Out in the deserts of New Mexico, a team of scientists are conducting analyses for radiation due to the nuclear weapons tests that took place there in the twentieth century. Suddenly they are interrupted by a bloodied figure stumbling towards them begging for help and they are abruptly attacked by whoever the man was fleeing from... Meanwhile, a family are travelling with their caravan through the desert on their way to California as part of the twenty-fifth wedding anniversary of Big Bob (Ted Levine) and his wife Ethel (Kathleen Quinlan) and pull up at the only gas station around for miles. Youngest son Bobby (Dan Byrd) has the oddest feeling of being watched while they wait, and with good reason as they are heading towards great danger...
Wes Craven produced this, the remake of his influential, cult horror of the seventies and handed the reins to young up and coming genre talents Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur, who both adapted the script while Aja directed. It could be said there was an abundance of horrors of the first decade of the twenty-first century that were largely tributes to the horror of the decade thirty years earlier, The Hills Have Eyes among them, so this version opts for emphasising two elements: the social side, which verges on the blackly satirical, and the violence, which is as nasty as they can get away with.
Yet that opening aside, Aja and Levasseur are happy to let the tension gradually build up without diving headlong into the action. We are made aware that the gas station owner is in cahoots with whoever is out there bumping off the unwary, so when he suggests a shortcut to the family we are already one step ahead of the story. And predictably the vehicles are scuppered when their tires burst after running over a booby trap, but Big Bob thinks it's just the heat that has caused this and the subsequent crash. There's only one thing to do, and that's have Bob walk one way back to the gas station, and his son-in-law Doug (Aaron Stanford) walk the other way to see what's up ahead.
As this goes on, Bobby heads off in pursuit of one of their two pet dogs who has zoomed off after barking at something unseen beyond the nearest hill. The sun-bleached landscape is shot in an appropriately alien fashion, making it all the more unnerving when Bobby finds his pet disemboweled among the rocks, and then meets an unfortunate accident himself. Once Big Bob reaches his the station, all hell is poised to break loose, particularly when the owner blows his own brains out with a shotgun and someone knocks Bob unconscious. Following this what basically happens is much as the original, with two groups of people, two families, going hammer and tongs to destroy each other before the other destroys them, but there's a depth behind the expected havoc.
Yes, this version has further pretentions to social comment than the original and appears to be positing a civil war between America's haves and have-nots. Above a criticism of the U.S.A.'s nuclear testing policy which has rendered its villains bloodthirsty mutants, and possibly cannibals to boot, is a statement that an underclass is about to rise up and demand, if not the right to murder their oppressors as they do here, then the right to take revenge on the indignities they suffer so that others higher up the scale may survive comfortably. This is a provocative aspect that sadly doesn't get enough space to breathe in bewtween all the baby kidnappings and pickaxes in craniums that make up the greater part of the second half, but if you really must remake old movies for new audiences, then Aja and Levasseur are wise to build on the themes of the predecessor, and perhaps unnecessarily that of Straw Dogs as the namby pamby liberal Doug is forced to turn he-man against the onslaught. Music by tomandandy.