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The Hills Have Eyes II (2007)

I still stand by my statement of Alexandre Aja’s The Hills Have Eyes being “one of the most bad ass horror flicks I’ve seen in my entire life.”  Still, this sequel is a solid and worthwhile horror film, but Aja’s 2006 remake of the Wes Craven cult classic is clearly and easily superior to this sequel directed by Martin Weisz.  New director Weisz comes from the Michael Bay background of music videos, and this was his feature film directorial debut.  While a lot of the same behind-the-scenes talent remains in producers Wes Craven, Peter Locke, and Alexandre Aja, this film lacks a lot in terms of character and visuals.  Although, it does still offer some gruesome gore and intense frights, but not in quite as hefty doses as before.  Still, its gore level and disgust factor still puts Platinum Dunes’ Texas Chainsaw Massacre reboots to shame.

The film picks up two years after the first where the U.S. military has seemingly wiped out the mutated cannibals of the New Mexico desert.  Though, these dwellers of the barren landscape still hideout, but in depleted numbers.  They seek women to help repopulate the hills, and are certainly hungry for new flesh.  Meanwhile, the Department of Defense is setting up a cameras and surveillance equipment at old 1950s army base in the Yuma Flats, New Mexico, but they never see their brutal ends coming.  When a rather unremarkable and unrefined military detail from the National Guard arrives to drop off supplies, they find the camp empty, and are quickly led to believe there are survivors in the surrounding hills.  Though, it soon becomes apparent that they are prey suckered into a lethal and gruesome trap, and their own Sergeant becomes an accidental victim of their own clumsy inexperience.  With no radio reception to call for help, no transportation out, and only limited ammunition, they are in for a fight for their lives.

I had hope for this film as it started out.  Within the first five minutes, I said, “I’m impressed.”  The opening scene is as gruesome and sickening as anything Aja did in the first film.  While the gore level remains gooey for the remainder of the film, it lacks certain elements that made Aja’s film very strong.  It doesn’t have that gritty ferocity, but it still has a very complimentary impact to it all.  I didn’t feel like the filmmakers held back, but the violence and gore just could’ve been amped up even further.  Though, this all ties into character and emotion as well as other technical elements – all of which I’ll touch on later.

Now, the acting is not at all bad here, but it seems like the budget for casting was slashed on this film.  Aja’s remake had some strong, established names like Ted Levine, Kathleen Quinlan, Billy Drago, Robert Joy, and the rising star of Aaron Stanford.  This time through, there’s no familiar names aside from the returning Michael Bailey Smith (playing a different mutant in Papa Hades).  I connected in varying degrees with some characters, hoping they’d make it through, and was saddened a bit if and when they didn’t.  Still, most of those who died were easy to spot as part of the body count.  Sadly, even though I liked the two characters who asserted a solid authority amongst the group, they were very shallow characters, offering nothing more than a sense of confidence and decisiveness.  I did feel that Michael McMillian as PFC “Napoleon” Napoli had depth and real emotion to him.  He seemed to fit the Doug Bukowski template for this film being rather uncertain of himself and always getting the worst treatment by everyone.  He was the underdog, more or less, not showcasing the nerve or ability to survive this frightening experience.  However, I couldn’t wait for “Crank” (Jacob Vargas) to bite it!  He’s the guy who acts all hard up, tough, and bad ass, but can’t back it up.  He continually rushes headlong into situations, and always screws himself and others over in the process.  It’s just all about feeding his over inflated ego and proving how big his balls are to everyone.  He’s full of macho bullshit, and never learns to act otherwise.  Simply put, he’s an asshole from beginning to end, and he annoyed me to no end.

On the flip side, Aja’s film was rather unpredictable in that you couldn’t really tell who’d live or die, let alone when, where, or how it might happen.  The peril was so high, and the characters were so well written and portrayed, it was a tough call.  At times, you might’ve thought that no one would survive.  Plus, the characters were all such three-dimensional people that emotion played so deeply into the effectiveness of the film.  Everyone was just in such an equal depth of danger, you simply never knew.  In Weisz’ sequel, the characters do have some emotion and personality, but they’re just not remotely as strong.  Most don’t feel as genuine or as solid.  With one or two, some really cheap bits are pulled to generate some degree of sympathy for them, but it just comes off as just that – cheap.  It’s simply ineffective and amateurish.  I suppose I have to blame the script written by Wes Craven and his son Jonathan.  It just feels more like lazy slasher level characters instead of the realistic and textured ones from Aja’s film.  None of these characters reach a true peak of emotional distress that fuels the momentum of the film through to a rousing climax.

