The Hills’ are alive with the sound of muuuutaaaants

“The Hills Have Eyes”Fox Searchlight PicturesDirected by Alexandre AjaWritten by Aja and Gregory Levasseur, based on the screenplay by Wes CravenStarring: Aaron Stanford, Kathleen Quinlan, Emilie de Ravin, Dan Byrd and Ted LevineOpens March 10, 2006Rated R/116 minutesThree out of four stars

Imagine, if you will:

You’re traveling cross-country with your family and you decide to take the scenic route through the New Mexico desert. Hey, why not? Brown is a pretty color. You drive off the main road in favor of two-lane highways and creaky gas stations manned by gap-toothed bumpkins with sun-fried brains. Your car breaks down in the middle of nowhere; the A/C isn’t working, and cannibalistic radioactive freaks have tied your dad to a cactus and set him on fire.

At this point you appropriately observe, “We’re f***ed!”

Yes. Yes, you are.

This is the dire situation the Carter family faces in Alexandre Aja’s “The Hills Have Eyes,” a sick and slick remake of Wes Craven’s 1977 original.

The tension builds slowly as the characters develop to the point that we care-just a tad-when axes and barbed wire and bullets fly their way.

Actually, I never really cared about the sexy blond (Emilie de Ravin, who plays Claire on TV’s “Lost”) who breaks out her bikini and suntan lotion as the rest of her family braces itself for impending doom. Nothing says disaffected, selfish youth quite like sunbathing in the face of mortal danger.

Audiences care more about the rest of the clan, including parents Bob and Ethel Carter (Ted Levine and Kathleen Quinlan). Bob is cantankerous and tough and keeps a mean-lookin’ revolver in his glove compartment-which doesn’t sit well with son-in-law Doug (Aaron Stanford), the kind of floppy-haired, unshaven, bespectacled Democrat you might find marching on a college campus. Doug is married to Lynne (Vinessa Shaw) who bounces a baby girl on her lap like she’s dangling bait for the lip-smacking cannibals watching through binoculars. Rounding out the troop is Bobby (Dan Byrd), who, like all young boys named Bobby, must wander away from the others when it’s least safe.

You see, the desert is crawling with mutant cannibals, descendents of the miners who took a big whiff of radiation when our big, bad government tested nuclear bombs in their backyard.

Students of horror flick mythology will know that radiation exposure doesn’t merely kill you-it either turns you into the walking undead, makes you grow to 50-times your size, or, in the case of “Hills,” turns you into the southwestern-grilled cousins of the “Texas Chainsaw” family.

Their reunions must be a bash.

Perhaps you’ve noticed my tone is less than serious. “Hills” director Alexandre Aja pumps-up his action with WWF smack-downs and characters (good and bad) that take a lickin’ but keep on tickin’ long after they should be dead. It’s stuff like this (and lines like, “Come on, let’s go home,”) that allows us to build our towers and snipe away at the movie’s credibility.

So if “Hills” lacks the visceral, you-are-there power of its closest relative, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” it excels at giving us the basics: Lots of gore, lots of screaming and lots of scenes in which characters say, “Hello? Who’s there?” All of this is done with great technical skill and efficiency (the shot in which Doug surveys the pock-marked landscape is a stunner), which is more than you can say about most films in this genre.