You could look at “The Hills Have Eyes” as a pointed political statement, a nasty revenge piece in which a Republican family is brutalized by a pack of mutant cannibals, the offspring of miners who were exposed to government atomic weapons testing in the desert.
But that would entail using your brain. And after sitting through this remake of the 1977 cult favorite, you won’t feel like using your brain for much of anything.
Horror fans who like their movies the gorier the better should be satisfied with French director Alexandre Aja’s interpretation of the Wes Craven classic. (Craven himself apparently was pleased — he serves as one of the producers.) Everyone else will feel as if they, too, have taken an ax to the head. Then again, they’re not the target audience — and the target audience doesn’t read reviews anyway.
Aja and his best friend and co-writer, Gregory Levasseur, grew up watching and worshipping American horror films from the 1970s, and their faithful homage about a serial killer terrorizing young women in the woods, “High Tension,” was released in the United States last year. Like that film, and like the most effective examples of the genre, their remake of “The Hills Have Eyes” is sufficiently moody in the beginning as it slowly builds suspense.
Retired police detective “Big Bob” Carter (Ted Levine) and wife Ethel (Kathleen Quinlan) are on a road trip from Cleveland to San Diego for their wedding anniversary. They’ve packed up the sport utility vehicle and towed along an old Airstream trailer to accommodate all their kids: teenagers Bobby (Dan Byrd) and Brenda (Emilie De Ravin), oldest daughter Lynn (Vinessa Shaw), her husband Doug (Aaron Stanford) and their infant daughter.
(Big Bob is fond of his firearms and doesn’t approve of Doug because he’s a scrawny, passive cell-phone salesman — and worse, a Democrat. Mom wears an American flag T-shirt and defers to everything Big Bob says.)
The family’s German shepherds, Beauty and Beast, also are along for the ride and ultimately will play a crucial role in the possibility of anyone’s survival. No one ever asked Rin Tin Tin to do the things these dogs are required to do.
Dad pulls over at a gas station in the middle of nowhere — Morocco standing in for New Mexico — which is the last stop for 200 miles, inhabited only by a creepy, haggard attendant (Tom Bower) who fills up the tank and suggests a short cut. Through the hills.
Miles away from the highway and any signs of civilization, they naturally have a well-orchestrated accident. The believable family banter from earlier turns to believable frustration and fear as they argue over the best way to find help.
Aja and Levasseur were good enough to deliver characters who feel like actual human beings. Byrd, as the youngest child forced to stand in as man of the house, and Stanford (star of the low-budget “Tadpole”), who undergoes a complete internal transformation, are especially good.
All the while, though, the family is being watched by people who barely resemble human beings. These misshapen misfits, with names like Lizard, Ruby and Papa Jupiter, are more like redneck Picasso figures. With eyes on one side of their nose and a taste for blood in their mouths, they take out the Carters one by one in sadistic ways that are often disturbing to watch. Then again, the point of the genre is to disturb, so in that sense Aja has succeeded.
He has at his disposal the benefit of CGI to create visual effects that were lacking in Craven’s low-budget original. And as such, he holds nothing back. You’ll see the beatings, the shootings, the stabbings, and every drop of blood that results. You’ll see a character tied up and burned, and another whose heart has been ripped out just in time for dinner.
Clearly, Aja isn’t interested in the idea that it’s what you don’t show that’s more frightening.