Horror director takes to Hills
The French are famous for a lot of things, but making horror movies isn't one of them. Just try to name one French fright flick that has caught your attention lately-besides Alexandre Aja's terrifying 2003 effort, High Tension. As Aja explains on the line from L.A., he's fully aware of his country's pitiful record when it comes to scary films. "I'm not the only one in France who loves horror movies," he says. "We are not like millions; we are a few hundred thousand, but it's not enough to make for a French horror industry. It's a strange thing, and I'm really sad of that."
Aja is doing his best to put France on the horror-movie map, though. He's following up High Tension with a remake of American horror master Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes, the 1977 shocker about a clan of cannibalistic mutants who waylay a vacationing Cleveland family in the desert. (The new Hills Have Eyes opens in Vancouver on Friday, March 10.) Craven rounded up Aja and High Tension cowriter Grégory Levasseur after seeing a screening of their film. "At the first meeting he asked us, 'Do you know The Hills Have Eyes?' and we said, 'Yeah, of course, and we also know [Craven's notorious 1972 debut] The Last House on the Left.' I mean, you can see the obvious reference [to Last House] in High Tension. Then he asked us to find a new way to justify making The Hills Have Eyes today, and we came back to him with the idea of a nuclear-testing background."
Horror fans may wonder why, after finding success with their own no-holds-barred creation, the two cutting-edge filmmakers would want to tackle a remake of a '70s flick that wasn't that frightening to begin with. "You know, the reason why we loved the original film is not because it's the most scary movie ever made," Aja responds. "People mainly love the original Hills Have Eyes because it's kind of fun; it's like dark humour with [character actor] Michael Berryman and the other guy with a lot of makeup and overacting. But the new Hills Have Eyes is not that at all. We tried to just do everything to make it more disturbing, in the spirit of Deliverance or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre."
Although there's plenty of gory violence in both of Aja's last films, he claims that the blood and brains don't get splattered around just for gross-out effect. "The more-blood-the-better approach would be films like the [early] Peter Jackson stuff and Evil Dead," he points out. "Ours is not exactly that. I think when you're doing that very realistic kind of slasher/survival film like High Tension, to get a better identification of the audience with the character in the film you need to see what the character is watching. So the gore and the violence is always justifying the story."
As nasty as it gets in spots, Aja's Hills Have Eyes doesn't follow the current horror trend-as seen in the sadistic Saw films and the more recent Hostel-of focusing on drawn-out scenes of torture. "My position is always to be on the side of the victims," he says, "because what I love in these kinds of survival stories is that they're not only movies, they are like experimentation or something; it's like you are living something instead of just watching it. That's why I don't see myself doing a movie one day about enjoying torturing people, because I can't identify myself with someone who is torturing someone else. Maybe when it's funny, you know, when it's dark humour or when it's over-the-top. I like that."
One method Aja and Levasseur employ in both High Tension and The Hills Have Eyes to keep viewers riveted is to put young children and babies at risk. It's the opposite approach seen in body-count franchises like Friday the 13th and Final Destination, where you couldn't care less if the nauseating victims make it through another scene alive. "If you don't feel for the people on-screen, you can't fear for them," Aja notes, "and I think the baby in Hills and the little boy in High Tension are just a way to make the audience take a position. It's like, 'Okay, we want the baby to be alive and we want the little boy to survive.'?"
At 27, Aja has made his mark as a visceral filmmaker who's extremely adept at depicting the horrific evil that humans can do. But he's not restricting himself to maniacal home invaders and deranged desert dwellers. Because Stanley Kubrick's The Shining is his favourite movie, he plans to make "a ghost picture" next. "We want to try something else," he explains, "something on the other side of fear. You can really scare with real life, and you can also really scare with what doesn't exist."