For more than a decade, French director Alexandre Aja has been delivering scares, gore and occasionally, a bit of dark humor with films like The Hills Have Eyes, Piranha and more recently, the feature adaptation of Joe Hill's Horns. But how does being French impact his perspective when telling American horror stories?
Vague but notable Hills Have Eyes spoiler ahead!
We asked Alexandre Aja about his perspective as a French director making American horror films when we sat with him during Comic-Con earlier this year to talk about Horns. One of the first things Aja had to say on the subject had to do with the surprise he experienced when he saw how American audiences perceived Aaron Stanford's character Doug Bukowski in The Hills Have Eyes. Apparently, we were rooting for the wrong character -- or characters as it were. As Aja explained it, he wrote the remake of The Hills Have Eyes being "this New York guy" who would've hated a family trip through the desert in a trailer. From the sound of it, he saw that guy as the hero of the story and wasn't prepared for American's to have a different view...
For me it was obvious that the hero was the kind of cowardly New York guy that’s going to man up and become that guy that survives at the end, and showing the movie in America, I realized that people were rooting for the family, and I realized it’s because I come from a place where you don’t do trailer trips like this. You don’t go through the desert with your family on a vacation like that, and for me, it was like ok, so now I understand. I’m French and I’m bringing this different perspective, but I have to be more careful.
At the start of the film, many of us might not have guessed that Doug would be the one to rise up as the hero in The Hills Have Eyes. But that's part of what worked so well about the movie. Being able to surprise viewers is a tricky task, particularly with a genre that regularly aims to shock us. Throughout the movie, we really start to wonder if anyone's going to walk away from the desert-set nightmare.
Is being an outsider to the U.S. an advantage in that respect? As Aja explained it, it isn't as though he was unfamiliar with American pop culture before coming here to make movies. He grew up watching American movies and TV shows and listening to American music. "Everything is mostly coming from America," he explained. "And I love America." But it sounds as though he does see the advantages of looking at U.S. culture from an outside perspective...
It's not because you love America that you can not hate America. And that's what's so great about it. It's that kind of ability of being completely part of and and very critical. And if you look at foreign directors, and I'm thinking of Paul Verhoeven, specifically, he did amazing movies about the American society. I mean, the first Robocop and Starship Troopers, amazing movies about the American mentality and I think it would be very, very different if they were made by somebody who was not American and not a foreign director.
His perspective is just one of the things he has going for his films. Variety and a willingness to take a different approach with each movie is another. If Alexandre Aja is trying to run the gamut within the horror genre, he's doing a fine job of it. The Horns director continues to surprise us with films that stand out as both entertaining and varying degrees of terrifying. The Hills Have Eyes tapped into pure terror and some seriously stomach-turning moments, while Piranha aimed for dark humor and gore galore. Horns is more suspenseful with a twisted, sometimes darkly humorous edge. Horns is different from Maniac and High Tension, and that's no accident.
"I don’t want to be redoing the same movie again and again," Aja told us. "I feel that somehow when you do a horror movie, you can end up doing the same movie again and again. It can end up being like the guy who was doing the haunted house movies, the guy was doing all the survival movies."
Aja went on to explain that he likes the challenge of doing something completely different from everything he's done before, and that's demonstrated in his body of work.
Photo Credit: Horns Facebook
As for Horns, the film stars Daniel Radcliffe as a man living in the aftermath of his girlfriend's brutal murder, and Aja describes the story as a fable and "a dark version of It's a Wonderful Life." And it sounds like the mix of genre appealed to him.
As you'll see when you watch Horns, if you haven't already, the film mixes horror with humor and suspense, as Daniel Radcliffe's Ig Perrish sprouts a set of horns, which give him the ability to draw people's darkest secrets and urges from them. From what Aja says, it sounds like he was eager to tackle the tonal range of Joe Hill's story and allow viewers to experience all of those genre shifts without being pulled out of the story...
You can embrace all the genre, and as a filmmaker I think it was also important to show that we can not be pigeon-holed. The industry right now is all about, if you’re making a horror movie, you’re making a horror movie. A romantic comedy needs to be a romantic comedy. There is no really cross genre, and I think it’s a big mistake.
Beyond Horns, which is already available On Demand, and arrives in theaters this Halloween, Alexandre Aja has a number of projects coming up, including a producer credit on Gregory Levasseur's The Pyramid and he's working on a Scanners TV show that's in development. He's also trying to bring Japanese Manga series Cobra to the big screen.
In terms of what he's reading, at the time of the interview, Aja was actually in the middle of reading Hill's horror NOS4A2. I asked if he saw that one as a potential horror-Christmas movie, but Aja thinks it might work better as a miniseries. "It's so rich and big," he said, of the 2013 novel. "It's hard to picture just a movie."
Aja also mentioned being a fan of Locke & Key and The Cape, the latter of which he described as "an absolutely amazing take on the superhero, very dark side."
Is Alexandre Aja up for bringing another of Joe Hill's stories to the screen? He didn't commit to anything specific, but it sounds like he's definitely up for working with the author again in the future...
I love his work and I love working with him, so we’re definitely going to do some more stuff together.
Catch Horns in select theaters starting October 31.