"The reason I did that film was that I was dead broke and needed to do any film. I would have done Godzilla Goes to Paris." -Wes Craven, on The Hills Have Eyes, Part 2 (1985)There's no possible way to argue that The Hills Have Eyes II is not a bad movie, but it would have been so easy for it to be so much worse that I want to give it a tiny bit of credit. The sequel to the original The Hills Have Eyes was mind-rotting; this sequel to the 2006 remake is merely flavorless.
And, from time to time, it's even a little bit more than that. Regular readers know that one of my great passions in life is the quest for the rarest of all mythological constructs, the Genuinely Scary Movie, and at times this leads me to accept better-than-average mediocrity as a placeholder for competent filmmaking. Certainly, "competent" is all I have to say in praise of director Martin Weisz, the creator of the slightly infamous true-life cannibal film Rohtenberg, here making his English-language debut. But "competent" is more than Alexandre Aja brought to the table last year.
Whatever else the film does wrong - there is much of that, and I'll get to it soon enough - Weisz actually does manage to bring a pretty effective tone of dread to the first forty minutes or so of the film. The first sequence after the credits showcases the slaughter of an Army surveillance camp out in the desert, and Wiesz does a fine job of combining offscreen sound and action with some finely tuned cuts (major kudos to Kirk Morri and Sue Blainey, the editors) that keep us from ever actually seeing an attack, to build a confused and increasingly paranoid sense of "what the hell is going on?" After the first film, we presumably know what's going on, of course, but that doesn't change that this is a fine example of neither showing nor telling, and keeping the audience freaked out because of that.
I would have said a year ago that Aja did something similar in Hills 2006, but I've subsequently re-watched Wes Craven's original and found that most of the tricks that made the remake work were stolen lock, stock and barrel from the first film. Weisz's achievement is more "pure," if you will.
Another interesting quirk of the director is his lack of desire to linger over the gore effects that make the splatter genre what it is. This is clearest in the opening sequence, a crude and primal (in a good way) depiction of a naked woman chained to a filthy bed in an underground room, giving birth to a deformed, stillborn infant, and immediately getting clubbed to death. It's fucking harsh, but more to the point, it's not particularly exploitative. I mean, for what it is. This is a genre prone to lingering over both tits and blood, and both are present in this scene, and both are conspicuously not the center of attention. It's a gambit that pays off in making the scene much more painful than it could be, and after my recent Saw experience, I call that a good thing.
So anyway, this fine directorial combination leads to a first two acts (it's a four-act story) that work pretty damn well at being reasonably creepy and reasonably grim. There are missteps - the man in the latrine is particularly a scene that I will regret until I die or I forget this film exists, whichever comes last - but it's enough better than most horror films that I'm willing to let it slide. Then, inevitably, the plot kicks into high gear and the survivors head into the Lair of Evil, which fucking always makes the film less scary, but I'm not particularly interested in blaming Weisz for that. He's pretty okay. Not a genius. Never will be. But he does some interesting things.
Here's a fun timewaster: go to the IMDb message boards for this film and watch the fanboys pissing themselves over how bad this turned out compared to the original remake, like that was some all-time masterpiece or something, and moaning about how Weisz ruined Aja's brilliant scheme of things, and so forth. Of particular delight are the armies of young men calling the first one the "best horror film of 2006," which, in the year that witnessed the American release of The Descent, is like calling Lucky Number Slevin one of the all-time great caper films. I must confess, the IMDb message boards are a constant source of amusement to me. Nowhere will you find a larger, more diverse group of people who have completely lost the ability to think or write. Of course, after even a cursory trip 'round the site, you will have absolutely no faith in humanity any longer, but that is a small price to pay.
Anyway, back to Hills II: the directing is pretty damn okay for a film that is clearly not meant to be a work of art, but that is all. The acting and story are miserable. The film concerns a group of army trainees whose punishment for sucking in basic training is that they must be in the desert to something that is left undetermined. They get there, find the dead surveillance team, and then climb up a hill and back down as they get picked off by radioactive cannibals. There is not any plot worth discussing: people go into a desert, some die. The end.
The first film (either of them) had an unsubtle but completely effective binary of families: here is the All-American Suburban Team of Heroes, here are their brutal doppelgängers, now fight. This sequel, although it is not so colossally stupid as its 1985 analogue, is nothing but a slasher film full of Expendable Meat. The army kids have no meaningful differentiation in personality (except: here is the single mother, and here is the pacifist, and both of those end in precisely the way that you expect them to end). And the cannibals suffer from the same flaw as the 2006 film - they aren't nightmare versions of human beings, they're monsters. Here, we don't even learn their names.
The perpetrators of this anti-narrative, I'm horrified to say, are none other than father and son Wes and Jonathan Craven. I clearly shouldn't be. Wes Craven's career has been full of sell-out crap since the moment it first began, and sometimes we forgive him because he's directed several genuinely great films. Well, hooray. Maybe next time, Wes.
So, unlike the 2006 film, The Hills Have Eyes II is not going to end up the best horror film of the year. It's not even the best horror film of March. But it is much better than Dead Silence, and however low that bar might be, it's still all the higher a horror film needs to jump to avoid being a complete timewaster. I sometimes hate being a genre film fan.