Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Hills Have Eyes II (2007)

Directed by: Martin Weisz
Written by: Wes Craven & Jonathan Craven
Starring: Michael McMillian, Jacob Vargas, Jessica Stroup

Color, 90 minutes
Unrated (Originally R)

Grade: C-

Thirty years ago, Wes Craven unleashed The Hills Have Eyes. It has become a modest cult classic, and it even inspired a sequel in 1985. I was never a fan of the films, but unfortunately, I don't get to make the decisions in Hollywood. So, in 2006 we got a remake, directed by the fairly talented, but immature, Alexandre Aja. I wasn't a fan of that film either, in fact I pretty much hated it, but it made money, so now we get the sequel to the remake. Or is that the remake of the sequel? I'm confused. It’s no big deal, they all just kind of blend together anyway. But to be fair, The Hills Have Eyes II (the new one) isn't half bad, not as bad as I thought it would be, and probably not nearly as bad as it should be. Remember what Mel Brooks said about his films? He said that his movies "rise below vulgarity." He was too modest. But that is an accurate description of The Hills Have Eyes II, it's too bad to be any good, but too good to be all that bad. I don't know what's worse, the fact that I didn't hate it, or the fact that I'm actually giving it a minimal amount of credit. You be the judge.

The film opens up two years after the proceedings of its predecessor. The first images we see are of a woman's face, in close-up, moaning and screaming. Get your mind out of the gutter; she's just giving birth, to a mutant baby, that is. Of course, she's chained up, breasts exposed, and covered in dirt, sweat, dried blood and various forms of grime. A mutant, inbred, Quasimodo looking guy, presumably the father, stands over top of her, impatiently waiting. Finally, he's had enough, he walks over and yanks the baby out, stares at it, lovingly touches its face, and then beats the mother to death. I'd hate to think how a caesarean would have went over. Anyway, you kind of know what you're in for here. If you don't shut the film off in disgust, throw the remote in anger, or vomit after this scene, then the rest of the film will be a breeze. From here, we go to a group of National Guard trainees who are on an assignment to deliver some goods to a bunch of scientists stationed in New Mexico's mysterious Sector 16, the nuclear testing ground that the inbreeds call home. Upon arrival, the ethnically diverse (and stereotypically written and portrayed), men and women of the Guard find the base empty, with not a soul in sight. Signs of a single survivor come over the walkie-talkie, and the group makes their way up the rocky cliffs to find him. You can guess what happens next. The mutants lure the soldiers in, and pick them off, one by one, until the final showdown. But, we do get some interesting moments, such as a man being found in a port-a-pottie, a soldier being sucked into a hole by a mutant, his exposed leg bending until it's shattered, and the classy image of a female soldier who is kidnapped while taking a leak. It's a lot of fun.

So why do I give it such a low grade? Simple, the movie is idiotic. Yes, the movie is fun in a dirty, masochistic sort of way, but it's idiotic nonetheless. Unlike the 2006 remake, this film has the unfortunate luck (some would say good luck) to have Wes Craven as a screenwriter. He actually wrote the script with his son Jonathan (obviously not learning from his father's mistakes), and the father and son team indulge in the usual amateurish tendencies that have plagued every film the elder Craven has ever done. The plot is wafer thin, borrowing from nearly every popular horror film that came before it, the characters are practically none existent (with the exception of the usual stereotypes), and the typical shock tactics are the kind that stopped being scary forty years ago. The dialogue is ideal for sixth graders, with such gems as "Who the fuck asked you, peace-ass shit boy?" and "I killed someone... it was easy, that's why it's so dangerous." Very nice. Craven's worst attribute, however, isn't his story or his characters or even his tin ear, it's his complete and total lack of suspense. He is totally inept at shaping a scene, letting it breathe, drawing an audience in, and then truly shocking us. He relies on rapid violence to get his message across, and for that reason, his movies, including this one, are forgettable.

I'm picking on Craven, obviously, and maybe I should spread the blame around a little bit. He didn't direct this movie, Martin Weisz did. Who is Martin Weisz? Don't ask me, I've never heard of the guy before this. Apparently he is a famous music video and commercial director (aren't they all?) who has been given his shot at the big time with this film. Don't quit your day job, pal. Weisz's direction is all over the place, going back and forth from bland and routine camera set-ups to attention grabbing, imitation Peckinpah slow-motion photography. At times, it seems as if he really gets a kick out of what he's doing, and then there are moments where he was obviously snoozing on the job. One gets the feeling that Craven and the other producers weren't happy with elements of the picture, and asked for re-shoots. Cinematographer Sam McCurdy, who has done great work with director Neil Marshall (The Descent, Dog Soldiers), is wasted here, and it's a real shame. A desert setting should be open season to talented photographers, but McCurdy's work is strictly by the numbers. The acting isn't out to leave an impact either, which seems to be par for most of the horror genre today. We get the pansy guy (Michael McMillian) who turns out to be a hero, the hot blond (Jessica Stroup) whose makeup never seems to get smudged (no matter how much dust, shit, water, and blood is splattered on her face), and the hardass (the usually quite good Jacob Vargas) who sees himself as a cross between Tony Montana and John Rambo. Drama students should look elsewhere for role models.

All in all, the movie is what it is: a cheesy, violent, at times distasteful, horror film. It has all the usual horror hallmarks: the thumb in the eye socket, a head bashed repeatedly with a rock, and the slicing of the Achilles tendon. I could rag on the fact that the one liberal in the film is relegated to guarding a portable shitter, but I'll let it slide. Looking for political subtext here is like saying that Transformers is some sort of existential treatise on how technology ends up biting us in the ass. No go. This is a film full of schlock and gore that revels in it's own bad taste. The first rule of film criticism is to go into a movie with an open mind. I've never been too good at following rules, and obviously being exposed to this sort of material before, I had my expectations, and they were very low. The film exceeded them (they had nowhere to go but up), so I cut it a little slack. But this is the last time, I swear. If I ever have to sit through another mutant rape scene (or any rape scene really), I'm going to pitch a fit. You've been warned, Hollywood. The Hills Have Eyes II is a cheap, exploitive film, but I was mildly entertained, even though I liked it better the first time I saw it, when it was set in the jungle and called Predator.


H. Stewart said...

I haven't seen this, but from what I hear the most remarkable thing about is that it's about soldiers fighting mutants of their own devise in the DESERT for Pete's sake and yet there's no political subtext!!

I'm disappointed in Craven; I really liked Red Eye, but it seemed like a fluke in his recent career. (I am partial to his New Nightmare, however.) Also disappointing is the waste of Sam McCurdy, as The Descent was just so phenomenal. (won't say the same for Dog Soldiers, though), particularly in its cinematorgraphy.

Anyway, sometimes good movies have rape scenes. Have you ever seen Irreversible? Horrific!! But very good.

Clayton L. White said...

New Nightmare isn't half bad, and Red Eye was enjoyably brief, but all in all, I've never been too partial to Craven.

Dog Soldiers was a big surprise for me. I enjoyed it.

And I hated Irreversible. Sloppy filmmaking, pretentious semi-improvisational acting, and numerous other things that annoyed me. Monica Bellucci was pretty good, though, I have to say.