Starring: Ted Levine, Kathleen Quinlan, Dan Byrd, Vinessa Shaw, Aaron Stanford, Emilie de Ravin
The version being reviewed is unrated. For the record, the theatrical cut is rated R for Strong Gruesome Violence and Terror Throughout, and for Language
I don't ask a lot from a horror movie. I really don't. An engaging story (originality is preferred, but not required), a character or two worth caring about, and a creepy sense of atmosphere is all I ask for. Sadly, director Alexadre Aja can't even manage that. Apart from a few legitimate shocks, this movie is a total waste of time.
I haven't seen the original 1977 thriller directed by Wes Craven, but according to James Berardinelli, this one is better. He wrote: "The story has been tightened up, the acting is better, and the blood-and-gore effects aren't as hokey." Considering how bad this movie is, I should be thankful that I haven't seen the original. I thought this might be a surprising idea as I was writing this. Then I remembered "My Soul to Take."
The story, such as it is (and it's not a very strong plot), is about the Carter family and their ill-fated trip to San Diego. Big Bob (Levine) is the gun-toting, liberal-hating ex-cop (I kept thinking of the nuts in Georgia who took advantage of their "open carry" law and would bring their guns to Starbucks, Wal-Mart and the like). Ethel (Quinlan) is his Bible-thumping wife. Vinessa Shaw plays Lynne, his oldest daughter (the dress she wears is frumpy enough to make her look like one of those fundamentalist Mormons we heard about when Warren Jeffs was arrested) who is married to Doug (Stanford), a liberal, gun-hating, borderline hipster (who turns out to be the world's biggest pussy). They also have a baby together, which is obviously important to the film's plot. Also on board are Bobby (Byrd), the teenage son that wants to emulate Big Bob, and Brenda (de Ravin), his snotty older sister. Big Bob insists on taking the "scenic route" to San Diego, much to the chagrin of his family, and makes the mistake of taking a short-cut to the highway (offered by the obligatory inbred-looking hick, played by Tom Bower).
Everyone does stupid things in horror movies. Without that fact, we wouldn't have horror movies. The key is to raise the tension to levels where we don't notice or if we do, don't care. "Halloween" did that. "Fear" did that. "Sinister" did that. "The Hills Have Eyes" does not do that. These people are dumb. And when I say dumb, I mean dumb enough to the point where killing them is a public service. They do the usual idiotic things, such as trusting a guy whose family history involves inbreeding going back at least five generations, splitting up when they're stranded, and running after the dogs into the middle of nowhere (these dogs get loose so many times that I wanted to call the Human Society). But seriously, how can you not notice two deformed psychos in your trailer, especially if one of them is sexually assaulting a family member ten feet away? That's not just stupid, it's negligent.
After three movies, I firmly believe that Alexandre Aja is a hack filmmaker. His movies are much more graphically violent (the film had to have 2 minutes cut to avoid an NC-17, and considering the MPAA's leniency when it comes to violence, that's saying something). But so was "Saw," and that was genuinely scary. Why? Because James Wan knows what he's doing, whereas Aja is the Wes Anderson of horror movies: a talentless douchebag who is convinced he's making something innovative and important.
The bottom line is that the movie sucks not because it's gratuitously violent and gory (that's to be expected), but because it's so goddamn boring! Pacing is essential for any kind of a thriller, and Aja doesn't have a clue.
At least the scenery looks nice, although I don't think Big Bob would be able to appreciate the irony that it was filmed in Morocco, and not 'Murica.