The Hills Have Eyes

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Right before I left for the movie, Larry Mantle had his civilized film guys on to deliver a few sentences on the week's new flicks. In reference to Alexandre Aja's comparatively high-end new remake of The Hills Have Eyes, one of them said that nuclear films, films about nuclear topics, used to mean something, but that this was just "cosmic gore."

Yeah, okay. It is pretty violent. I have a feeling, though, that if this guy watched Craven's 1977 version, he'd find the paint-red blood fake, dated, or campy. Of course, many civilized critics consider that film and its brethren to be flimsy, exploitative junk, and if our critic feels the nuclear aspect of the new film is irrelevant, surely he'd pick a similar bone with the original: the nuclear aspect is more explication there than anything else, just a premise to explain the presence of the family, absence of infrastructure, and appearance of Michael Berryman. An early draft of the script had the cannibal family the offspring of hippies - hence the names "Jupiter," "Pluto," and the other planets, and Craven has stated that the family wasn't really supposed to be mutants at all, but simply a wild clan living outside human law. Craven is much more interested in the family dynamic and devotes a scene to explaining why the family came to exist; his interest is personal, motivational, and familial. As has always been the case, he is deeply interested in fatherhood, and the gas station attendant's role in his son's fate is the motivating factor in the film's interest in setting types of families against each other.

Aja replaces this basic premise, using nuclear and radioactive fear as the primary factor in determining not just the mutants' location, but their reason for being. He too gives a character a short speech of explication, but this one is accusatory, referring to dynamics not familial but nuclear. The locations make it that much more explicit, not merely referring to an empty stretch of desert but bringing back the relevance of the testing grounds, from the hollowed-out scars of the desert to the creepy, somehow sensible locale of the climax.

These new mutants are a tricky bunch. For one thing, they're ugly. In 1977, Ruby was feral but kind of cute, and with that in mind, her appearance here comes as a surprise - so much for a remake of Part 2, predicated on Ruby's acceptance into society. Michael Berryman was always scary-looking, but he was sort of charming in the original Hills (his first major role), a little dim-witted, a little vulnerable, with his own personality, skills, and even - unusual for a movie villain - fears. (His connection with Beast works so well that it seems completely natural when it returns in Part 2.) The new Pluto (Michael Bailey Smith) is different - less developed, certainly, but very accurately what he is supposed to be - a large, strong, ugly, lumpen creation of radioactivity with questionable mental function. True, he doesn't have the sense of hurt that Berryman brought to Pluto, but what do we need to like him for? The new mutants don't really want to be liked. They don't rate character development; they don't talk much. The original family was a lot more verbose, but these mutants have less to say for themselves. Though most of them are capable, they converse with each other less, and when they speak now, it's more often to gloat; when they laugh, it's spiteful. Papa Jupiter's more personal reasons for being have been excised, replaced only with a general sense of gross injustice - even the commercials focus on the U.S. government's abandonment of the victims of its atomic testing, and Aja has developed a strong sense of this blame by the end of the opening credits. It makes the conflict a little easier to buy. The blind fury of the mutants is obvious, and when Doug eventually makes no argument against the assertion that "your people" were responsible for this particular batch of atrocities, we know that as Americans we all bear some trace of nuclear guilt.

So why doesn't Doug argue? Has he accepted the assertion of his people's blame, or does he simply not care? It's tough to tell exactly where he is on the scale of the change he is undergoing. The lack of a specific breaking point is admirable, for though his daughter has been taken, he did not approach with the intention of doing all he turns out to be capable of doing.

Craven surprised in some ways with his choice in 1977. It was early in his career, and without the hindsight of watching him develop his concept of fatherhood on film from Last House on the Left all the way up through Red Eye, it wasn't necessarily easy to predict that the main character would turn out to be Doug, though a careful reading of horror convention would have hinted strongly at it. Macho characters never make it. A few years later, in Nightmare on Elm Street, we would see again just what Craven thought of the efficacy of police-officer fathers. It's the pacifist who is of interest in this story; he's the one with a compelling, even troubling character arc, and the father, in Craven's permanent estimation, who has the most to fight for (though standard horror would probably make the mother the central fighter, with female vulnerability the usual stake, combining with the legendary child-in-danger burst of strength to allow her to put up a good fight). But if Craven blames Fred the attendant for his destructive method of fatherhood, he seeks to hold Doug up as the true father, the one who puts his child above himself.

