Why this might not seem so easy

With a record of delivering ultra-gory studio horrors to multiplex audiences, French-born director Alexandre Aja does not appear an obvious candidate for auteurist appreciation. But a closer look at his eclectic filmography reveals interesting thematic preoccupations and formal consistencies, even despite, and probably because of, his love of trash aesthetics, ‘low’ genres and characteristically garish film style.

Recent forays into literary adaptation, magical realism and a slightly ‘softer’ aesthetic with Horns (2013) and The 9th Life of Louis Drax (2016) have disrupted a solid run of hard-R American horror films for Aja, with his remakes of The Hills Have Eyes (2006), Mirrors (2008) and Piranha 3D (2010) putting him firmly on the radar in the US. New release Crawl (2019) finds Aja back in his visceral element with a stripped-down schlock premise – a father and daughter are menaced by hungry alligators – primed to deliver excitement and excessive viscera, a down to business approach established in his breakout French hit, the appropriately titled High Tension (2003).

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What remains consistent across these films is a love of reimagining and distorting original material, often with collaborator and co-writer Grégory Levasseur. Whether it be revising American horror classics through modern eyes, transposing and exchanging tropes from international horror, or condensing expansive novels into tacky, hyper-sentimental spectacles, there is a sense of fun and subversion inherent to these films. Mischief shines through in even the most excessive of his special-effects-driven extravaganzas.

Switchblade Romance (2003)

The best place to start – Switchblade Romance

High Tension (aka Switchblade Romance) is frequently held up as Aja’s most accomplished and exciting work, combining as it does a fun story, gleefully violent aesthetic and a host of appealing, sleeve-worn cinematic influences primarily drawn from American independent horror of the 1970s. Here, a pair of attractive 20-somethings, Marie (Cécile de France) and Alexia (Maïwenn), are pursued across the French countryside by a crazed, circular-saw-wielding truck driver played with sadistic glee by frequent Gaspar Noé collaborator Philippe Nahon.

Despite a convoluted last minute twist – laying the groundwork for a recent penchant for narrative rug-pulling (Mirrors, Horns, The 9th Life of Louis Drax) – Aja keeps things remarkably stripped down, narratively speaking. The simplest of stalk ‘n’ slash scenarios is concocted in which to demonstrate a conversely maximalist visual approach. Aja wallows in staging lavishly brutal murder scenes, excessively prolonged hide and seek pursuits and elaborately down and dirty chase scenes. A saturated, Michael Bay-esque colour palette and erratic editing only add to the feeling of trash intensity.  

Aja also self-consciously alludes to Craven, Hooper and the like with his horror cues – the spooky rural house, the hick villain, the sexually liberated young women menaced by a psycho with his phallic weapon. It is no wonder that his next venture would find him literally remaking a Wes Craven classic. It’s a breathlessly entertaining film and the perfect primer for his American work.  

The Hills Have Eyes (2006)

What to watch next

Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (1977) perfectly encapsulates a spirit of subversion inherent to certain independent American horror films of the 1970s. Dramatising the conflict between an all-American nuclear family on vacation and the inbred, cannibalistic family of desert-dwellers they come into conflict with, the film’s great achievement is to find no definitive villains in the piece, portraying both parties as complex, rotten and brutal, and prepared to go to any lengths to protect their own. In the wake of Vietnam, Watergate and an economic downturn, this ambivalence feels especially potent. The visual style meanwhile is coolly observational, almost documentary-like in its matter of fact camerawork and realistic makeup and practical effects. 

Fast forward 30 years and Aja’s take on the material, made with the blessing of executive producer Craven, remains relatively faithful to the narrative of the original. But it differs in almost every conceivable way formally and, apparently, politically. Here, the nuclear family is presented emphatically, almost comically, as a host of caricatures stripped from popular Americana, albeit shown consistently as the heroes of the story.

The film’s narrative of empowerment and reinstatement of the family unit in the face of an unequivocally monstrous ‘other’ proves the exact opposite of Craven’s film. The patriarch’s inventive dispatch of the enemy in graphically rendered, CG-enhanced detail, accompanied by a pounding hard rock score, triggers the basest of catharsis for viewers keen to forget how long they had to sit and watch the defilement of blonde, blue-eyed women at the hands of barely characterised monstrous wrong’uns. 

Piranha (2010)

It would all be regressive if Aja, rather than simply sate his audience’s sadistic desire to see enemies vanquished and families reunited, did not go a few dozen steps too far, gorging us on gung-ho retributive violence to the point of nausea. Moreover, just as Craven’s film flirted with Vietnam imagery and the moral complexities of conflict in the wake of a recently lost American war, Aja self-consciously alludes to 9/11 and the contemporaneous conflicts in Afghanistan, his heroes tooling up and raiding primitive houses in a desert setting in the aftermath of an atrocious act of random terror.

Aja’s commitment to excess and vulgarity as a prism through which to satirically interrogate particularly American proclivities hits even greater heights – or lower depths, depending on your outlook – with his Piranha remake, best paired with The Hills Have Eyes as a fully immersive dive into the Aja sensibility. Here, an odyssey of Bacchanalian excess at a Florida beach at the height of spring break descends into violent carnage with the arrival of thousands of hungry piranha fish. 

Juxtaposing the horned-up and wildly objectifying aesthetic of Wet ‘n’ Wild videos in its early scenes, with a staggeringly violent and prolonged CG spectacle of human terrorisation and disembowelment, Aja operates at his most unapologetically reckless and irresponsible. But there is savage wit to be found too. As the film lavishes so much leering attention and puerile humour on beautiful naked bodies only to wallow in their graphic destruction, it speaks to a kind of disgust for a culture that appears fully committed to its own hyper-sexualisation and disposability. Aja’s childish cruelty remains, by and large, rather fair and mild, but an undercurrent of acidic humour runs through this otherwise unapologetically silly film.

Horns (2013)

Where not to start

Mirrors is Aja’s only real horror misfire. Nothing feels quite right about it, from the miscasting of Kiefer Sutherland (an uncomplicatedly tough, macho screen presence in the wake of his TV show, 24) as a clueless nebbish ex-cop caught up in a Scooby Doo-level story about a cursed department store, to the pairing of a gore-hound genre maximalist like Aja with the kind of subtle scares and subtleties from the supernatural Asian horror source material. Aja throws everything at the film nevertheless, including heavy CG and lashings of gore, all to little atmospheric effect. But it’s worth enduring the mess for a delightfully ludicrous final twist. 

Less fun are the aforementioned literary adaptations, Horns and The 9th Life of Louis Drax, neither of which find a consistent tone across their expansive runtimes. Unsurprisingly, Aja is most at home with the more horror and satirically inclined genre exercise Horns, which, if nothing else, sees him again delve into refreshingly unrepentant crass humour. Unfortunately, it also finds him lean in a little too hard into his penchant for twists and turns. Though in that regard, Louis Drax fares worse. Too glib and sentimental – two qualities that otherwise never define Aja’s work – the film drags until an insane ending that at least injects a little fun into proceedings.