One nuclear family meets another in ''The Hills Have Eyes," a giddy and horrifying remake of Wes Craven's '70s cult slasher by the same name.
When a tightknit clan of suburban Americans gets sidetracked on a driving vacation, they wind up stranded in the middle of a desert that secretly crackles with life -- and death. Newly retired detective ''Big" Bob Carter (Ted Levine) and his brood drive off the beaten path on their cross-country trip, landing themselves in the middle of a wasteland of abandoned atomic test sites. In the devastated hills lives a family of radiation-mutated, inexplicably cannibalistic savages who terrorize, kill, and eat whatever -- or whoever -- crosses their path. When the blood starts flowing, it's up to Carter's resourceful teenage son, Bobby (Dan Byrd), and neurotic son-in-law, Doug (Aaron Stanford), to keep the monsters at bay and the family together.
Thanks to a new screenplay, written by two young French filmmakers -- Alexandre Aja (who also directs) and Gregory Levasseur, the pair behind the recent ''High Tension" -- and production assistance by Craven himself, this ''Hills" is a far cry from its cheesy and predictable predecessor. ''Gruesome" doesn't begin to describe the horrors that are revealed on-screen here: From complete dismemberment to extreme shotgun violence, Aja & Co. not only pull out the stops on this one, they decimate them. Best (and worst) of all is that the most horrendous of the mutant clan's brutalities take place in broad daylight, leaving the family without much hope or refuge.
Filmed in almost maddeningly sharp digital detail, the goriest of scenes wind up being a nauseating confusion of blood and body parts so gracefully filmed and edited that the ghastly action is as enthralling as it is completely repulsive. Keeping true to its cult-classic roots, Aja's film interrupts the terror to occasionally be profoundly corny: The music swells to grandiose proportions whenever Doug triumphs at some impossible feat, and at one point he actually uses a tiny American flag as a lethal weapon against the nuclear bogeymen.
Despite the truly traumatizing gore, ''Hills" is surprisingly artful and, believe it or not, about as much fun as a grisly horror movie can be. It's the kind of extreme fright-fest that inspires an audience's bubbling nervous laughter, one-eye-closed cringing, and probably a pretty shaky call home to mom after high-tailing it out of the theater.
Erin Meister can be reached at email@example.com.