Alexandre Aja is unmistakably interested in this aspect above others, and the intense sequences when Doug sets out to retrieve his baby are the centerpiece of the film, relegating the showdown with Jupiter almost dénouement. Like Craven, Aja finds Doug the most compelling part of the story, and if Aja's taste for extreme violence is too graphic for some, Aja will surely be pleased, for the movie's critical point is that even a man who abhors violence can become capable of horrific things under the right conditions. It turns out that Doug is capable of some gruesome things, even of raising a gun, which he earlier refused to do in the most harmless of circumstances. For this, Doug is called a pussy, and worse, a Democrat, by the Magnum-packing father Big Bob, who would likely, we understand, be capable of serious violence without the extreme provocation that Doug requires, but who in horror film is destined to be unable to provide any real help, and in a Craven film is destined to fail his children. It is less Craven's point than horror's point that the more feminine Doug will be the one to whom the burden falls. As if to prove this, Aja renames Doug from the modest Doug Wood to the loaded Doug Bukowski - a writer. Slyly, a boozing, carousing, vulgar writer, but meaningfully, a writer. Writers, in horror, are the type of fancified slick city visitor that can't survive in the wilderness. They live off their minds and not their hands, and as such, are not real men. Aja combines this with Doug's new vocation as a cell-phone salesman, an even more meaningless function in a desolate land with no reception, where communication is based on walkie-talkies and coded howls, and often unneeded due to a collective singlemindedness that eliminates the need for much vocalization at all. He wears a dress shirt; like other city dwellers, he has no mechanical aptitudes, laboring to fix the thermostat to no avail, a task simple enough for teenage Bobby, who has doubtless been schooled in such things, as well as the proper handling of a gun, by his man's-man father. It's obvious even to Bobby that, as Doug is willing to admit, Doug's wife cut his balls off a long time ago.

Maybe that's the problem. The civilizing influence of woman keeps man attached to family structure and strips him of his primal masculinity at the same time. In Craven's version, though Papa Jupiter is undeniably the head of the family, there is a distinct family structure. The mother may have been kidnapped, "a whore nobody'd miss," but she's a mother, and the group is a single cohesive family unit: Papa Jupe, his stolen bride, and "a passel of wild kids." Aja's wild pack is less distinct, Jupiter less the papa, John Steadman's Fred replaced by a nameless gas station man without a clear link. Pluto and "Lizard" might not be brothers without even their names to link them, let alone the sibling camaraderie and rivalry they shared in 1977. Even the names reflect the new angle. Aja keeps Jupiter and Pluto for tradition's sake, but introduces new characters by appearance or function in their society - Lizard, Goggle, Big Brain. The change makes sense in the new film. In a story about the casualties of nuclear aggression, the focus is less familial and more communal, and the haunted township here represents not a single stranded group but a destroyed way of life, the plastic idealism of the setup standing for a hopeful way of life that seemed so plausible once, not knowing what higher powers had in store for it. The mannequins still sit on swing sets as they have since the scientists dropped the bomb, never having seen it coming. This setting is less a hideout than a home, a place for the victims, real and molded, to continue on as they were designed to do. The proof is in the disfigured children playing on the floor, children of no one we have seen. It takes a village.


Doug has no place here; he is as useless in the desert as a mathematician. David Sumner, writing a book on math, is that and a writer too, a truly useless combination, and the initial presumption of uselessness is held forth in his inability to hammer a nail, drive a car, or satisfy his wife. Straw Dogs is a well-respected treatise on masculinity and violence, but The Hills Have Eyes is not. Is it that Doug Bukowski's violence stems from outside influences? The normalcy of his mission (rescuing a child) is too easy, too simple to write off as merely a parent doing what is necessary? David Sumner's long dark night, outwardly as simple as defense of property (both edificial and human), is always discussed as an externalization of psyche, but Doug's long bloody day will be tossed off as a genre exercise in excess, and perhaps unfairly so. There is much to understand about Doug. The 1977 Doug has a moment at which he loses control; Ruby is disgusted. Craven is explicit, in this moment, that civilized man is capable of violence enough to repulse the savages. The fight with Jupiter is more understandable, but still contains the same seed. Doug's outburst can at least be written off to a momentary loss of control, a temporary insanity, but Bobby and Brenda plot and plan not to evade but to kill. Lest this rational premeditation seem like the civilized version of killing (and thus a higher pursuit), Brenda shows herself still to be capable of throwing aside restraint and fear to pick up the tools of spontaneous physical violence.

The question is then: what level of affront justifies violent response? If one resorts to violence as a reply, does it matter whether the level of violence is in kind or out of kind? It is a question neither Doug nor David Sumner stops to ponder. Instead, it is taken for granted that each man - that every man - has a natural breaking point. He can and will struggle to remain his old self, but passing this point opens up a new world of vicious possibilities.

