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Hatchet II Review

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by Chris McEneany Aug 21, 2011

    Hatchet II Review

    Unlike some of Arrow’s up-and-coming titles, Hatchet II was not being manufactured at the Sony DADC distribution centre that rioters in Enfield burned to the ground. Therefore the full retail copies should still be in the shops on release day. Hatchet II comes completely uncut to the UK despite the fact that its forbear has still not been released on the format. For that, you will need to get hold of the US Unrated Cut.

    Director/creator Adam Green stomps through the swamp a second time in this riotously demented and violently single-minded horror sequel to the cult-cherished Hatchet of 2006. Devised by Green as being a big thankyou to the fans who provided Hatchet with its widespread fame and notoriety – and also a release that had the dubious honour of getting pulled from its theatrical run in the States and bullied-about by the MPAA - this entry follows on immediately from the events in the first film, for a direct continuation. This instalment (and there is a third offering promised) replaces Tamara Feldman in the lead role with genre-diva Danielle Harris as the beleaguered and bruised but defiant scream-queen, Marybeth Dunstan, lone survivor of the initial massacre, who battles her way out of the blood-drenched swamp and swears revenge upon the crazed denizen who wrought such carnage first time around.

    Thus, setting out like a cut-price Aliens with the heroine embarking on a quest to do battle with the monster once again, we have a doubled-edged vengeance story. After a breather and a quick shower to wash the remains of the previous cast off her flesh, Marybeth wants to go back into the hellish hunting ground to retrieve the bodies of her slain father and brother, and get a little payback, if possible, on the fiend responsible. But the sequel also wants to add, quite considerably, to the mythos of the raging throwback killer and to provide him with a backstory that we can sympathise with, and to flesh him out in the time-honoured tradition of Michael Myers and Jason Vorhees. Well, partially, at any rate. Now we learn a fair bit more about the terrible circumstances of how the vicious Victor Crowley came into the world, and how, with the aid of his mother's dying curse, he is able to keep on a-stalkin’ and a-slashin’ whatever is thrown at him. His story is one of tragedy, of course, but it is not one that we necessarily fall for … and it is debatable whether or not any of these flashback-told revelations actually add anything of narrative worth to what is, otherwise, a simple warning to adventurous swamp-fans not to investigate hidden bayous. Enlisting the aid of maverick voodoo showman Reverend Zombie (Tony Todd returning with his role greatly expanded) and a platoon of redneck hunters, including Parry Shen who is now playing the twin brother of the previous party's tour guide, she and her uncle Bob (genre writer/director/producer Tom Holland – the man behind the original and superior Fright Night) journey into the macabre enclave to finally put a stop to Crowley’s reign of terror. It is almost like an inbred cousin to Stallone’s Rambo IV – foolish blade-fodder voyaging up-river into the heart of darkness, all in the erroneous belief that their skills, bravado and hardware will do the job, yet all of them completely unprepared for the breed of chaos that is awaiting them there. Rev. Zombie knows a lot more than he is letting on, but, at the end of the day, the swamp belongs to Victor and his formidable arsenal of wicked tools.

    The insistent marketing blurb for Green’s gleefully gory Hatchet films claims that they are returning us to the good old days of proper stalk ‘n’ slash without any aspirations of post-modern irony, satire or torture-porn sadism. Just full-on kills and plentiful mutilation. And whilst the seasoned veterans amongst us gorehounds can certainly appreciate and applaud those aspirations, it must also be understood that neither outing for the notorious berserker of the bayous, the hulking Victor Crowley, is actually very good. Nor, most damningly of all, are they scary – in the least.

