I learned to appreciate horror films in college. I’m not a huge fan of the genre, but I was pleased to learn that some film scholars take horror movies very seriously, and that many of the best have a subtext that’s more interesting than many straight-ahead dramas. A good subtext isn’t a prerequisite for a good scare, but it’s one of the things that can make a horror movie really good.
The Hills Have Eyes is a refreshing example.
Death of the American Family
R for strong gruesome violence and terror, and language
An American family is traversing the Nevada desert. Dad and mom are celebrating their silver anniversary by dragging their Airstream out to San Diego. To the annoyance of his teenaged daughter, dad insists on taking the scenic route. He takes a “shortcut” that’s not on the map, suggested by the grizzled grease monkey at the last gas station. The shortcut turns out to be a trap set by a village of mutant freaks, descendants of Nevada miners who refused to give up their homes when the DOE conducted atomic testing in the desert.
Bit by bit, our American family is broken up by the mutant cannibals who distract, divide, and kill the family members. I won’t tell you dies goes first or who survives, if anyone. But the list of targets includes, in addition to parents and daughter, the teenaged son, the eldest daughter, her husband, their infant daughter, and the family’s two German shepherds, Beauty and Beast.
Choosing Up Sides
Walter Chaw’s interesting deconstruction of Aja’s last film, High Tension, tipped me off that Aja is a director with something more to say than “boo.” (Although I see that Chaw panned this film and audiences who might like it.)
My first thought was that this was a story about goths and punks taking on the jocks. Our mutants are essentially human, but marginalized and, eventually, self-marginalized. But that doesn’t make for a whole movie, nor does it take into account the government coverups and the atomic atrocities Aja alludes to in the opening credits. For that you need politics.
Politics are introduced to the film in the clash between the family’s center (the father) and its outlier (his son-in-law). After their vehicle is disabled, the two men walk off in different directions looking for help, but not before dad brings out his two guns. His giant revolver he keeps for himself, while the in-law refuses the other pistol. Dad gives it instead goes to the teenaged son, dissing the in-law by saying “he’s a Democrat; he doesn’t believe in guns.” And so the political lines are drawn.
The characters are types, but they’re not pure caricature. Dad is not a just a redneck, nor is the in-law simply a candy-ass bookworm, although that’s the general idea.
Deconstructing the Destruction
We never actually meet the U.S. government, but its nuclear policies are clearly the source of evil in this movie. The mutants are evil, but they were helped along that path by America’s past policies about weapons of war. Aja’s biggest mistake is making this part of message a little too clear. At one point the subtext sneaks into the text itself; a mutant “monologues” (something Roger Ebert calls “Talking Villain Syndrome”), saying that “you” norms have made us mutants what we are today. It would have been better not to leave things more open to interpretation. Nevertheless, The Hills Have Eyes is rich with potential and ripe for deconstruction.
So we’ve made our bed, and now we have to lie in it. We’ve helped create evil, and it’s now attacking our very families. (Is it too much that one of the mutants sits in his room watching “Divorce Court” on TV?)
But what should we do when we are attacked? Bob the elder has experience with a gun and is ready to go to war. But these enemies aren’t like the old enemies, and the old tactics aren’t well-suited to the new threat. Bob the younger is simply a hothead, wanting to shoot the nearest thing that moves. Meanwhile, the one Democrat in the group thinks every idea is stupid and has little to offer in the way of positive strategy.
So What Can I Do
By the end I had played enough mind games with myself, and I wanted to know if Aja had anything useful to say about what could save the American family. Or would he be like the Democrat-in-law at the beginning: all critique and no action.
Refreshingly, Aja wrapped things up with a hopeful message, of sorts. When the mutants first attacked, their first weapons were stealth and surprise, followed closely by distraction. They were coordinated and smart, counting on the family’s panic and hot blood to work against them.
The norms who seem to have the best chances to survive are the ones who don’t panic at the mere sight of the others, who can think on their feet, and who can put themselves into the other guy’s mismatched shoes. We really do need to understand our enemies if we are to defeat them.
What else? How about persistence without stupidity; an acknowledgement that there is evil in the world, but that there are also different ways of seeing things. A willingness to sacrifice is essential, and in the end, a little prayer probably doesn’t hurt either, so long as it’s sincere.