odd years of my life—since my family got its first VHS player back in the early eighties—I have long since lost count of the number of times I have seen The Hills Have Eyes, Wes Craven’s third feature film (it seems he directed a porn flick under an assumed name in 1975, or so IMDB tells me, called The Fireworks Woman) and his first great one. Back in the days when I would hit the video store after school, some home with three movies, and have them all dropped off again on the way the next day, it was one of the movies that remained in light rotation when I was busy watching other stuff; I’m pretty sure I rented it at least once a month throughout my junior high and high school years, as well as catching it every time it popped up on TV. Since then, I’ve watched it at least once every five years or so. Today, however, I got my first chance to see it on the big screen, or at least a biggish one, at a movie convention. It’s been a while since my last viewing, and I’d forgotten a number of things about the movie that always struck me as minor details, but that probably aren’t—for example, that Bobby (Robert Houston, now an award-winning documentarian) and Brenda (Susan Lanier, who retired from acting after The Hills Have Eyes Part II, but is coming out of retirement to appear in the upcoming horror film Cut!) survived. I think the reason for that—and the main reason I so loathed Alexandre Aja’s woeful 2006 remake—is that to me, the movie seemed to revolve around Doug (Martin Speer) and his ethical crisis. Not that I would have put it in those terms in 1982 or whenever I first saw it, but I knew from the very first time I saw the movie that there’s a damned good reason the very last shot of the film is of Doug’s face, which is gradually overlaid with a red filter. No, Wes Craven wasn’t much for subtlety even back in the seventies.
But then, that’s one of the things I find so interesting about this movie, and one that had also faded into the background since my last viewing—while Doug’s transformation is not subtle (watching it this time round, it struck me how much it mirrors David Sumner’s in The Siege at Trencher’s Farm, adapted for film as Straw Dogs), “point A”, in the sense that Doug is going from point A to point B, is much more so than I remembered it being. I did remember the initial setup accurately; the Carter clan are all sorts of religious and conservative and blah blah blah, though Brenda is rebelling against it, while the Wood clan are not. Not emphatically so, at least not as emphatically so as I remember being; Doug is not a bell-bottoms-and-pot-smoke hippie, though there is enough tension between Doug and the Bobs senior and junior to telegraph that Doug is the “can’t we all just get along?” member of the group. This is only ever explicit after Mars (Any Which Way You Can‘s Lance Gordon) kidnaps Catherine, Doug’s baby, and kills both his wife Lynne (a young Dee Wallace in her fourth feature appearance) and Lynne’s mother Ethel (I Want to Live!‘s Virginia Vincent); it is at that point that Doug, albeit by shouting into the night, makes the film’s only attempt to confront the tribe with words rather than violence. Even with his wife dead and his daughter kidnapped, Doug is going to try and reason with anyone he can. It is not a coincidence that it is at the very end of that scene that Doug begins his evolution into red-face. The tribe are not going to respond to words. The rest of the family were already well aware of this (and while we, the omniscient audience, are well aware they never would have, the Carters and the Woods have no such knowledge; one wonders, especially in light of The Last House on the Left, how much of a condemnation this is of Bob and Bobby’s “shoot first, ask questions later” attitude this is, but I’m not about to put myself through the hell of watching The Last House on the Left again in order to see how much stronger I can make a case for this. It’s an awful movie), but Doug is going to give it the good old college try, and it is only after the talks fail that the leaders pull out the nuclear weapons and start threatening one another with them. At that point, Doug starts evolving. Earlier in the movie, when he gets back from the ammo dump, Bobby is pointing a gun at him, and he reacts nervously. When he gets back after the outburst, the same thing happens again (above), and he simply swats the gun out of the way. That’s a major change; he’s no longer nervous around the gun. Whether he is headed in the right direction or not is entirely up to the viewer. It is possible to extrapolate whether Craven thinks he’s going the right way or not by examining Craven’s other early films (what one collector in Adjust Your Tracking refers to in his system of subgenres, amusingly, as “pre-sellout Craven”), but when it comes right down to it, what Wes Craven intended doesn’t matter one little bit; what the viewer interprets does, and given this aspect of the film, there are really only three possible answers. Is Doug right, is red-face right, or are both two-dimensional extremes?
For the record, when I read Craven’s other films in this light, I see his own answer to whether Doug is headed in the right direction as an emphatic and unqualified “yes”, but this leads back into the setup, and that’s where the subtlety of this situation kicks in; I think Craven would say “yes” to the entire trajectory, that even in the face of unreasonable evil, he’s backing Doug’s initial approach rather than Bobby’s, expressed just before Doug’s running-and-screaming scene, of firing after the fleeing Mars even though Mars is carrying Catherine; Bobby represents the scorched-earth policy. (It is possible to argue that Bob Sr.’s attitude is somewhat mellower than Bobby’s, but the monologue from which this article takes its title belies that, so I’m not going to try and go there, at least not now.) Here’s where (you knew I was getting round to this eventually) Aja’s film fails so entirely; this aspect of it, which again I consider the movie’s central conceit, is entirely absent. The most Aja and Levasseur’s screenplay does to try and convince us that their version of Doug (25th Hour‘s Aaron Stanford) is any less rah-rah-rah-FUCK-YEAH-MURRICA! than the Carter clan is Bob’s (played here by The Silence of the Lambs‘ Ted Levine) jibe that “He’s a democrat. He doesn’t believe in guns.” But at no point during the remake does Aja and Levasseur’s caricature of Doug have that same ethical crisis; when it comes time to pick up the weaponry, he’s just as ready as the rest to lock and load. This leads to the inevitable question: what is the central conceit of Aja’s remake, other than “hey, this movie made a surprising amount of money the first time around and has a huge cult following, we’re almost guaranteed a solid ROI!”? I don’t believe, and I haven’t since I saw the movie on opening weekend in March 2006, that it had another one at all.
The good news is that Craven’s 1977 flick still holds up after all these years. In fact, Doug’s ethical crisis—it would be pushing it something fierce to equate it to the Cold War, though it should be obvious that’s where my head was above, at least in part—may be even more relevant now than it was in the seventies. Which makes Aja’s remake all the more horrifying for all the wrong reasons. I waffle on Craven’s best movie, always between this and 1991’s The People Under the Stairs. But The Hills Have Eyes is always in the running; even the awful special effects in certain scenes (the floppiness of the cloth doll Ruby [The Incredible Melting Man‘s Janus Blythe] is carrying when she’s running across the ridge at the beginning of the climax is a perfect example) are endearing rather than groan-inducing, and even the scenes that got the biggest laughs when I saw it today, like Bobby’s little gymnastic demonstration early in the film, were obviously there for a reason. If you’ve never seen it, it’s still very much worth your time; this goes double if you’ve never seen it, but have seen Aja’s remake.
And you can, just by clicking above–the full movie on Youtube.