Wes Craven is like that old Batman villain who used to flip a coin to decide whether he'd be good or evil in some circumstance or other. A former college professor who understands and articulates the cathartic and primal need for stories that embody our feelings and lets us deal with them more easily, he's given us such true-crime-styled slasher pictures as Last House on the Left and such horror-coaster rides as A Nightmare on Elm Street. As the producer and éminence grise behind this faithful remake of his Vietnam-era allegory, he's handpicked two talented young filmmakers in writer Grégory Levasseur and director and co-writer Alexandre Aja, whose 2003 French film Haute Tension was essentially Craven gone Gallic.

The result is a meticulously well-crafted meditation on the necessary hubris that assures us nothing too bad's ever gonna happen, told as an unflinching series of attacks on a complicated, three-dimensional family and not the teenage sitting ducks of more stylized fare like the Final Destination or, hey, Nightmare on Elm Street movies. Aja has come through on his stated intention of making "a realistic survival movie in the tradition of John Boorman's Deliverance" (albeit with the usual cheats of superhuman stealth and apparent teleportational abilities of horror-movie bad guys). What's troubling is that this isn't opening in art houses but in multiplexes designed to draw the Grand Theft Auto crowd who get their rocks off on virtually murdering videogame cabbies and cops. Very human, very innocent characters are sadistically brutalized and made to suffer prolonged pain and death-and the official website even lets you play the 3D game! Oh boy!

As with Craven's original three decades back, the remake finds a family on vacation, pulling a camper across the American desert. Retired police detective Bob Carter (Ted Levine) is a big blusterer who doesn't care for his non-macho son-in-law, Doug (Aaron Stanford), generally calling him by his last name. Doug himself is the kind of cell-phone salesman who says he's in the "telecommunications field." So far, so setup. But we quickly see the conflicting layers of repulsion and respect within each man, and similarly endearing and annoying conflicts within mom Ethel (Kathleen Quinlan), married daughter Lynne (Vinessa Shaw, the OD'ing party girl in Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut), and teenagers Bobby (Dan Byrd) and Brenda (Emilie de Ravin of TV's "Roswell" and "Lost," suppressing her native Aussie accent for an effortless Midwestern).

A booby-trapped road forces a wreck in the New Mexico desolation (effectively subbed by Ourazazate, Morocco), somewhere near the site of 1950s aboveground atomic tests. Unlike the animalistic mountain hermits of Craven's original, with their televised-war echo of violence invading everyday life, the predators here are radioactively deformed descendants of miners who stubbornly refused relocation. There's a hackneyed "you made us this way" attempt at justification late in the film, but right from the gleefully choreographed carnage of the opening, in which three rad-suited scientists are pick-axed to pieces, the cannibals evince a sadistic joy. Geez, cannibals, wouldn't it have been easier to have the scientists take you for medical treatment and prepared meals? We won't even get into the rape of an apparent minor.

With deliberate allusions to the worm-has-turned violence of Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs (1971)-the cracked glasses are a nice touch-the film is intelligent and aware, if utterly gross, and on a technical level it's first-rate, with such small, haunting grace notes as the far-off sound of a family dog being killed; the sight of a car graveyard in a blast crater; the resonance of a still-standing atomic village, built to be blown up and now home to the wayward children of the atom.

Yeah, it's strong stuff, and it's supposed to be. Still, amid reports that the MPAA had given the film NC-17 before changes were made, Craven has cackled that he'll "put it all full-strength on the DVD." Thanks, Wes. You have to hope he wonders sometimes: Where's the line between Guernica and a snuff film?

-Frank Lovece