The Hills Have Eyes Part 2 Review
In 1977 Wes Craven followed up his seminal 1972 film Last House on the Left with another classic study in primitive terror and horror filmmaking. Today, The Hills Have Eyes is regarded as one of the classics of the genre, a blueprint for any horror fan on how to construct a scary, intelligent film with a limited budget and small location, and was one of the films that made Craven’s name. Seven years later, following his break into the mainstream with Nightmare on Elm Street he decided to turn his attention back to the hills and continue the story.
The Hills Have Eyes Part 2 picks up the tale several years later. Of the original survivors, Bobby (Robert Houston) has been suffering severe post-traumatic stress ever since while Ruby (Janus Blythe) has renamed herself Rachel and become one of the group of friends who Bobby works and hangs out with (of the third remaining survivor, Brenda, there is no sign). As the film opens they are preparing to head out to a motorbike rally in the hopes of selling a new “super-formula” petrol Bobby has developed, the only problem being that the route to the meeting cuts almost directly across the no-man’s-land where Papa Jupiter and his family had their wicked way with the family Carter all those years ago. Brave old Bobby decides he can’t face going near there again so is left behind as the rest of the group, including Cass (Tamara Stafford), a blind girl with powers that would impress Daredevil, head off in a big old red school bus. And, what do you know, the bus springs a leak which results in the group having to stop by an abandoned mining station in the middle of nowhere. No prizes for guessing what happens next…
The first Hills Have Eyes is generally regarded as one of the key movies in the horror genre of the late seventies. Its core story of a family unit being picked off one by one by hillbilly cannibals has antecedents going back as far as memory can serve, but the film had a rawness, an energy, and, most importantly, an intelligence, that raised it above other similar efforts. The contrasting of the two families – on one side the smug, technologically superior, so-called sophisticated Carters and on the other the brutish, in-bred, amoral cannibals – provided ample scope for interpretation (I’ve seen readings of it as far ranging as the incursion by the settlers on the native Indians and an allegory of the Vietnam war) while Craven handled the horror masterfully, unsettling the viewer with a combination of point-of-view shots, whispers in the shadows and, at times, ramming the camera uncomfortably close to the grisly goings-on.
Sadly, it is difficult to believe that this second film comes from the same pen. If you didn’t read the credits you would believe this was a quick straight-to-video knock off directed by some hack hanging on Craven’s coat tails. Everything that is right about the first film goes wrong in the second.
Firstly, the characters. Whereas in number one the family unit was identifiable with clear emotional connections between them, here we have a group of kids who just seem lumped together with little to distinguish them from each other. Aside from the fact they enjoy biking they have no recognisable characteristics and as such there isn’t much for us to latch onto. We have a couple of studs, the cheeky chappy, and their respective girlfriends, as well as blind Cass, who has super-senses when it’s useful to the plot and loses them when it’s not (she hears a character half a mile away scream but fails to notice when a bad guy makes a jump directly above her head onto a skylight). The only potentially interesting character here is the reformed Ruby, who ran away from her life with the cannibals in the original and is now returning for the first time, but the ball is dropped even here. She doesn’t warn the others as they head into the mountains what’s ahead until it’s too late, and there’s absolutely no emotion at all in her confrontation with big brother Pluto. This is extremely frustrating as there was an interesting story to be told there.
If one was being generous, you could say that the characters share one common attribute with the Carters in that they are asking for something to happen to them, but even that’s stretching a bit. The guys are irritating (whether it be the “funny” one who on looking round the mines comes out with “This definitely isn’t the races”, or the studs who smile and look superior) and the girls are just dull. They don't appear to have a brain cell between them, either, as they all do blatantly stupid things that's just asking for trouble. “There’s nothing to be afraid of,” says one encouragingly in one scene, urging another to enter a dark building, at a point when plainly there is plenty to be concerned about. Another decides it would be a good idea to strip and have a shower in the middle of a dark, open area, despite the fact a couple of their group have already gone missing. Another runs after their dog Beast (about whom more in a minute) into the wilderness. Cass goes for a stroll on her own into an old building away from the others. Another hides in a gully full of rocks despite the fact he knows there is a homicidal nut after him. And so on and so on. These are really dumb kids and it’s difficult to feel any sympathy for them as they blunder blindly into another potentially dangerous situation.
