Arts and Entertainment your connection to The Boston Globe

Scare me once. Scare me twice.

The remake of 1977's 'The Hills Have Eyes' is not just another splatter movie. Then again, neither was the original.

We enjoy watching B-movies because life is a B-movie: life, with its ungroomed edges, its humdrum pauses, its inability to sustain an atmosphere or be wholly convinced by a plotline. And B-movie horror, particularly of the splatter/slasher variety, satisfies our profane intuition that all of this cheap scenery has been put in place merely to be flattened at the stroke of a maniac or a zombie.

Or a family of cannibals, as in Wes Craven's ''The Hills Have Eyes." Made in 1977 for $300,000, ''Hills" is actually more of a B-plus movie: The nonsense plot and clunky effects mandated by the genre cannot prevent a certain technical artistry from seeping through.

The Carter family -- Big Bob, the retired cop, God-fearing Ethel, three grown-up children, a son-in-law, and an infant granddaughter -- are mobile home-ing through the Nevada desert, passing between Air Force firing ranges and nuclear test sites, on their way to California. Doom crouches over them like a gargoyle.

As their great air-conditioned, middle-class barge pulls into a remote gas station, you can hear the emptiness snicker around it. The travelers emerge, blinking and frowning, uttering brief phrases, giving off little whiffs of personality into the dry air; they are in the classic pre-horror state, expertly created by writer/director Craven -- a sort of trance of normalcy, of everyday-ness, unaware that it has already been superseded. A few miles, one wrong turn, and a fender-bender later, the Carters are being set upon by a split-nosed cannibal chief and his brood. Rape, murder, scarfing up of torn limbs, etc.

A remade version of ''Hills," produced by Craven but written by the French director Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur, is currently in theaters. Aja and Levasseur made their bones, so to speak, with 2003's ''Haute Tension," in which the members of a nice French family are wordlessly razored to pieces in their cozy farmhouse. To the central B-movie conceit of Craven's ''Hills" -- the standoff between civilization (the Carters) and barbarism (the cannibals) -- the filmmakers have brought certain contemporary tints and tones.

The violence is lavishly done: Aja choreographs his ax-in-head scenes with all the technique and glossy sensuality of a Pussycat Dolls video. The gruff patriarch Big Bob is now a Republican, and his son-in-law, Doug, a puling Democrat who doesn't like guns. Bob's younger daughter, Brenda, played by Emilie de Ravin, has become a sex bomb: The camera prowls over her sunbathing body in a way that hadn't quite been invented in 1977 -- it would take ''Halloween" and the ''Friday the 13th" franchise in the '80s to cement the synaptic connection between exposed teen flesh and imminent attack.

And as the pulchritude has been amplified, so has the monstrosity: The flesh-eaters in the new ''Hills" are no longer just ugly, they are officially mutated (by nuclear testing, as it happens). There was, of course, a notable element of physical freakishness in the 1977 version, but it was concentrated in the extraordinary person of Michael Berryman (Pluto), whose long, melancholy skull, delicate nose, lashless eyes, and lack of fingernails gave him the air of a mother reptile who has misplaced her eggs. Aja's radioactive hillbillies have ears in the wrong places and a bit of a grudge: ''You people made us what we've become," croaks one Elephant Man-style being from his Bath chair.

The film critic Robin Wood famously declared in his introduction to ''American Nightmare: Essays on the Horror Film" (1979) that ''the true subject of the horror genre is the struggle for recognition of all that our civilization represses and oppresses." Wood was a big Craven fan, finding all manner of significance in Craven's first feature ''Last House on the Left" (1972) and also in ''The Hills Have Eyes," where, as he wrote, ''the stranded 'normal' family" is ''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."

Watching the original ''Hills" now, in the weary light of 2006, the suspicion arises that Wood and critics like him were gulled by the canny Craven -- a well-educated and strategically pretentious writer who larded his screenplay with myth references as if seeking precisely this kind of inflamed scholarly response. The cannibal daddy is named Jupiter; his sons are Mars and Pluto; the Carters have two German shepherds called Beauty and the Beast (Beauty is an early casualty); and so on.

Nice as it might be to imagine that pulp artists like Craven have a mainline to the dark side, they generally don't; that's why they're pulp artists. What they have (or had) is low ambitions and a low budget, and the ability to make something of this coincidence. With ''Hills," Craven moved fast, didn't flinch, and squeezed a nutty kind of ensemble intensity out of his actors. The movie, which was stamped with the sensational X rating before some last-minute cuts brought it within the pale of an R, was a huge hit at drive-ins around the country, supplanted at last by the beer-smuggling Burt Reynolds juggernaut ''Smokey and the Bandit."

Reynolds may still be with us, but the drive-ins are gone, and the X is too, swallowed by the porn industry. When ''adult" movies began to brand themselves triumphantly with double- and triple-X's, the Motion Picture Association of America was forced to create the NC-17 rating -- explicit sex or violence but with meaning, importance, some sort of highbrow redemption. The original ''Hills," having none of these things, was a perfect X, pure vulgar arousal. Cheap thrills are harder to come by than one might imagine, and strangely, as the 2006 ''Hills" (rated R) administers jolt after high-tech jolt to our corroded terror-receptors, we find ourselves growing nostalgic for the shabby little shocker from 1977.

Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives