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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.

The Hills Have Eyes (2006)

“Oh fuck yeah!” – that was my response several times during my initial viewing of this film.  I know what many of you are thinking, “remake, ugh!”  Drop the misconceptions, people!  Let’s start fresh.  This is produced by Wes Craven, who directed the original The Hills Have Eyes among other horror classics like A Nightmare On Elm Street & Scream.  The director is Alexandre Aja, director of High Tension.  And to be plainly straight forward, this movie is a brutal piledriver of terror and madness.  This is, by far, the most intense horror film I have seen in years.  A few years prior, I felt that Marcus Nispel’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake was the truest horror film in years – this movie beats the living hell out of it.  What you see in the opening moments of this film is absolutely NOTHING compared to what’s waiting for you later on.

This journey into a desolate landscape of hell starts with a family taking the long way to San Diego, California.  The father / former police detective Bob Carter (Ted Levine) is a bold man with a penchant for guns.  His wife, Ethel Carter (Kathleen Quinlan) is somewhat of a religious woman, despite being quite the 60s hippie in her youth.  Doug Bukowski (Aaron Stanford) is married to their oldest daughter Lynne (Vinessa Shaw), and together, they have a newborn baby named Catherine.  There’s also the other daughter, Brenda Carter (Emilie de Ravin) who’d rather be in Cancun than traveling through the hot, dry desert.  Finally, there’s the son Bobby (Dan Byrd) who spends a lot of time chasing down the family dogs -Beauty and Beast.  After stopping to refuel at the only gas station within 200 miles, the attendant gives them a “shortcut” back to the highway.  Big Bob has no qualms about taking a dirt road detour, but that’s where things go wrong….very wrong.  After a tire blowout, their SUV is totaled, and they are stranded.  Attempts to find help are futile as this family is being watched from the hills of the New Mexico desert.  These predators are inhuman results of nuclear testing done by the U.S. government in this very same desert from 1945-1962.  They are savage mutants that feed off anything they can find – especially other human beings.  The carnage, insanity, and stomach-churning bloodlust that ensues will leave only few survivors.  The lucky ones die first.

This movie is a brutal masterpiece of racked up tension, grizzly gore, and relentless horror.  Aja has delivered, in my purely honest opinion, one of the most bad ass horror flicks I’ve seen in my entire life.  There isn’t any particularly new twists to this story, it’s mainly the same as the original, but Aja executes a vision that only a rare few will ever match.  As of late, horror film directors have attempted to push the boundaries of intense, cringe-inducing horror, but I don’t believe anyone has proven to be more effective or successful at it than Alexandre Aja.  There is such power and visceral intensity here that it had a hardened horror fanatic in me jumping, cringing, and tingling in my seat.  Aja so quickly established himself as a modern master of horror.  A lot of other horror directors get a lot of hype built up around them, but their films continually fail to live up to it – Aja proves to be the genuine article here.  By chance, I will use Rob Zombie as a perfect example.  Zombie has done a lot to build hype for his own movies, promising just how far he’s pushing the envelope with them, and how grossly disturbing they will be.  Unfortunately, despite some disturbing moments and such at times, Zombie’s movies fail to strike the correct chords or craft a powerful atmosphere with a coherent storyline.  What makes Alexandre Aja different from Rob Zombie is vision, pure and simple.  Aja knows how to create and rack-up the suspense and tension in a film.  He knows how to vilify a group of savages, and how to elicit certain emotions from an audience.  Some people have the talent, the natural gift for such filmmaking.  Aja clearly and undoubtedly has it.  Some other directors seem to require further practice to get even close to that skill level.  Simply put, you don’t need hype when you’ve got the talent because it speaks for itself.

Now, while we don’t get a massive helping of these radioactively mutated cannibals (which can be a good thing), every time we do see them, they make a frightening impact.  The most is made of their screen time, and it is not forgettable in the least.  From their first attack scene, they catapult the film to a completely different level, and the tension and madness just continue to climb from there.  These cannibals only become more feral, more animalistic as the film moves forward.   The makeup work by KNB EFX Group is amazing, disturbing, and overall realistic.  Their work here is worthy of major awards.  I couldn’t imagine how many actors were unrecognizeably transformed by KNB’s complex and intricate makeup designs.  You may know Desmond Askew from Doug Liman’s Go as the somewhat charming British fumbler Simon, but here, there’s no way you’d even know he was in the film without reading the credits.  Michael Bailey Smith takes over the iconic Michael Berryman’s role of Pluto, and he is no stranger to complex makeup work.  In his first role, he was Super Freddy in A Nightmare On Elm Street 5: The Dream Child, and later portrayed (among other creatures) Julian McMahon’s demon alter-ego of Belthazor on Charmed.  Smith is really only 6’4″, but through whatever means, he seems even larger in this film.  Smith appears monstrous, towering over everyone else on screen.  He’s an intimidating physical force that makes the most frightening impact here.

Billy Drago (also a Charmed alumnus as the demon of fear Barbas) portrays the cannibals’ leader Jupiter, and despite his brief screen time, does an extremely sick job.  This entire movie is filled with sick moments, sick villains, and sickening imagery.  And man, is it great!  Drago’s a great actor, and his work in The Hills Have Eyes is very ferocious.  The same can be said of Robert Joy’s Lizard who teams with Smith’s Pluto in the most shocking scene of the film where the two mothers are assaulted inside the trailer – resulting in gruesome and dire situations.  The rest of the mutated cannibals are just as vicious, creepy, and/or crazed as the main ones.  They all make the film all the more disturbing, and all for the better.  Tom Bower also has a unique and interesting part as the gas station attendant which he pulls off with a bit of slyness, sleaze, and desperation.

The “human” cast, as it were, are great.  Enough time is given at the forefront of the film to flesh this family out, and allows us to relate to them.  They are real people, very human, and when this murderous band of inhuman maniacs befall them, the shocking moments never stop.  They are such a shock because we are so used to filmmakers pulling their punches for so many years, but this time, the punches connect – HARD!  Aja does not hesitate to bludgeon us with the brutal realism that this film deserves.  We crave it, and we get it in spades.  Still, you may not be ready for this level of intensity, and that’s just exactly the idea.  This cast is much more endearing in their own ways than some slasher film victims are, but this is much more intense than any slasher film I have ever seen.  The one cast member who deserves praise more than any other is Aaron Stanford portraying Doug Bukowski.  He starts out as the kind of person who would appear to be least likely to endure such horrific events, but Stanford evolves the character to the point where you believe in him fully – everyone in my packed theatre was rooting for him like MAD!  He does an absolutely incredible job here, definitely a performance that should get him well recognized.  Speaking of which, I didn’t even recognize him as Pyro from X-Men 2.  He appears to have grown up quite a bit since making that film, and all in all, he appears to have great potential for the rest of his career.

Ted Levine, as the father “Big” Bob Carter, does an excellent job as well.  Despite being somewhat of a jackass at first, I got to liking him more and more as things went on, and he has a fine night scene back at the gas station that Aja crafted beautifully.  Even those who are supposedly “the lucky ones” by dying first put in strong performances that last.  They stuck in my mind, and their fear only enhanced my own.  Dan Byrd (‘Salem’s Lot) as the son Bobby Carter delivers a concrete performance filled with strength, immense fear, and powerful grief.  A great piece of work by this twenty year old actor.  On a further note, all the female actors here are down right AMAZING!  I’ve never seen such genuine morbid fear captured on film!

And goddamn, how great was this score?  Talking about tying your nerves up in knots, and then, shooting them apart!  Tomandandy (aka Tom Hajdu & Andy Milburn) composed a score that demonstrates perfectly how valuable a score is to a horror film!  I actually enjoyed the few brief heavy guitar bits, but the meat n’ potatoes here are in the gut-wrenching moments of suspense that explode in an instant.  Just another masterful stroke on the canvas of this amazing motion picture.

Furthermore, the cinematography here by Maxime Alexandre is fantastic.  Never has there been so much scope of so much nothingness.  Working with this desolate landscape, there’s such a vast wasteland to capture and utilize.  The massive scope used in key moments illustrates how very isolated our protagonists are from everything.  The highly revealing shot in the crater scene is a perfect example.  There’s not another decent human soul to be found for what seems like eternity.  Even if you were to run away, there’s nowhere to go, nowhere to truly hide.  It becomes a game of kill or be killed because of this.  It’s also made clearly evident that cellular phone reception (as one would imagine) is completely non-existent out in the middle of nowhere.  Maxime Alexandre also provides great cinematography when the physical intensity kicks in, and the editing allows for Alexandre’s photography to be appreciated instead of flashed across the screen in a nanosecond like many films do in this age of filmmaking.

Overall, the editing is very well paced and consistent, the cinematography is beautiful and striking, the score is an excellent composition that enhances every single moment of every single scene, the performances are as strong as steel while others are as powerful as a sledgehammer to the face, and finally, the direction is tight, taut, unflinching, and immensely masterful.  Aja delivers a full-on balls to the wall horror film that aims to please, and for a great many, it truly has done that. My god, how long had it been since we were graced with a certifiable classic horror film on our hands?  Been way too damn long.  Alexandre Aja is definitely here to stay to scare the living crap out of us, and I can’t wait to see what he has in store for us next.