At this point, it would be more noteworthy if the remake of a beloved 1970s horror film wasn't a complete waste of time and money, so it almost seems beside the point to knock The Hills Have Eyes—a remake of Wes Craven's 1977 classic—for being trite, derivative and pointless. Director Alexandre Aja at least has a clear knowledge of and affinity for the style he's updating, having done a riff on it in his last film, the non-remake High Tension. But all he adds to Craven's crude but effective original are buckets of extra gore and an increased nastiness.
As in Craven's film, the new Hills follows the Carter family as they take a road trip through the remote New Mexico desert. Dad Bob (Ted Levine) and mom Ethel (Kathleen Quinlan) are celebrating their 25th anniversary, and they've dragged along their children, Bobby (Dan Byrd), Brenda (Emilie de Ravin) and Lynne (Vinessa Shaw), as well as Lynne's husband, Doug (Aaron Stanford), the couple's infant daughter and two dogs named Beauty and Beast.
Thanks to some willfully wrong directions from a sinister gas station attendant, the Carters end up stranded in the desert, where they are picked off by a family of mutant freaks, products of governmental nuclear testing in the 1950s. The nuclear testing angle is the one genuinely fresh element that Aja brings to his remake (the possibility was only hinted at in Craven's original). The director, who's French, has something to say about America's militaristic obsession and abandonment of its underclass, but he doesn't seem to know how to express himself properly within the context of a horror movie. Instead, we get some clumsy symbolism (an American flag attached to the Carters' car that later ends up attached to one of their skulls; another flag on Ethel's shirt, through which she gets shot) and then, when that isn't effective, deformed mutant speechifying ("You made us what we've become"). Every time the movie veers toward political commentary and threatens to become interesting, though, Aja just throws some more severed limbs onto the screen.
They're very artfully shot severed limbs, and Aja, more than directors of recent paint-by-numbers horror remakes like The Amityville Horror and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, understands what really scares his audience. The problem is that he has essentially the same understanding that Wes Craven had 30 years ago, only he's much less subtle about executing it. Whereas Craven's film was brutal and short, Aja and co-writer Gregory Levasseur stretch out the running time and make nauseatingly explicit what was more disturbing in the original's minimalism.
As he did in High Tension, Aja exhibits a certain disturbing contempt for his characters, especially the female ones, and his addition of a foul rape scene serves only to confirm that his rancid sexual politics have yet to improve. More interesting is the arc Aja offers Doug, an expansion on the bare-bones character of the original, as he goes from timid nebbish to righteous avenger of the wrongs done to his family, right down to an homage to the Dustin Hoffman character from Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs. Stanford, who up until now has played mostly petulant teenagers, makes a quantum leap into adulthood with a performance far more interesting than the movie itself. More than most filmmakers in the genre, Aja seems like he wants to do more with horror than just hack people to pieces; unfortunately, hacking people to pieces looks to be the only thing he's good at.