It was true in 1977 and it's true today: Watching an innocent family of tourists being raped, tortured, murdered and eaten by inbred mutants is disturbing business. Heaven help our desensitized culture on the day that ceases to be the case. Despite that slam-dunk premise, Alexandre Aja's remake of Wes Craven's cult classic "The Hills Have Eyes" is unpleasant more for its mechanical sadism than for any visceral impact.
Carefully following Craven's blueprint, "Hills" begins with the Carter family traversing the Southwest in a cramped trailer. With the gun toting conservative pop (Ted Levine), ex-hippie mom (Kathleen Quinlan), wimpy liberal son-in-law (Aaron Stafford), ditsy sexpot (Emilie de Ravin), dorky teen (Dan Byrd), fresh mother (Vinessa Shaw) and wee infant, they're pretty much a cross-section of America. A bad shortcut leaves them stranded in a former nuclear testing area menaced by a clan of deformed miners. One by one, the Carters are gonna get slaughtered unless they learn to fight back.
Craven's low-budget original was a jarring satire on the illusion of the civilized nuclear family, the warped cousin of "Straw Dogs" and a vision that remains harrowing despite its obvious cheapness. Aja actually plays up the connections to the Peckinpah classic -- Stafford's Doug could be the even more repressed brother of Dustin Hoffman's "Dogs" character -- but he lets the audience slip away by concentrating most of his attentions on pushing the boundaries of graphic violence.
As long as Aja ("High Tension") is building suspense, he's surprisingly adept, with cinematographer Maxmime Alexandre's graceful camerawork belying the traumas to come. Aja's assembled a solid cast for the genre and thanks to the mixture of old pros (Quinlan and Levine) and capable youngsters (Byrd and Stafford), sufficient empathy is developed that the pending violence ought to have an emotional impact.
Instead, the director seems beholden to the make-up and gore effects by Gregory Nicotero and Howard Berger, which may actually be too effective. The mutants are so freaky looking that Aja wants to give them exposure, but the more screentime they get, it becomes like watching Sloth from "The Goonies" trying to rape poor Claire from "Lost." With every chopped extremity, every gaping head wound, every unnaturally penetrated orifice, Aja lingers rather than leaving anything to the viewer's imagination. The more I saw, the more my internal barometer shifted from frightened to annoyed. While hardly a good movie, Rob Zombie's "The Devil's Rejects" treated very similar material in a way that left me much more shaken.
Plus, how many lazy Pavlovian scares does Aja throw out in the first act? By halfway, most viewers may be sick of being teased with out-of-nowhere dogs, surprising faces in windows and things that go bump in the night.
The tagline for the new "Hills" is "The lucky ones die first." Actually, the lucky ones skip this exploitative remake and either watch the original or just read a good book. Clearly it's time to start getting ideas from sources other than '70s and '80s horror movies.