There's nothing like a road trip to bring a group of family and friends together. But if you're a horror buff, you know there's nothing like a road trip to literally tear them apart. Last year's House of Wax and Devil's Rejects were just the latest in a long line of "wrong turn" slasher flicks, most of them owing a huge debt to '70s works from maestro Wes Craven. Now, knee-deep in a glut of '70s-horror remakes, we get this cathartic adaptation of his 1977 road-trip-from-hell saga, and it's surprising how potent Craven's exploitive legacy remains. This new version of The Hills Have Eyes may not be a classic, but give director Alexandre Aja credit for finding new-millennium relevance in Craven's post-Vietnam allegory.
Aja directed last year's stylish-if-ultimately-stupid French horror import High Tension, and he brings a similar sense of shock-flick history to Hills. Granted, the characters stranded in the desert go through the same bland, predictable motions that so many fresh-meat victims before them have; but when they're assaulted by a pack of genetically deformed mutants, the director valiantly tries to portray the family's revenge and retribution as potently as in such classics as Deliverance or Straw Dogs and he almost succeeds.
The film takes its sweet time setting up the dynamic among the characters: an all-American extended family of gun-packing, group-praying, self-proclaimed Republicans and their bitter, wimpy son-in-law Doug. You may suspect something's off when you realize the macho dad is portrayed by Ted Levine, best known as The Silence of the Lambs' dick-tucking serial killer, Buffalo Bill. But until you see half of the family laid to waste, you have no idea just how dark things will get. It's a survival of the fittest or rather, the most rage-filled as a blood-spattered Doug frantically tries to rescue his infant daughter from the clutches of an irradiated, inbred family that preys on human flesh.
It'd be nice to say that the slow, ponderous first half of the film is time well-spent, but Aja doesn't have much of an ear for non-mutant dialogue, and the family dynamic isn't all that interesting. He's much better with foreboding atmosphere: The sense of helplessness and desert isolation is palpable. Likewise, co-screenwriter Grégory Levasseur has a field day with the abandoned village the family discovers, along with their Airstream trailer, which becomes a sort of jail-cell/coffin as the film progresses. And unlike the hit-or-miss Jeepers Creepers films, the makeup artists for this film have created truly nightmarish, repugnant mutants; they look like the extras from Mad Max crossed with the Elephant Man.
Ultimately, what makes this remake worth a look for horror connoisseurs aside from its unrelenting gore, of course is its subtext. The idea of a dormant, bloodthirsty menace rising from its slumber to wreak havoc and revenge on the society that created it had some significance when Craven's film came out; but in this new age of terrorism, audiences are far too familiar with the idea of unchecked aggression biting America in the ass. It's that tension that fuels this Hills.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.