The villains, too, are a weak carbon copy of the first lot. Pluto, the poster-friendly character of the first, is completely spoiled, transformed into a mouthy fool who in the intervening years has learnt how to ride a motorbike, rather eliminating the point about the cannibals' spurning of technology. The other killer, a previously-unknown uncle called “The Reaper” who seems to have a lump of putty stuck to his forehead, runs around grunting a lot but not actually doing much. Their actions are annoyingly random - the bad guys in the first had a clear and cunning plan, which they carried out with ruthless efficiency, whereas here the two killers just roam around, seemingly not even in synch with each other. There are numerous times in the film when one or the other of them is heard whispering at the characters from the bushes before apparently wandering off, satisfied that their work is done. They also seem to have a sense of the dramatic – there are a couple of instances of a character being killed and then, for no readily apparent reason, the body turning up in a completely different location maybe ten minutes later. In the first the family have a definite aim – kidnapping and eating baby Carter – but here Pluto and the Reaper don’t seem to know what they’re doing.
Because of this the film, despite its short running time, at times feels quite lethargic. As there are no characters actually worth watching there is a sense of twiddling the thumbs, padding out the time to feature length. This is exacerbated by the use of several quite lengthy flashback sequences from the first film (including, infamously, one which the dog has), at least one of which, Bobby’s, has no bearing at all on the current film. The script, in general, is really quite poor. The story starts off by establishing Bobby has this terror of going back into the desert after what happened, but instead of following this up and making the film a story about facing up to demons, Bobby just announces he’s not going to go and lets the others get on with it. Such was my faith in Craven that up until the final scene I was expecting Bobby to make a triumphant appearance and help defeat the menace but sadly this was not to be. If Houston didn’t want to do another film, then why have him in at all? It’s just untidy script writing, as is the fact that one of the villains is killed in exactly the same way as one in the first film – when there’s only two killers running round, you expect them to have more interesting exits than that. There’s no scope for metaphor, either, giving the whole thing a depressingly one-dimensional feel. Even the end is unsatisfying, both in the way the final battle is acted out (ridiculously complicated) and the fact there is no resolution - the characters are still in a mess (how exactly are they going to get help?) but don’t seem to mind any more. At least one character’s death is never fully exposed either – at the end I wondered what had happened to them as I hadn’t actually realised they were meant to have been killed.
There are a couple of vague positives to be found here. The actors are generally convincing in their bland roles, although it’s no surprise that most of them didn’t go on to do anything bigger (no Johnny Deep in Elm Street style discovery here). Even Penny Johnson, who would later turn up on Deep Space Nine and 24, exhibits little of the potential she evidently had. The setting of the old mining station is fairly interesting as well, and there’s one exciting moment when one of the characters starts to descend down into a mine where the bad guys keep their corpses. The whole thing can be reasonably entertaining in a “this is so stupid” way as well, but only if you're very forgiving to its numerous flaws.
It is perhaps telling that before this release appeared on the schedules I wasn’t even aware there had been a Part 2 made, let alone one by Wes Craven himself. Having seen it now, I can understand why. It is but a pale shadow of its fine forbearer, not worthy to share its name. While I think its impressively low 3.1 score on the Internet Movie Database is perhaps a little unfair – there are worse examples of the genre – the fact that it follows a film like its predecessor and manages to mess up every single thing that the first one did right is enough to dismiss it outright. I read somewhere that Craven was having personal problems while this was being made which would certainly explain why such a talented film maker churned out this turgid mess. Disappointing.
A slightly faded print is transferred fairly well, although there are a fair few marks and spots that pop up from time to time. Particularly noticeable is the quality dip during the flashback sequences – the level of grain from the first film’s print far exceeds the level on the DVD print.
Option of three tracks, all of which do a good but not sterling job. The dialogue does not have quite the clarity you would hope for, but this is more due to the equipment used to record the film than flaws in the transfer itself. The music comes across loud and clear (not that this is a good thing) while the sound effects, noticeably the motorbikes, are handled well but again with a very slight muffling. Perfectly acceptable though.
A risible effort. Unforgivably in this day and age there are no subtitles at all, and the only “extras” to be found are three page biographies of Michael Berryman and Janus Blythe. It’s even missing the theatrical trailer of the R1 release (although at least we get 16x9 whereas R1 had full frame). As close as possible to a vanilla disk and very disappointing from the normally reliable Anchor Bay.
A low point from horror-master Craven, this is a blot on the history of the original film and is best ignored by any but genre students. Almost an object lesson in how not to make a sequel, this is reflected by the lack of effort put into the disk. One to avoid.