Written and Directed by: Wes Craven
Starring: Tamara Stafford, Janus Blythe, and Michael Berryman
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“Reaper no dumb like Papa Jupe!"
If you ever need definitive evidence of Wes Craven’s wildly inconsistent career, look no further than The Hills Have Eyes Part 2. No, it’s not the absolute worst movie he’s directed (remarkably, there are at least four others that vie for that crown), but there’s such a massive drop in quality between it and its predecessor that you’re almost convinced a studio hired some hack to come in and cash in the original’s reputation. Not only is The Hills Have Eyes arguably Craven’s second best film, it’s one of the most genuinely creepy, grisly, and brainy horror films ever made. You’ll find none of that in the sequel besides maybe some cut-rate grisliness; in fact, The Hills Have Eyes Part 2 is most notorious for a scene that features a dog having a flashback, a conceit that’s so ludicrous that it’s probably given this film a more wild reputation than it deserves.
The dog in question is Beast, who was one of the pups who survived the ill-fated encounter with the mongoloid cannibals from the first film. Like everyone else who survived, he’s apparently haunted by those memories; even his owner Bobby (Robert Houston) has never quite gotten over it despite frequent visits with a psychiatrist. He’s so spooked out that he won’t even go near that desert anymore, which is a real shame because his motocross team has a race out that way this weekend. Instead of going, he stays at home and sends his friend Rachel (Janus Blythe) in his place; Rachel is actually Ruby, the wild child of the cannibal clan that ended up helping Bobby’s family. Now reformed, she accompanies the team as they unwittingly head right back towards her former home, where both Pluto (Michael Berryman) and “The Reaper” (John Bloom) await.
There’s some slight hints of goofiness strewn throughout the opening of The Hills Have Eyes 2--almost right off the bat, it’s obviously cheap and corny, and the film introduces some outrageous 80s caricatures that are far removed from the more down-to-earth family unit in the original. Little thought is put into getting the action started--the kids forget it’s Daylight Savings time, so, to avoid being late, they take the shortcut that leads them to their doom. The simple, slashery “set-em-up-cut-em-down” routine is almost gloriously contrived, and the whole thing crescendos when the goddamn dog suddenly has its memories stirred by the desert air or something. All of this suggests a real awareness and silliness, but, unfortunately, this is the film’s crowning moment, and even it comes after you’ve waded through several flashbacks to the first film that simply act as padding here.
Once the movie finally settles down, it’s basically some standard slasher fare, and much of it is a bit of a slog. Some moments--like a dirt bike chase sequence--take advantage of the bikers vs. cannibals setup, but it mostly amounts to this group of kids wandering around and doing stupid things that eventually result in their demise. It’s much more Friday the 13th than The Hills Have Eyes, right down to Harry Manfredini scoring the hell out of nearly every scene (including the flashbacks). Gone are the subtle eeriness and atmosphere of the original, which masterfully captured a sense of dread isolation; here, the characters aren’t even stuck out in the middle of the desert since they hang out at a mineshaft station that comes complete with electricity. Essentially, this setting subs as a cabin in the woods that the cast can use as a way station before they’re shuttled out of the door to die. As a slasher, it’s a bit of mixed bag--many of the deaths are bloodless and there’s nothing as genuinely disturbing as the Carter patriarch being lit on fire in the original, but a couple of gore showcases sneak in during the last twenty minutes or so.
About the only thing this film has in common with its predecessor are its location and opening credits, both of which are responsible for any sort of genuine mood this film has. Michael Berryman also returns somewhat inexplicably, and he and Bloom are just as fun as ever as the antagonists. Their targets are rather terribly developed since the movie can never settle on who it’s supposed to be about; when it begins, it’s seemingly going to be Bobby’s story, but, in perhaps one of the smartest moves in slasher movie history, he stays behind and is never heard from again (this probably had more to do with Houston not being paid for a full appearance). From there, it briefly centers on Ruby’s struggle to confront her past before settling on the blind girl (Tamara Stafford) in the bunch. In between, there are ridiculous dog attacks and shower room peep shows, and it all climaxes in an explosion caused by experimental dirt-bike fuel, which is kind of great. If the original Hills Have Eyes was the climax of rugged 70s backwoods nihilism, then this sequel is a bad entry in the cycle of 80s excess; the funny thing is that it’s not too many steps from being an awesomely tongue-in-cheek take-off of the films that had come to define the horror scene by ‘85.
But Craven didn’t take those extra steps, so we’re left with a flick that even he’s since disowned since he only did it for the money, and it often shows. You can see a distinct difference between this and A Nightmare on Elm Street, the true passion project that he hatched around the same time, which also serves as further proof of how Craven’s filmography is basically like a game of Russian Roulette. You’ll often find yourself wondering how the same guy not could not only direct two wildly different movies in terms of quality, but do it on a back-to-back basis. This sequel is clearly the product of “Bad Wes,” but at least it doesn’t tread the lines of “Unwatchable Wes,” if that’s any consolation. Because it’s such a huge step down from a legit classic, its reputation probably suggests worse, but it’s more or less a bad 80s slasher that has a few genuinely inspired moments. Maybe it’ll be re-evaluated a bit now that Horizon movies has released it on Blu-ray, where its presentation is far from reference quality--the 1.66:1 transfer is a little ragged and mangy, no doubt because that’s how the film was shot, but it’s a huge step up from the old washed out, full-frame Anchor Bay release*. The audio here is an extremely crisp PCM stereo track that’s not very robust, but it’s adequate enough. Some trailers for both this film and Redemption’s Jean Rollin Collection are included along with a still gallery to serve as some sparse extras. Still, I’m kind of amazed that The Hills Have Eyes Part 2 has not only been released on Blu-ray, but also is being hailed as “Wes Craven’s Horror Classic.” Clearly, Horizon left out the words “the sequel to” on their front cover. Rent it!
*The screen caps here are taken from the film's trailer since it's nearly impossible to rip from a Blu-ray.
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