In The Hills Have Eyes, this ferocity is shown by, of all people, the dog, attacking Big Brain. The dog understands, if dogs understand (and Craven's own Hills Have Eyes Part 2 hints that they do), that dog, man, and mutant are on the same level, and that there is no guilt in feral combat. Aja understands, though, that Doug must keep some semblance of humanity, and lets him do so - for otherwise, if he goes over the edge, he will lose the ability to make the comparison between acceptable and unacceptable modes of behavior, and be unable to hold himself to his responsibilities, to look in the mirror later and consider whether his actions were just or unjust. The character cannot go entirely over the edge, or we lose him as a character. The price of achieving the guiltless freedom of in-the-moment violent retribution is, presumably, eternal guilt after the moment is over, or at least the inability to remain the same (just ask Sumner). We must have a sense that his basic permanent character has changed and that he will view things in a new way from here on out, if not in regard to the capabilities of the world, then at least in regard to his own capacities.

Aja also has a sense of what we want to see, and wants to point out our own tendencies to go too far in this. Doug, he says, cannot do it. Only the dog can do it. If we urged Doug to kill Big Brain, we have already passed Doug in our bloodlust and violent urges. Not content to leave it here, he complicates matters by having Brain issue the command, after Doug leaves, to kill the baby, and for a moment we wonder if Doug's small remaining compassion has become a fatal liability.

Compassion can indeed be a flaw. The gas station attendant, compassionate enough in the first film, shows a glimmer of warmth here before he decides to send the family down the wrong path. So why does he steer them wrong? Treating them humanely would not seem to be a weakness - but he has a larger obligation than to these strangers. His obligation to humankind is not to be paid by kindness to a passing few strangers. He has a sense of the guilt of the Americas and of those who prosper from it (financially, at the very least ). He has a sense of the guilt of those who protect it, whether Army or PD. He tries to break free but knows he has more of a responsibility to Jupiter and his family than to those who made them what they are.


The criticism that nuclear films used to mean something doesn't hold up; audiences thrilled to Them! in 1954 just as they enjoy science fiction and horror escapes today. Scholarly study over the past half century has lent a degree of intellectual credibility to atom-bomb-inspired monsters of the 50s; decades later, it's accepted that Them! and co. are an important document of American fears. Why not take advantage of all that hard critical work to come to a better understanding of scare movies today? Don't discount it simply because it's cosmically gory: the same concerns are there. Godzilla was a monster movie too. Its story of a hugely destructive force unleashed by scientific hubris was inspired by the "Lucky Dragon Incident," when 1954 U.S. nuclear testing on the Bikini Atoll showered Japanese fishermen with radioactive ash. Eight months later, Godzilla was born. The same incident inspired Akira Kurosawa's Record of a Living Being one year later, a high-art version of the same reaction.

The same people who walk out on Hills Have Eyes, disgusted, wouldn't dream of walking out on Black Rain. Give horror its due - putting these horrific topics into a genre film displaces them to a manageable level, letting us avoid having to face directly the real troubles. Craven's original film rephrases discussions of family. Straw Dogs rephrases discussions of self. Countless more rephrase other questions of self-involvement, of one's own body and mind. Aja's The Hills Have Eyes, in true horror fashion, addresses many of these as well, as in the stories of Doug and of Brenda, but it does more. Instead of focusing solely on the selves of the viewers, it forces them to consider an outside group. Godzilla, Record of a Living Being, and Black Rain are all loosely groupable into the sub-sub-genre hibakusha, a Japanese word meaning "victim of radiation," and usually referring to the victims of Fat Man and Little Boy. With what appear at first to be minor, almost cosmetic changes to Craven's film, Aja has turned The Hills Have Eyes into a hibakusha film, and instead of reveling in introspective horror discussions of body and self, turned the subtext to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Goiânia accident (the story involving the scavenging of a radiation source from an abandoned hospital claimed by squatters has a particular resonance with Hills), the Radium Girls, the Lucky Dragon, Chernobyl, and dozens of nuclear and radiation incidents in Scotland, Japan, Belarus, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia, Japan, Argentina, Germany, Spain, Russia, the Ukraine, England, Mexico, Israel, Kenya, Belgium, and the United States, including, Aja pointedly says - moving the story from Nevada to New Mexico - anything that happened at Los Alamos that we don't know about.
No wonder it made people uncomfortable.

Reviewed by Matthew Abrams
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