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Look Away 

A bloody overhaul ofThe Hills Have Eyes offers nothing.

Anyone who remembers the 1977 Wes Craven film The Hills Have Eyes remembers it because a) they had a memorable fuck-or-puke night at the neighborhood drive-in, b) Michael Berryman's uniquely hairless mug, which glared from the video-store horror sections for decades and still represents a moldy teenage sense memory, sucked them into a rental, 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-vs.-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.

In any case, the new, big-budget remake of Craven's film follows the same outline 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-Cleveland 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, neocon 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's bomb testing, complete with still-standing faux villages peopled by fire-scarred mannequins. These are, 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.

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. The innocent are tortured and fondled and killed, the limbs and blood fly in ecstatic torrents, but no amount of sheer sadism and axe heads 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. If the film's intended only as a brand-exploiting gross-out ordeal for teenagers, then it's not worth a fart in the wind.

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More by Michael Atkinson

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