Hoping to wring more money from humans-vs-mutants battles to the death, The Hills Have Eyes 2 offers another round of dull gory fright scenes that neither push the horror envelope nor exhibit any noticeable ingenuity. Borrowing liberally from fear classics like Aliens and The Thing, this Fox Atomic release rarely rises above a general sense of unpleasantness.
A sequel to the remake of the 1970s Wes Craven original, Hills 2 opened March 23 in the US with an estimated total of $10m. Last March's Hills garnered $15.8m in its first weekend, finishing with $41.8m, a success considering the film's smallish budget. Starting slower out of the gates, Hills 2 may have a hard time matching that overall tally, although it's clear from the no-name cast that production costs haven't risen significantly.
When the film expands to foreign territories from until the end of May, the Hills brand name will be the biggest draw, although last year's film brought in only about $28m overseas. After its quick theatrical run, the inevitable unrated DVD version, boasting more gore, is certain to be a must-have for horror-movie completists.
An undisciplined squadron of National Guard soldiers heads out to the New Mexico desert to deliver supplies to a military base. But after realizing that the base is unexpectedly deserted, the unit faces sneak attacks from horrible mutants - unwitting victims of the government's atomic testing - who hide out in the surrounding hills.
Staying firmly within contemporary horror conventions, The Hills Have Eyes 2, directed by Martin Weisz, has a slick, competent veneer but no soul or personality. Written by Wes Craven with his son Jonathan, the movie displays little of the old master's sly wit or genuinely disturbing fright moments that embed themselves unsettlingly in the subconscious.
Instead, the story follows a tired trajectory: a group of heroes arrive in an isolated area and must do battle with an indigenous killing force, picking the protagonists off one by one until the bravest and smartest of the bunch square off with the evil presence in the grand finale.
Such a scenario evokes the plotlines of the Alien franchise, but the Hills 2 film-makers badly miscalculate by populating their movie with protagonists so obnoxious and stupid that it's inordinately difficult to root for them.
In this action-horror set-up, the valiant leader is usually surrounded by a handful of panicky, foolish individuals who will further endanger the mission, but in Hills 2 just about everyone acts spinelessly, resulting in a film where the final survivors happen to be just a little less insufferable than the slaughtered.
On that note, it's significant (and more than a little ironic) that Wes Craven and the producers include a statement in the closing credits announcing their appreciation for the sacrifice and dedication exhibited by real-life National Guard troops - some of whom, incidentally, are currently stationed in harm's way in Iraq.
This disclaimer at the movie's end feels disingenuous considering that the film-makers probably decided to make their bungling heroes National Guardsmen so that it would seem more believable than if they were 'real' soldiers.
Since Hills 2 treats its human protagonists with mocking contempt, Weisz doesn't bother to worry about performances. By living longer than their doomed colleagues, Jessica Stroup and Michael McMillian are somewhat sympathetic, faithfully clinging to their B-movie roles of, respectively, the hard-as-nails cutie and the noble, nerdy pacifist. However, most of the rest of the actors leave no impression, playing irritatingly dumbed-down horror types who can't die soon enough.
In terms of terrifying moments, Hills 2 annoyingly teases the audience with lots of minor jolts involving the usual gimmicks: people blithely sticking their heads in dark crevices, women relaxing without looking behind them, and gung-ho macho men assuming that if they've killed one mutant that no other mutants could possibly be lurking in the shadows to strike next. These standard peek-a-boo scares grow tiresome quickly.
Even worse, when the soldiers go inside the mutants' mountain lair halfway through the film to save one of their own, Weisz doesn't effectively accelerate the action or scares. The mild scenes of gore and dismemberment during the final battle seem obligatory - the closest Weisz can get to being truly disturbing is staging a thoroughly unpleasant rape scene that feels gratuitous and also unnecessary to the plot.
Neither ludicrous enough to be considered camp nor sufficiently over-the-top in its violence to offend or traumatize, The Hills Have Eyes 2 feels like product created to ensnare audience members as luckless and foolish as the film's dim-witted heroes.
Peter Locke Productions
20th Century Fox International
based on characters created by Wes Craven
Lee Thompson Young