Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Hills Have Eyes: Part II

The Hills Have Eyes Too (1985)
Dir. and written by Wes Craven
Starring Michael Berryman, Janus Blythe, Kevin Spirtas, John Bloom, Tamara Stafford

How did it come to this?

Obviously, there’s only one reason to watch the widely-hated 1985 sequel to the Wes Craven’s seminal 1977 original THE HILLS HAVE EYES. With his death a little more than a year ago in August of 2015, I felt compelled to pay tribute to the passing of one of the horror genre’s true modern luminaries by watching one of his movies. But it turns out I’ve seen pretty much everything but the very bottom of the barrel. Faced with a choice of VAMPIRE IN BROOKLYN, CHILLER (TV movie) and HILLS HAVE EYES II, I elected to at least go for the infamous one. It has a reputation for legendary awfulness, and was disowned by its maker as a cheap cash grab to pay the bills. Gotta at least respect that honesty. Guy’s gotta eat.

But surprisingly, it turns out not to be that bad. I mean, it is bad, obviously; it’s just not that bad. It’s plenty incompetent, but not entirely unejoyable, which is more than I was expecting given its rap. Its incompetence is generally of the goofy, amusing variety instead of the plodding, soul-crushing variety that you should probably brace yourself for in something this low-rent. Which is good, because it’s also an incompetence which is fairly ubiquitous, and manifests itself in a wide variety of ways, from the many, many flashbacks to the previous movie (including, famously, a flashback from a dog’s perspective) that pad the opening here with what is reportedly 20 full minutes of old footage (it feels like less to me, especially since the flashbacks are spaced out a bit, but I’m not going back to do my own math), to the presumably-improvised awkward chit-chatting in the downtime, to the weird way this sequel fixates obsessively on the original and reintroduces its main characters, only to subsequently ignore and drop them.

Bobby, the brother from PART 1 (still Robert Houston, now known less as an actor and more for re-editing the first two LONE WOLF AND CUB movies into SHOGUN ASSASSIN, as well as directing two Academy-award-winning documentary shorts in 2004 and 2005), opens the film and immediately seems like the main character. He’s some kind of motorbike racing team captain now, (and is said to have invented some kind of super fuel?) but as fate would have it, his latest race involves driving through the same desert where his family was massacred eight years prior. Seems like the perfect setup for some revenge, but then he just decides he’s not stupid enough to go back to the desert and stays behind, never to be seen again. Good move on his part, as it turns out, but a very strange decision from a narrative filmmaking perspective. He does not seem to have mentioned to anyone that there are killer mutants out there, and his crew doesn’t seem aware this is a possibility. This seems like kind of a dick move on his part because while he wisely sits at home watching the first season of Growing Pains, the rest of his crew heads out into the selfsame desert blissfully unaware that they’re in a movie called THE HILLS HAVE EYES PART DUEX. It also makes you wonder how he broke the news to the authorities that his family was gone after the events of PART 1 and that he suddenly had a new family member who was a little short on recognized government identification documents. Did he just tactfully talk his way around the mutants using a series of artful euphemisms?

Speaking of which, the mutant sister from the first movie (still Janus Blythe, EATEN ALIVE) is doing well for herself now. Previously called Ruby and now going by “Rachael” for what I’m certain could be described as reasons, she’s Bobby’s motorcycling manager, and seems surprisingly emotionally stable considering everything. Inexplicably, she also doesn’t seem to be too worried about her old family, nor does she mention anything about the distinct possibility of cannibal mutant attacks to any of the road crew she’ll be shepherding into danger. Once Bobby bows out, it seems like SHE’S the main character, but then even though she doesn’t die or anything, she simply doesn’t seem to be present for the big finale and is never mentioned or seen again. So we spent a good 30 minutes of a 90 minute movie --at least-- laboriously reintroducing two characters who play absolutely no role in the final act. Huh.

isn't it romantic?