    Lumbering, deformed mass-murderers are, of course, ten-a-penny in this genre, but the hack-em-up heroes that we know and love – Michael Myers, Jason Vorhees, Freddy Kruger, Leatherface, The Burning’s Cropsy, Papa Jupiter and son Pluto from The Hills have Eyes – are all as terrifying as they are indescribably anti-social. This is what Green forgets when he unleashes the ever-vengeful Victor Crowley upon the hapless idiots who stray into his swamp. Presence, as they say, is everything and our distinctly un-pretty boy, here, has none whatsoever. Slapping a surprisingly poor prosthetic mask on stunt-madman Kane Hodder’s face, as well as some grotesque malformed muscle-humps to give him Cro-magnan dimensions, and having him just appear out of the bushes without benefit of any properly suspenseful build-up to dismember another extra isn’t enough. We need to fully fear him. So much of the story and the dialogue is spent informing us how terrible and loathsome he is that we need a bogeyman of some considerable calibre to keep us on the edge of our seats once heads begin to roll. With the New Orleans-bred Candyman in his repertoire, Tony Todd is more than capable of conveying the essence of Victor’s supernatural rage, even if the mood is all-too-easily allowed to descend into farcical, tension-sapping black humour. And the fact that his sage words don’t exactly fall on deaf ears, with half of the potential hunting party jumping ship as soon as the killer’s name is mentioned, only seems to compound this woeful dearth of dread once the supposed “heroes” start getting offed left, right and centre.

    There is an art to crafting suspense, something that pays dividends even in a deliberately hokey slasher-film. An equation of timing, momentum, atmosphere and a sense of caring what about what may befall the characters that, when successfully calculated, equals the supreme jolt factor. And it is the thing that separates the men from the boys in this game. But it is apparent that Green clearly flunked this subject in terror school. Just like in the first film, Crowley suddenly appears without any of the requisite build-up or pacing, does his stuff (which almost always requires someone off-camera to hurl a bucket of blood-syrup at a tree in what Green obviously considers to be a Hatchet-Hallmark) and then roars a little bit at those who just witnessed his freshest carve-up. The supposed “stingers” come thick and fast, but they are all clearly signposted, and the pay-offs, however gory they might be, are entirely lacklustre and pedestrian. It doesn't how matter how violent this guy is if he exudes absolutely no menace at all. Anyone can flings arms, legs and heads about the place, but when the style is just that of a delinquent and deranged Tex Avery, where's the power to thrill and chill? There is a scene towards the end of the first film when the last gaggle of victims are being pursued by Victor, charging at full pelt, through the swamp and then into an old graveyard and this represents the most on-edge that Green can render for us throughout the two movies, with the killer's beefy muscled arms only millimetres away from his hysterical prey. There, you can properly feel the adrenaline-surge of fight or flight. Nothing in the sequel comes close. Thus, in many ways, Hatchet II is step backward, relying as it does on by-the-numbers, knee-jerk thrills and the kind of mechanical and juvenile (lack of) panache at the helm that would probably shame a school play. For example … there is one, just one, sequence in which he elicits a genuine shiver. As one dumb-ass victim retreats into a set of wardrobes in the dilapidated, vine-engorged remains of the Crowley house, we come to realise that he has probably stepped, unwittingly, into the concealed back-door entrance that the killer likes to use. The shadows engulf him and, accompanied by the tense strings on Andy Garfield's otherwise rather ill-fitting and ineffective score, a big spider gives us a real, bonafide fright. Green then botches the bigger scare that we all know is coming with massively anti-climactic timing, thereby ruining what could have been a properly suspenseful set-piece, and squandering atmosphere, yet again, in order to drag out another over-long death scene.

    This is a director who seems highly skilled … at concocting miscues.

    The influence of Jason Vorhees may be paramount, obviously, but there is also a faint reminder to Jeff Lieberman's excellent rural shocker, Just Before Dawn, with the great and grim outdoors, a lot of eerie ramshackle dwellings and, most pertinently, a big lunatic in denim dungarees with a penchant for chopping up trespassers. But Victor is an exceedingly poor monster. Green gets confused over whether he is a corporeal ghost or just a dedicated lunatic. Even as Michael Myers kept on returning each October and seemingly surviving every fatal wound he received during his killing-sprees, we appreciated that something infernal and supernatural drove him, or his spirit, onwards. The same goes for Jason, although in his case, myth and legend coalesced to provide the ultimate nightmare incarnation of a bloodthirsty and unstoppable variation on the grim reaper. Green wants his creation to stand alongside these guys, but he neglects to add the depth and the mystique and the primal aura for his villain. Victor just looms into view … and kills. Every time. There is no stalking going on. No dimensionality to the scenario. With no lurking unpredictability to him, we don't dread his appearances in the least. No matter what savagery he commits he poses us no more threat than Bernard Bresslaw did in the Carry On films.

