Anyone who remembers the 1977 Wes Craven film The Hills Have Eyes, which was and remains a piece of Milwaukee-beer shit, remembers it because A) they had a memorable screw-or-puke night at the aging neighborhood drive-in; B) Michael Berryman's uniquely hairless mug, which glared from the video store horror sections for decades, sucked them into a rental and still represents a moldy teenage sense memory; or C) critic Robin Wood made Craven's crude quickie seem like essential pop-cult altness. In his infinitely reprintable 1979 essay "An Introduction to the American Horror Film," Wood included Craven's cannibal-redneck-mutant-family bloodbath in his Freudian exaltation of "the return of the repressed," asserting that Hills' urge-versus-guilt "reflection pattern" is seen in the "stranded 'normal' family besieged by its dark mirror-image, the terrible shadow-family from the hills, who want to kill the men, rape the women and eat the baby."
It's a sweet sell, and accurate enough, although reading Wood is typically more thrilling than watching most of the movies he analyzes. (Tobe Hooper's original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, quite obviously the cash cow Craven was looking to milk, may be the exception, remaining a distinctly unsettling and subtextually resonant piece of work.)
In any case, the new, big-budget remake of Craven's film follows the same flowchart and, because it can afford to show us things in mucky detail that the original couldn't, ramps up the savagery several notches. French phlebotomist Alexandre Aja who earned his power-tool pay grade with High Tension sets up the bickering vacationing clan (ex-cop dad Ted Levine, starchy mom Kathleen Quinlan, an array of baby-faced teens and post-teens) with no particular skill, although in Wood's universe the gun-toting, neo-con flavor of the grown-ups would suggest a puzzling sensibility for their opposite numbers. Bloodthirsty, torture-happy, predator Democrats?
Actually, no: The repressed have returned anew, and the evil desert-dwellers are remaindered out of the atomic dustbin of New Mexico bomb testing, complete with still-standing faux villages peopled by fire-scarred mannequins. By themselves, the images of a posed, plastic America built for annihilation, then waiting motionlessly for the destruction to come, can sometimes be startling, as the 1982 found-footage documentary The Atomic Café, made potently clear. And Aja's movie is the first I've seen to use the Bikini Atoll-era ghost-town template as a genre-movie background. But it is, in the end, merely background, a context for more mano-a-mano gore, which is hardly affecting. In fact, the only thing creepier than the score, which blasts in rhythmic waves like a meltdown alarm, is the credits' glimpses of actual fallout mutations. If Aja wanted to curdle young America's complacent milk for good, he would skip the state-of-the-art flesh wounds and focus on what really happened.
In the '70s, Craven had no money for elaborate makeup, and Berryman needed none; today, the laughing, growling Pluto-Jupiter family has distended craniums, Orc teeth, and misaligned eye sockets. (It remains, however, that to get cast as a drooling, disfigured monster in movies like this must be, for an actor, the most humiliating of insults. And where is Berryman's obligatory remake cameo?) The innocent are tortured and fondled and killed, the limbs and blood fly in ecstatic torrents, but no amount of sheer sadism and axe polls slammed into skulls can surmount the grueling abuse of aimless overacting, whether by Robert Joy's skinny dental-crisis maniac (aren't we past the brainless notion that radiation poisoning imbues one with superhuman strength?) or by "normal" teen Emilie de Ravin, whose reaction to having her family butchered like farm hens is to whine and stamp her feet.
The net effect would be doze-inducing if in fact the Dolby didn't attempt to wake the dead. Still, why, one wonders, does Craven's quite craven original film made for nothing, tasteless as hell, and out for a few bucks get to be read as a Zeitgeisty signification of subconscious cultural stress, while its go-for-broke remake, even more dedicated to its own mercenary greed and ardor for suffering, does not? Or will a next-generation theorist find signification in Aja's mess, perhaps even a Gallic assault on American conservatism and hubris? Is a cigar sometimes just a cigar, or always a fat dick? Maybe this is good enough: Craven had some newish, goofy ideas fueled with a certain degree of subversive relevance; Aja has only Craven's 30-year-old ideas, redressed, rebuffed, and rehydrated with red-dye corn syrup. If it's intended only as a brand-exploiting gross-out ordeal for teenagers, then it's not worth a fart in the wind.