So OK, admittedly, there’s some iffy decisions here by one of modern cinema’s great luminaries of horror. But it’s not that bad, at least when you compare it to something like BEYOND THE DARKNESS or SHAKMA. If you find that a standard so low that it makes it impossible to tell the difference between the comical and the tragic, well, you probably didn’t spend the last year writing about ultra-obscure horror movies from the 1980’s.

PART II is suspiciously tame and genial considering how nasty and brutal and mean the original is, which is especially difficult to ignore since PART 1 is referenced so often. And it’s smaller-scale in almost every way; there are less mutants, less violence, less runtime, less of everything except flashbacks, and, presumably, cocaine. I mean, there’s definitely no getting around that it would be a terrific disappointment to any fans of the original, or of Wes Craven, or of watchable cinema in general, if you didn’t go in with drastically lowered expectations. Fortunately while that might not have been possible in 1985, the movie’s reputation as a stinker is pretty inescapable today, so you’ve got no excuse for going into it with anything like hope. I mean, the story is that the studio actually stopped production on the film with only 2/3 having been shot, and only came back and let Craven finish it after NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET came out and was a big hit, and even then only if he didn't shoot any new footage. And, seen in that context, it’s semi-tolerable, mostly.

At least they get a little motorbike chase in there. I’ve seen plenty of movies this year which were both willing and able to pull off some horeshit like introducing a motorbike racing team and a bunch of mutants but then never have anyone chase mutants driving motorbikes. Craven at least knows to deliver on the essential elements of his premise. But it’s true, there’s not a lot of blood. Or a lot of mutants. I guess Michael Berryman survived that dog attack from PART 1 a little better off than he looked at the time (he doesn’t even have any neck scars!) which is especially weird because they actually show his death scene from PART 1 and even the dog seems confused as to why he’s back. But come on, you’re gonna complain that Michael Berryman is back? You most certainly are not. You might fairly complain about all the recycled footage of Michael Berryman when they actually got him back and could have just shot new footage, however. And indeed, almost nothing but flashbacks and driving happens during the first 30 minutes. I’ve seen slower-starting horror movies, but yeah, it’s a slog. The haters are not wrong.

Fortunately, once the kids settle in at an abandoned mine, the movie turns into a fairly acceptable moronic slasher. It’s got all your standard slasher stuff, where people sneak off to have sex during the crisis and get killed and capriciously wander around in the dark even when they’re explicitly told to stay together in the light. It’s dumb and not very imaginative, but once Craven settles into slasher mode, things stay semi-competent for this kind of movie, easily in the upper 50% of no budget 80s slashers, which is not saying a lot but still puts it ahead of dozens if not hundreds of similar movies. The death scenes don’t have a ton of elbow grease in ‘em, but they’re effectively staged at the bare minimum of effort. And hell, it’s positively elegantly constructed compared to MY SOUL TO TAKE.

Speaking of MY SOUL TO TAKE, remember how that one has a random blind character for no reason, and not only does the fact that he’s blind never pay off at all, but it actually makes later plot developments completely nonsensical for no reason? Well, HILLS HAVE EYES 2 seems to have been an early staging ground for this odd auteurial compulsion. There’s a blind character here, too (Tamara Stafford, AGAINST ALL ODDS), but instead of making a big deal about it and then doing nothing with it, in this case the film is perhaps overly tactful to the point of confusion. I was watching pretty closely, and still completely failed to realize that the character who is asked early on if “you’re feeling psychic today?” was blind until probably 75% of the way through the runtime when someone mentions it. After that little fact gets tossed out, she suddenly starts stumbling around and feeling for things, which I would swear she was not doing previously. Anyway, at least the blindness explains her catastrophically ugly alphabet sweater, which is far more horrifying than any mutant could be.

Behold: The ugliest garment ever devised by man.

