The greatest horror films of the 1970s, which is to say, some of the greatest horror films of all time, have an almost transcendent quality - they are among the most effective cinematic experiences imaginable. Think Romero's Dawn of the Dead, think Carpenter's Halloween, think Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Not just brilliant horror, some of these are simply great works of cinema.

More on that later. I come to rather tepidly praise Alexandre Aja's new version of The Hills Have Eyes for not sucking nearly so much as every other 70's horror remake in the last few years.

It really did surprise me how very close it came to working. I wasn't expecting When a Stranger Calls levels of inanity, of course (nor was I expecting them from When a Stranger Calls, but that's neither here nor there), but also didn't really anticipate what I got: an almost entirely successful first act. I wouldn't call it "scary" as such, but it wasn't boring either. The film introduces us to the seven members of the Carter family - Big Bob (Ted Levine), the red state patriarch; his mewling wife Ethel (Kathleen Quinlan); their whiny teen kids Brenda (Emilie de Ravin*) and Bobby (Dan Byrd); and married daughter Lynn (Vinessa Shaw) and her tweedy liberal husband Doug (Aaron Stanford).

What's kind of awe-inspiring is that the film doesn't just give them a trait and leave them as caricatures. Rather, they actually have characterizations, some obvious, some revealed only through action (!). Not that it reaches Citizen Kane-levels of psychological study, but for a mid-00's horror film, it's not too shabby. The cast deserves a lot of credit for actually bringing something to the table - none of them are egregiously bad, and Levine and Quinlan have decent careers as unremarkably fine character actors.

They're in the desert, they unwisely follow the advice of the shifty owner of a standard-issue The Last Gas Station In Civilization (precisely the opposite of the original, I might note) and end up stranded when someone draws them into a trap. And for a good thirty minutes, I was genuinely engaged, as the family becomes aware that someone is watching them, and that same someone doesn't want them alive.

Then we see them and the film goes to hell.

The conceit is that nuclear testing created inherited genetic abnormalities in a mining colony (okay...I'll run with that), and so the desert is the home of a clan of hideous mutant cannibals. Which would be a fine, even admirable concept, but the filmmakers absolutely drop the ball in one crucial way: the cannibals, every last one of them, look made-up. There is no suspension of disbelief, no moment of disgust. I was aware at every moment that I was looking at latex prosthetics. Thus we learn yet again that what is off-screen is scarier than what is on-screen.

Without going into specifics (I know you're all anxious to see this film), some Carters die violently, and those that survive are forced to hunt the cannibals for Doug and Lynn's abducted baby. And so the film go straight to hell, turning into a remake of Straw Dogs with fanciful gore effects (including, dumbfoundingly, a precise recreation of that film's iconic "broken eyeglasses" shot). It turns into a standard-issue revenge thriller with three - count 'em - dog-centered deus ex machinae, with only a couple imaginative gore moments to keep it from being totally useless.

Technically, it's decent. It looks good, of course (there doesn't exist a cinematographer who can make the desert look bad), and considering that the editor's full name is "Baxter," it's mostly free of MTV-style frenetic cutting. There is one terrible decision, made in the very first scene of the film, to speed up the action to I'd guess 30 frames per second to show "violent killer POV," but makes the film look like a poor attempt at Benny Hill.

So let me return to where I began: the transcendent genre film. I go to these films not only because I enjoy camp, but because I live in hope that there can be another film as effective as the late-seventies horror boom. This is the film that finally made me realize why there can't. In many plot respects, it's very like Wes Craven's 1977 original, but while that is lacerating and powerful, this is just kinda there. And it hit me, as it has hit so many before me, why this is so: the original boom was full of films made for about $6 by passionate first-timers, and it shows on camera. The Hills Have Eyes (1977), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) - these are grimy, filthy, raw little movies. They have only marginally higher production quality than a snuff film. The Hills Have Eyes (2006), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) - these are Hollywood films, made by film school graduates with impressive pedigrees and a jones to be the next Tarantino. Their films are glossy, overproduced, overbudgeted. This makes them safe. It makes them hermetic little boxes of sterile nonscariness. Not for nothing was the microbudget indie The Blair Witch Project the only really interesting horror film of the post-Scream era. Craven and his ilk are honest; Aja and his are commercial wannabes.

If you'll excuse me, I must go find a copy of Last House on the Left now.