Doing a comparison of The Hills Have Eyes original vs remake was challenging in the same way that the Black Christmas comparison was, although for the opposite reason. In this case both films were so well done that an obvious winner wasn’t instantly apparent as it is in some cases (ahem Dark Water).
Both films follow the same basic storyline pretty closely (not a given for all remakes) which involves a family crossing the desert on their way to California. Soon after stopping at a remote gas station, they crash their vehicle and become stranded. It’s not long before a family of cannibals descends upon them and shit gets real.
The main thing that makes both the original and the remake so effective, is that the characters are realistic and well-defined. I’m glad that the filmmakers in both cases understood that you don’t need long drawn-out scenes of exposition and character-development to make the viewer attached to the protagonists. Both directors wisely opt to efficiently establish everything you need to know about the characters with minimal, but telling, interactions. In both films you really feel for these people who are trapped in a horrible situation and feel that they are doing the best they can to figure a way out of it.
Both films are also brutal, mean-spirited stories without any levity once the action gets under way, which is what I love about them. It’s great to see serious, visceral horror with characters you actually care about. Movies like this also aren’t shy about killing them off so the stakes are actually high because any of them could die at any time. I find this to be a much more satisfying experience than waiting for a cast of cheap stereotypes to get butchered.
While the story and characters of the original are great, there are certainly some areas that could have been tightened up a bit. First on my list would be the outfits worn by the cannibal family, some of which have a bit of a “Flintstones-Halloween-costume” vibe to them. In addition to munching on human flesh, said family also had a bit of a habit of chewing the scenery and some of the performances would have been more effectively menacing had they been tempered a bit. Another issue is the gore which, while certainly good for the era, at times looks a bit dated and fake by today’s standards.
To be fair, the remake has the advantage not only of modern special effects, which look fucking great by the way, but also a solid story that is already laid out for filmmakers. Still, there were some interesting alterations that director Alexandre Aja made to Wes Craven’s original film. Perhaps the most noticeable of these is that the cannibals are significantly more deformed in the remake which is a result of nuclear radiation from tests performed in the area over the years. This makes them more monstrous than the cannibals in the original whose minor abnormalities stem back to a patriarch born with a mysterious genetic condition. Right from the brilliant opening title sequence that features chilling footage of real nuclear bomb detonation, Aja establishes nuclear proliferation as an underlying theme throughout the film and in effect the true genesis of the monsters themselves. To this point the monsters could in fact be perceived as representing the merciless destruction caused by nuclear weapons when used against average civilians.
In conclusion, the 2006 version is a rare example of exactly what a remake should be. You take a film from decades before that has a solid, worthwhile story and update it with sleeker production values and more visceral gore for today’s desensitized audiences. The most important thing however, is to keep the elements that made the original film work in the first place, which Aja has done while infusing it with his own style of gorgeous brutality. If more remakes followed his example the concept of remakes in general wouldn’t carry the well-earned stigma of simply being a way for Hollywood to make a quick buck with minimum effort.