Sure, it’s an old stereotype that cross country motorbike racing crews always employ at least one waifish blind young woman who sometimes “feels psychic,” that’s a given. But she ends up being the most important character in the movie by virtue of having the only genuinely inspired scene in the whole thing. As the movie meanders to its climax, it concocts a reason for her to venture down into the mutants’ lair, where she’s forced to feel around for the bodies of her dead friends. The lair is actually a creepily lit, artfully decorated set full of excellent horrible detail, and the solitary reminder that Craven is more than the bored hack that most of the movie suggests.

Still, even Craven at his most shameless coasting (and this is about as shameless as coasting gets) manages to make something which is breezy and enjoyable and generally at least LOOKS like a real movie, like he took the time to pick a good angle to shoot things and light them most of the time. This is a bad movie, but the guy’s just simply too naturally talented to make something completely irredeemable, even when all evidence suggests he’s barely making an effort at all. Even his total garbage is miles ahead of plenty of horror movies I’ve endured this year.

One last note: the final climax is so similar to the original that even the mutant comments on it, but that doesn’t stop him from being defeated by the plucky motorbike enthusiasts’ bizarre plan to:

  1. Put a fuel bomb in their bus and lure the mutant inside with them
  2. Create a larger ring of fire around the bus, trapping them and the mutant inside (?)
  3. Have the blind girl quickly run out of the ring of fire before it spreads, while boyfriend stays inside with mutant
  4. Then have blind girl feel her way over to a nearby mineshaft and push in a cart, which acts as a counterweight and pulls a string attached to boyfriend’s hands, yanking him off his feet and dragging him face first through the burning ring of “jet fuel” as it’s described (can’t melt steel beams OR burn human faces, it turns out), an eccentric means of removing him from danger under any circumstances, but particularly so given that a blind girl just walked through the same stuff with no issues at all only moments earlier.
  5. Then for some reason the mutant gets on the bus even though he just specifically said he knows they plan to blow it up, and a huge fireball ensues.
  6. Despite having just had his entire body dragged through burning jet-fuel face first, hero is not even singed, and he and lady walk off into the sunset, completely forgetting there's another character who is not dead and whose fate is never resolved.

Now, is that the climax of a good movie? Oh fuck no. But it is, I believe, the climax of a movie with at least a vestigial instinct to entertain. Given the kind of surprises the world has been serving up recently, that’s demonstrably enough to qualify PART 2 as a welcome one.

Play it Again, Samhain

So You Think You’re Lucky To Be Alive
Yes, to the 1977 original.
Yes, there’s a completely unrelated 2007 sequel to the 2006 Alejandre Aja remake of THE HILLS HAVE EYES which is called THE HILLS HAVE EYES 2, but it has exactly zero in common with this one except that it’s also not very good.
Best I can do for you is Robert Houston, who would be nominated for the Academy Award for best short-subject documentary film in 2003 for his MIGHTY TIMES: THE LEGACY OF ROSA PARKS and win it the following year for MIGHTY TIMES: THE CHILDREN’S MARCH .
Michael Fuckin’ Berryman, that is all.
I don’t remember any, but IMDB’s keywords include “female nudity” and they’re usually pretty unnervingly thorough about that.
Not much to speak of, though some beheading may enter the picture.
Yeah, I think mutant cannibals count.
Since by the end there’s really just one mutant stalking them, it really slouches into a pretty typical stalker structure, which is out of line with the original but hardly unusual for a cannibal killer movie.
The Hills have eyes don’t they?

Medium-low. Sequel to a well-known classic, but obscured by its terrible reputation.
Dude who decided “you know what, I think I’m actually just not going to go back out into the Mutant Murder Desert to risk being murdered again simply because there’s a motobike race out there, thanks a lot,” we need more like you.
Accurate, but the “PART II” makes it sound a little pretentious. This ain’t the fuckin’ GODFATHER, Wes.

This is at the very, very bottom of a 3-DTV rating, but I couldn't in good conscience go lower. C--

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