The Hills Have Eyes

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Starring Ted Levine, Kathleen Quinlan, and Aaron Stanford. Rated 18A. For showtimes, please see page 78

Wes Craven must be the most inconsistent horror director of all time. He created Freddy Krueger, who ruled the genre in the '80s, then Craven reinvigorated the '90s slasher scene with the whip-smart and stylish Scream. But he's also responsible for his fair share of turkeys, Deadly Friend and Cursed being among the most widely reviled. And why, oh, why did he bother making The Hills Have Eyes Part II in '85? That shockingly bad follow-up to his low-budget '77 cult fave is one of the most ill-conceived sequels ever. Cripes, even the surviving dog from the first film has a flashback!

Perhaps the guilt and embarrassment associated with his last Hills Have Eyes entry has been gnawing away at Craven for the past two decades, because he's made up for it tenfold by producing a remake of the original that is a tour-de-force of terror and suspense. On the strength of their graphic and gripping 2003 slasher flick, High Tension, he hired the French filmmaking team of director-writer Alexandre Aja and writer Grégory Levasseur, and the result is one of the most exhilarating, intense, and engrossing Hollywood shockers ever made.

A police detective from Cleveland (Ted Levine) and his extended family of six (plus two German shepherds) are en route to California, pulling an '88 Airsteam trailer with an old-school SUV. The realistic dialogue and genuine interaction of the cramped characters quickly seals the impression that these are actual people and not your stereotypical victims-to-be. Once that authenticity is established, you can't help but feel a connection to the family's desperate plight when their vehicle gets sabotaged and they become stranded in the open desert. By the time the slobbering, radiation-mutated freaks descend from the hills to rape and kill the innocent travelers, all the right emotional buttons have been cleverly lined up, and they get pushed again and again when the traumatized survivors regroup and set about to exact revenge and reclaim their stolen baby.

The U.S.-flag antenna on the victims' weathered Suburban gets significant play in the film and instills the underlying theme of America creating its own monsters through atomic weapons-testing, then having to face them one day. You may want to ponder that notion when the flag becomes a killing tool itself and gets planted deep into someone's skull.