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The Hills Have Eyes II Review

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by Chris McEneany Oct 10, 2008 at 12:00 AM

    The Hills Have Eyes II Review
    “I told you before, this isn't Spring Break. One way or another, lives are at stake!”

    Released ages ago in the States on Blu-ray, Martin Weisz's sequel to Alexandre Aja's remarkably effective remake of Wes Craven's original (and still the best) 1977 shocker The Hills Have Eyes finally makes it on to a UK hi-def disc. But, as universally shunned and reviled as it has been in relation to such stylish and hardcore predecessors, just how well does it stand up as horror film in its own right?

    And, of course, the simple answer to that is ... not very well. But then you probably already knew that.

    Now, it is easy to get all high-brow about what is essentially just a formula pick-em-off-one-by-one bloodbath, especially when the original material and its direct remake have oodles of brutal subtext and actually say something very important about the nature of survival, and of our morals and our humanity when confronted by such extremes of behaviour (I've covered both the 1977 and 2006 versions very comprehensively already - check out their reviews) and to state that this follow-on is stale, superfluous, by-the-numbers and surprisingly wimpish is perhaps unfair to what producers Craven and Peter Locke (both still holding the reins after all these years) actually intended to bring to the banquet with the project. True, of course, but still a tad unfair. Craven, once such a tremendous and boundary-pushing talent with the groundbreaking (but simply execrable) The Last House On The Left, The Hills Have Eyes and the first, and most unique, Nightmare On Elm Street to his credit, even attempted a sequel to his desert-dwelling US take on the notorious Scottish Sawney Bean cannibal saga, himself, back in the early eighties with unutterably appalling results. His retread of the mutant-munching opus was half taken up with flashbacks from all the survivors from the first film - even Beast, the mighty avenging German Shepherd Dog had flashbacks, for God's sake - and its pandering to the hip teen brigade was a sure foretelling of its creator's inevitable descent into the “knowing” and annoyingly referential Scream franchise. So, perhaps we shouldn't be all that surprised that cinematic history is repeating itself. The original pitted family against family. Its sequel drove brattish kids into harm's way, and no-one cared. The remake pitted family against “nuclear” family, and brought new ideas to the concept with impressive aplomb. Its sequel drives the National Guard equivalent of brattish kids into harm's way and, yep, no-one cares.

    Sector 16, as this notorious stretch of nuclear-tested desert is cryptically referred to by the military - actually Morocco - has been the site of numerous disappearances over the years, not least the poor Carter Family who met with mayhem and slaughter in the first film at the grubby, in-bred paws of the cannibal clan descended from the miners who refused to leave the area when the army moved in with their bombs and radiation. Now the army is actively looking for the various bands of mutants who have burrowed into the desolate earth, setting up beacons and tracking devices and sending in search and destroy teams. When one such unit - composed of totally unwitting scientists and a gung-ho, rogue Colonel - meets with disaster, it is left to a squad of clichés, only partly trained and woefully unprepared for the raw, primal savagery they will face, to pick up the pieces - quite literally, as it turns out.

    Aliens, Predator, Dog Soldiers and even Neil Marshall's own follow-on to Dog Soldiers, The Descent, are all name-checked by a movie that is the typically dumbed-down rehash of an obvious meal-ticket that came before. But whereas Alexandre (Haute Tension) Aja's vicious and disturbing remake of Craven's original treated the material with respect, built on the premise and maintained the hard and unforgiving approach that made Hills synonymous with gut-level impact and intellectual challenge, this cheap and simplistic disembowelling of the scenario just panders to the teen market of the kill-em-off and swear-profusely-as-you-do-so strand of the genre. Written by Wes Craven and his son Jonathon, and produced by Craven and his original confederate Peter Locke, the film drops the ball almost immediately when we are sledge-hammered into a dreadful introduction to our desert-cammed protagonists and find, to our dismay, that we cannot stand any of them. With names like Mickey, Delmar, Spitter (he has a speech impediment so, naturally, they put him on the radio!), Crank and Napoleon amongst them, we have a pretty good handle on the characteristics of each. And, in keeping with minorities, we have the requisite blacks, Hispanics and women, in the luscious - but decidedly un-militaristic - forms of Amber (Jessica Stroup) and Missy (Daniella Alonso) - helping to make up the ranks. Led by a gruff, impatient and starkly stupid - all barking obscenities and no logic applied - Sarge (Flex Alexander), this group of grouchy, imbecilic losers present such lethargic targets for even the slowest and most retarded mutant cannibals in the vicinity that they simply deserve to die. The Carter Family had gumption, resilience and fortitude and they were virtually unarmed and woefully unprepared for what was coming after them. This platoon of pansies are bumbling, trigger-happy geeks who, once they have climbed up a hill, simply cannot find a way back down again. Plus, they have no idea of how to work as a unit - allowing one member to simply venture off on his own half-baked and doomed rescue mission - and constantly arguing amongst themselves. The script, that the Craven duo will proudly tell you in the extra features took them a month of intensive slaving-over, is composed purely of expletives that quickly become incredibly stale and grating. The grunt-movie cliché of foul-mouths is valid, of course, but it simply doesn't sound realistic here at all. These are just playground chumps trying to sound tough and coming across as nothing more than gobby goofballs.