    But you have to forgive a bunch of filmmakers who so slavishly adore this much-maligned yet ever-popular trend because of their sheer gusto for gut-slinging. All they want to do is spray offal at the screen and engulf you with the splatter that matters. And let’s face it - that is precisely what you want from a film like this. Most of the effects aren’t in the least bit convincing no matter what you may have heard, but they are merrily over-the-top and what they lack in realism they make up for in quantity. We have one redneck, who already looks as though he has escaped from Donald Pleasance’s lab in The Mutations, getting his own hauled-out intestines wrapped so tightly around his neck that his head pops off. Another goon gets his face thrust into the blades of an outboard motor, the result making head resemble a big red desk fan. Sundry country-bumblers are cleaved, decapitated, impaled and disembowelled until the bayou looks like the Martians have given it a garden-makeover with the “red weed”. Fake torsos and limbs fill the screen almost as much as their live counterparts, the prime directive of the film to gross you out at all costs. Much of it is acutely bogus, though it should be noted that the gore-gags are all real, traditional and in-camera – like the first film there's no CG kills. So you have to hand it to Green and his grue-crew for the eye-popping image of a headless Romeo rear-ending his Juliet with grisly and unstoppable death-spasm vigour. It is not meant to be taken in the least bit seriously, though even when viewed as a loopily crude stiffy joke you kind of wonder just who is meant to be getting off on this protracted act of impromptu necromance. And the removal of a lower-jaw, leaving the tongue to waggle about amid gouts of blood is actually very well accomplished. However, a double-chainsawing (boasting one of the longest blades I've ever seen) is just woeful in the extreme, and some of the final bouts with Crowley and the last survivors are so utterly without excitement that their excruciating protraction is sure to induce a yawn or two. Fans will probably whoop with joy at the return of the gas-powered sander, but the joke-store exposed brain that it buffs-up is a shiny stick-on howler. I will say, however, that I liked the table-top variation on a curb-sandwich that vile Victor administers to one of his more vigorous victims – as a connoisseur of crazy partial or otherwise unusual decapitations (see the likes of Day of the Dead, Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, The Exterminator and 30 Days Of Night) this is a wild one.

    So the blurb gets it half right when it promises twice the gore and twice the intensity that was offered with Victor’s first ferocious foray. Green and Co. certainly aim for more with a higher bodycount and more outlandishly ghoulish demises being regularly unveiled. But I would say that the impact of all this mayhem is diluted a more-than-fair amount by the tongue-in-cheek nature of the overall hunt-to-kill. Therefore, stating that the Hatchet films are some kind of long-awaited hark-back to the gory glory days of old isn’t strictly accurate. The ongoing rampages of Jason may well have been laughable, but they weren’t created as comedies and the tone was still agreeably nasty. You could argue that Green understands the limitations and the fallibilities of the format and doesn’t attempt to reinvent the wheel, but there can be no denying that the vintage slashers had heaps more atmosphere than he can muster within his surprisingly restricted, clearly stage-built swampland setting.

