Natasha Richardson and Liam Neeson

Horror sequels and remakes? What they usually signify is one more trip to the well, with a bucket of blood. But while "The Hills Have Eyes 2" -- a sequel to a remake -- may inhabit familiar geography, screenwriters Wes Craven and son Jonathan have shifted the dramatic landscape. . .

Horror sequels and remakes? What they usually signify is one more trip to the well, with a bucket of blood. But while “The Hills Have Eyes 2″ — a sequel to a remake — may inhabit familiar geography, screenwriters Wes Craven and son Jonathan have shifted the dramatic landscape: The scene is still the A-bomb test site of Wes Craven’s 1977 original, and it includes the mutant cannibals of Alexandre Aja’s 2006 remake. This time, though, the victims are National Guardsmen, the issues include training and equipment, and the entire scenario adds up to an unmistakable critique of the war in Iraq.

The politics of “Hills 2″ won’t enlist any new converts to the horror ranks, but existing fans will be drawn to the combination of visceral tension, violent payoff and the patented Craven gift for innovative gore.

Pic bowed to $10 million in North America and landed in seventh place over the weekend.

The scene is a 1,300-square-mile patch of New Mexico, where the Carter family of the previous “Hills” pics met their fate at the hands of mutant psycho Quasimodo look-alikes, bio-victims of government nuclear tests. Immediately upon arriving, the “Hills 2′s’ ” National Guard patrol is set upon by the grotesque cave-dwellers, who hit and run with such eerie speed that the Guardsmen — all young and untrained — are immediately unnerved. It doesn’t do much for their confidence that the team of scientists and military they were supposed to meet have all vanished.

While nothing is as broadly political as the impalement — by an American flag — perpetrated in the 2006 “Hills Have Eyes,” the sentiments are obvious enough. Napoleon (Michael McMillian), the smartest member of the co-ed Guard group that finds itself in a hostile desert, is challenged about his lack of enthusiasm for the war.

“Presidents lie too much,” he says. He’s given little slack: “The last president who told the truth was Truman,” barks his commanding officer, Sarge (Flex Alexander), “and you know what he said? ‘The buck stops here!’ “

Sarge and Napoleon are never going to get along, but the way things are working out with the natives, it really won’t matter.

In their first outing as a screenwriting team, the Cravens don’t offer a lot in terms of plot — mostly the imperiled attempt to become unimperiled. But with the exception of a ridiculous “Are you OK?” when the person has been abducted, beaten and raped (and which may have been intended as a “Scream”-style joke line), the dialogue sparks and the humor relieves without intruding on the mood of terror. A scientist offering a cheery “Hi!” to a ghoul lunching on intestines? How can you not laugh?

Helmer Martin Weisz, whose background is largely in musicvideos, meets the challenge of creating dread in broad daylight, before the entire cast of soldiers and carnivores heads underground, into the warren of mines and tunnels where the mutants dwell.

Cinematographer Sam McCurdy’s work is really fine — the outside world is crisp, creepy and khaki-colored, while his subterranean shooting is in surroundings so deprived of light you’re surprised you can make out what’s down there. But, oh yes, you can. And you probably won’t like what you see.

The Hills Have Eyes 2

Production

A 20th Century Fox release of a Fox Atomic presentation of a Craven/Maddalena Films and Peter Locke production. Produced by Wes Craven, Marianne Maddalena, Locke. Executive producer, Jonathan Debin. Co-producers, Jonathan Craven, Christina Anderson, Cody Zweig. Directed by Martin Weisz. Screenplay, Wes Craven, Jonathan Craven.

Crew

Camera (color, Deluxe prints), Sam McCurdy; editors, Kirk Morri, Sue Blainey; music, Trevor Morris; music supervisor, David Franco; production designer, Keith Wilson; art director, Alistair Kay; set decorator, Luca Tranchino; costumes, Janie Bryant; special makeup and effects, Gregory Nicotero, Howard Berger; supervising sound editor (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), Jonathan Miller; sound designer, Stuart Provine; visual effects supervisor, Jamison Goei; special effects supervisor, Jason Troughton; stunt coordinator, Cedric Proust; assistant director, Christopher Landry; casting, Mark Bennett. Reviewed at Mann Chinese 6, Los Angeles. MPAA rating: R. Running time: 89 MIN.

With

Napoleon - Michael McMillian Amber - Jessica Stroup Missy - Daniella Alonso Crank - Jacob Vargas Sarge - Flex Alexander Delmar - Lee Thompson Young Spitter - Eric Edelstein Papa Hades - Michael Bailey Smith

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