    Very quickly, Hills 2 degenerates into nothing more than a dwindling band of desert-cammed buffoons blundering from one encounter to another, either topside in the glaring sun or down in the trap-laden caverns below. At least Weisz manages to keep things busy once the beleaguered troop drop into the pit. It would have been so easy to have simply allowed the setting to provide the atmosphere as they wander aimlessly around dark tunnels and the disused military bunker, but he does, at least, buoy events up with some new dilemma or predicament with every step that they take down there. Also in the film's favour is its lack of pointless exposition or extraneous characterisation. Napoleon (Michael McMillian) is the nerd who we know will come good by the end of it all. Crank (Jacob Vargas) is the excitable, retaliatory type who can't speak for swearing, but provides the squad's primitive answer to the mutants' single-word communication skills. Delmar (Lee Thompson Young) is the platoon Spider-Man, able to shinny-up sheer cliffs like Stallone's Rocky Mountain protégé. And Jeff Kober's ratty, skull-faced Colonel Redding has some form of prior knowledge of what's out there, but he is still going be zero help to the new meat at the market when they find his half-crazed, ranting semi-corpse high up in the rocks.

    Quite cleverly, though, the one moment of what seems like risible girly-banter actually proves to be intentional bait - but this momentary spark of narrative invention is swiftly forgotten once Craven's misfire then plunges back into a serious of increasingly lacklustre dust-ups.

    With Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger applying the extensive prosthetics once again you would think that the mutants - now bigger and slightly more fantastic than before - would look much more impressive than they actually turn out to be. With monikers such as Chameleon and Papa Hades, these guys should be much more intimidating than the lumpy-faced renegades that we see prancing through the rocks or the dank squalor of the mine-shafts. Chameleon is a nice touch, however, in that he can literally blend in with the surrounding rocks by virtue of the festering carpet of solid boils that stipple one side of his body. But the fact that he and another of his cohorts come to resemble Toxie, the Z-grade Troma Pictures mutant-hero from a series of cult, but crass, miniscule budgeters, lessens any threat value that they may once have had. One of the poisoned gene-pool bunch is even a dead-ringer for Sloth from The Goonie, which completely derails any gruesome menace he may ever have posed. However, the sheer physical nature of Papa Hades - a brutish Michael Bailey Smith - is fiercely exciting at the end of the day. His face - contorted and swollen - may be a letdown, but his wall-crashing bestial fervour and victim-slinging strength is something that brings some much-needed threat to the story. The alpha-male of this all-boy offshoot, Hades gets the pleasure of pleasuring his female captives with the purpose of furthering his pride of degenerates in what is definitely the most outrageous theme of this violent account of the nuclear-brood's lifestyle. But what is most disturbing is how blasé we, the audience, have become about the prolonged torture of gore-porn these days. Hills 2 has its share, of course, but not in the conventional sense. Brutal sustained rape and a Se7en-esque “Sloth”-like condemnation strapped to a bed awaiting a gruesome birth in months to come is Craven's retaliation to the likes of Hostel, Murder Set-Pieces and Carver. But the fact that this undoubtedly horrific image and notion feels less sordid than upsetting, more mundane and workmanlike than strongly inventive and offensive means that the director and writers have lost the edge on what should have been the most repellent aspect of the movie.

    I will say, however, that the opening prologue featuring a truly sickening birth is far more distressing than anything that follows, and it is, perhaps, this Grand Guignol curtain opener - if you pardon the expression, of course - that is responsible for the lack of impact for much of the bloodletting.

    Speaking of which - Hills 2 has flashes of gory inspiration along its threadbare path of grunts getting lost and cut-off and then traipsing around either rocks or tunnels on the lookout for hungry maniacs. We are treated to a nasty leg-snapping that is definitely crudely different from many similar stunts; a ghastly chemical-toilet demise that is certainly a new one on me; a splendid head-smashing flurry that goes the extra mile in brain-pounding; a bizarrely abstract removal of a wallet from a its resting place half inside a victim's cleaved noggin; and a nice multiple stabbing via bayonet, axe and spike. But the most spectacular bloody feast served up by the ever-avuncular Nicotero and Berger would have to be the overly indulgent cannibal's cook-up - literally a Hell's Kitchen stuffed with body parts, fresh offal, chunks in jars and vats full of heads. But, on the whole - and this is a major problem with Hills 2 - nothing we see is all that memorable or shocking in the grand scheme of such things. Everything has that golly-gosh “look at me!” sheen to it that just cries special effect and refuses to linger in your psyche. That nasty little curl of smoke from Big Bob's decapitated and roasted head in the original is so much more effective and troubling than anything seen in this, as technically more advanced as it may be.

    As far as I am concerned, if you are going to cash-in on a success like The Hills Have Eyes (Aja's version I'm talking about here), then you really need to focus on brutality and gore as it is unlikely that a similar tone of disturbing savagery and social allegory could be attained. So, if you absolutely have to revisit the story, then you may as well go all-out and deliver the nastiest, most barbaric addition that you can. Sadly, even here in the bloody killings department, Hills 2 comes up short. There may be wickedly sharp tools plunged into vulnerable flesh, limbs lopped off and numerous body parts strung all over the place - hats off to the mutants' pantry, which is, admittedly, a gorehound's delight - but somehow the film seems weak and un-shocking in terms of its killing-spree. Deaths by friendly-fire, falling off cliffs or resulting from suicide are cop-outs in this type of scenario, I'm afraid. This is soldiers versus mutants and despite plenty of bloody confrontations taking place, the effect is still diluted because Weisz doesn't have the courage of his convictions. Craven states that this is - yawn - an allegory of US troops fighting indigenous, guerrilla enemies in both Iraq and Afghanistan, but such over-obvious parallels only make the idiocy and uselessness of these metaphorical soldiers all the more embarrassing.

    I love daft gore-flicks on their own terms. But Hills 2, despite being one of the daftest, was designed with pretensions of being something more. Plus, seeing this sorry mess following in the bloody footprints of the original and its remake only leaves you with a sour taste in your mouth.

    Not something that I can recommend, to be honest.