Another point where the characters seem to appear inferior are the mutants.  While KNB EFX Group did the makeup effects for this sequel as well as the 2006 remake, the designs aren’t as interesting or as original as before.  There’s not enough diversity or personality to any of these freaks to truly generate any special interest in them.  Plus, they don’t work much as unit, in contrast to Aja’s film where they clearly do, and thus, form a far more dreadful threat.  Not to mention, they don’t have as much ferocity as before, and at least two or three kills are off-screen.  While these mutants operate with much the same methods as the previous batch, they appear to only do so as individuals.  Overall, they just don’t come off as fearsome or frightening as in the previous film.  Simply stated, they feel generic.  You never get a good sense of them in any fashion, and none of them do anything nearly as shocking or intense as the rape scene in Aja’s film.  Although, a much tamer and briefer rape scene is present in this film.  While most people would say to judge this film based on its own merits, everyone wants to know if it measures up to its predecessor.  So, you’re getting the comparisons right here.  Ultimately, none of the characters – whether human or mutant – come off as bad asses, let alone intriguing characters which Aja’s film was so rich with.  This sequel is second-rate, at best.

Now, the BIGGEST negative compared to Aja’s masterpiece of terror is the cinematography.  Sam McCurdy has never shot anything of note, let alone anything with scope.  Maxime Alexandre gave 2006’s The Hills Have Eyes a wide, sprawling scope with his cinematography.  You truly got the sense of isolation in that desert, that you were an ungodly number of miles away from anything remotely safe or civilized.  You were stuck in the middle of a barren wasteland.  You’re never going to find help, and no help is ever going to find you.  Alexandre’s photography was very wide open and had an amazing depth and scope to it all.  Still, it could also get in very intensely, helping to rack up the tension in the tighter scenes.  McCurdy gives you nothing like that.  It’s all very bland, narrow, and uninteresting.  The way he shot it, you’d think the budget was that of a direct-to-video feature.  There’s no depth, no scope, no artistry of any kind.  It’s all very flat and dull.  There’s so much that could’ve been done with the lighting to enhance the film’s atmosphere and tension, but nothing was delivered.  It’s very yawn inducing, and as a filmmaker working with practically zero budgets myself, I know you don’t need anything but vision and artistry to make a film look intriguing, engrossing, and even spectacular with lighting.

What also lacks any depth or true artistry is the score.  It really just pops in and out with a very limited array of forgettable cues.  Like the cinematography, it lacks any scope or impact.  Like McCurdy, Trevor Morris has never done anything of note, let alone scope.  TomAndAndy achieved something exponentially more powerful and intense with last year’s Hills remake.  It was, dare I say, an epic score with thrilling emotional highs, and disturbing stingers tearing through scenes.  The score for The Hills Have Eyes 2 is very cliché and uninspired, like many things with this film.

I also have to note that I was disappointed that the film only takes place over a couple hours – there are no night scenes (despite what’s hinted at in the trailer).  Some of the BEST and creepiest scenes in the 2006 remake were those night scenes, especially with Ted Levine at the gas station.  Here, it’s all taking place in either daylight or dark caves, but the whole creeping around in the dark mine shafts doesn’t lend much to the film’s atmosphere.  Martin Weisz apparently doesn’t have the talent for riveting, gripping suspense and terror which Aja clearly has so naturally.  It all goes back to the poor cinematography and weak musical score – there’s no one working to enhance the scene or setting.  There really is no atmosphere to wrap up the tension with.  The finale also doesn’t feel as climactic as the one Aaron Stanford offered us as Doug in Aja’s film.  The emotional hurricane just isn’t there, you don’t get that intense feeling of revenge and comeuppance.  Again, the script must be faulted for part of this, but as director, Weisz must take much of the blame.  I hate to keep comparing this to its predecessor incessantly, but when so many things fall short of their potential, I can’t help but point out how such a film was done better by way of comparison to another.

Now, I have noted a great many negatives against this film in light of Alexandre Aja’s 2006 remake, but as I said before, this is a solid and worthwhile horror film.  The gore, the tension, and intensity might not 100% match up to the previous film, but it all still comes together as a good horror film.  There are definitely far superior horror films of this premise out there to better spend your time with.  However, I don’t think anyone should discount this film because it stands well on its own, and delivers what a horror film should – scares, fright, and gruesomeness.  Although, I think the kind of lazy tagline of “The lucky ones die fast” is poorly conceived since, aside from two very minor characters, no one has a slow death aside from the mutants.

Whatever the case, I would like to part by saying that the script could’ve been particularly stronger, and the cinematography could’ve been a HELL of a lot better along with the score.  Despite the fact that both the 2006 film and this sequel had the same budget of $15 million, The Hills Have Eyes II feels as if it had a far inferior budget, but likely, it’s due to being in the hands of far inferior talent.  It looks like a smaller scale film, and thus, appears to be made on a somewhat lesser budget.  Regardless, it is a horror film worth seeing.  It’s not the best it could’ve been, but it’s certainly far from being outright bad.  It has its problems and shortcomings, but generally, it should entertain a horror movie audience.