    Horror-fans will surely applaud the fact that we get to see the great Kane (Jason) Hodder sans the usual mask and prosthetic deformities for a bit. Playing both the grown-up barbarian-built brutaliser and his grief-stricken father in the flashback scenes, it is nice to finally see the regular monster-man extend his range a little. We saw him as the father very briefly in the flashbacks in Part 1, but he gets considerably more screentime and personality here. Makeup FX man John Carl Buechler, one of the demigods of splatter and creature-creation during the mid to late 80's (Forbidden World, Troll, Re-animator, From Beyond etc) gets to reprise his guest spot as the lecherous, wee-drinking Cajun fisherman, Jack Cracker. He performed the gore-duties for the first film, but he relinquishes the job to Green's friend, Robert Pendergraft, of Jeepers Creepers and Shoot 'em Up. And those who know their franchise horror films will surely recognise the ogreish, walrus-moustached R. A. Mihailoff as the big feller who hefted the chainsaw as the titular Leatherface in the reasonable, though MPAA devastated Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, and it is admittedly great to see him going toe-to-toe with Hodder, who had not only been his stunt-coordinator back in the early days but also a fellow terror titan on the fan-circuit.

    Although some would hardly envy me, I’ve had the pleasure of looking at Danielle Harris in two new horror Blu-rays this week. Besides Hatchet 2, there is also Stake Land (which will be reviewed separately), in which she plays a pregnant country singer who tags along with the vampire-slaying drifters in this apocalyptic road movie. Despite hackneyed lines and a contrived story, she makes the most of her tenure in Hatchet 2, although this isn't really saying much. The fact that she is gorgeous in a girl-next-door way (and just doesn’t seem to age either) is another bonus, of course – but she isn't a patch on Feldman's depiction in the first film, even though she was originally up for the same part back in 2006. I’ve heard lots of scathing comments about her as an actress – complaints about her incessant screaming, whingeing, whining, etc, and the more fundamental bombshell that she’s just not very good – but even though I can only concede to those charges, I still like her. Marybeth is nothing new to the genre in the least, but I wasn’t as irritated by Harris' repetitious reactions to the butchery and sadism taking place around her as some people have claimed to be. The thing is, you can't take her seriously as some determined avenger. Even terrified and running for her life, Tamara Feldman had much more conviction and courage than Harris. Tony Todd, as far as I am concerned, has only ever been any good in the original Candyman for Bernard Rose, although his crypt-swallowing voice is always a mean and moody delight. Long established in the mire of low-budget horror, you know that these enthusiastic movie-makers use him purely because they can actually afford him. As Rev. Zombie he drops the crystal ball by trying to be both amusing and sinister, hopping from one aspect to another as the scene suits, but never nailing just who his charlatan really is. It's a poor show, clearly done for the money, and just another element in the film that doesn't properly add up.

    The first film was quite lame in many respects, but it was still much better than this. Some genre-addicts may have taken Green to their dark hearts, but the simple truth is that he is not a good movie-maker (as Frozen made quite clear) and, flying in the face of all the marketing hype that claimed Hatchet II was some sort of long-awaited retro-flavoured masterpiece, this gorier follow-up is the sort of ham-fisted amateur night offering that just shrieks straight-to-DVD … and rental at best.

    Whilst fans of the first film are sure to feel satisfied by this second take, Hatchet II does nothing new with the genre and, in all honesty, is instantly forgettable. You get the gore and an incredible assembly-line of inspired atrocity, but the scares and the menace are completely absent, leaving the experience luridly escapist but resoundingly hollow at the same time. A good time is pretty much on the cards if you love groaningly cheesy dialogue, a smattering of T & A and a whole smorgasbord of intestinal set-dressing, but as a good horror film, this is just a blunt instrument that swaps chills for yuks. And not very good ones at that.

    Hatchet II. It’s the bloody things you liked about Hatchet … just expanded almost to the point of trashy tedium. Regular readers will know how much I love this stuff, and how forgiving I can be towards the shortcomings of the genre … but Hatchet and Hatchet II, as deliriously bloody as they can be, are very poor examples of the form. The first one was still fun, though. The second is just dumb. By jettisoning the fear-factor altogether with simply terrible direction, Adam Green relegates his swampland saga to nothing more than a showcase for old school latex, blood-tubing and prosthetics. If he'd applied some more thought, I'm sure he could have given birth to a new cult bogeyman and not just a boring bayou-based butcher.

    A bloody disappointment.