The second installment in a series, especially in the horror genre, is a strange animal unto itself. I could write an entire article on what incarnation a celluloid sophomore effort could take. The possibilities are all over the place. The volatility of the situation comes from two main ingredients: The unexpected success of the original film, and the filmmakers having more money at their disposal the second go ’round. What makes it even more unstable is whether or not the original mastermind comes back to write and direct. It’s the stuff of infinite debate. Will the filmmaker be true to the original vision everyone loved? Is it even possible for the creator to bastardized his own vision? After all, they thought it up in the first place. When I mention the names Raimi, Hooper, and Dante, all came back and made a much lighter sequel as a follow up to infamous cult classics. But does this hold true for everyone?
It’s been 35 years since The Hills Have Eyes 2 was released. It came 7 years after Wes Craven’s legendary road terror film that stepped over boundaries no one even knew were there yet. Seventies cinema was pretty nihilistic, and The Hills Have Eyes (1977 – read our retro review here) left an unapologetic and permanent scar on how dark a film could go.
The Hills Have Eyes Part 2 was a product of its time. Video stores were everywhere. The slasher genre proved what type of horror film could be lucrative, both at the theater and on the new platform of home video. Like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 (1986 – read our retro review here), I saw this one before the original, but only because it was prominent on the shelf in my local video store. I hadn’t watched part one yet because, up to that point, the drive-in or a midnight showing was about the only way to see it. When I finally did catch the original with this film as my sole reference, it was like drinking battery acid and expecting it to taste like a Zima.
Craven wrote the screenplay for part 2, and a lot like Tobe Hooper with the Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, he wasn’t satisfied with the final realization. The two situations with Hooper and Craven parallel quite a bit, but the former’s film has a much better end result. Hooper knew what he was doing by satirizing something that had become so notorious that it was almost impossible to top what he had done before. Unfortunately, Craven was not that self-aware, and the concept of the original was re-packaged as a slasher flick. This one is always on my list of films I want to love, but I can never quite get there.
The Hills Have Eyes Part 2 achieves continuity by bringing back both Robert Houston as Bobby, the surviving son from the ill fated Carter family, and Janus Blythe as Ruby, the sister of the cannibal family. Bobby is still traumatized by what happened, but he’s channeled his energy into developing a crazy, high-test motocross racing fuel. The only hitch is that he has to go through the same desert where his family was murdered to get to the race that will seal the deal. He can’t bring himself to do it and stays behind. To give it some reference, it’s like Gilbert in Revenge of the Nerds 2, except we don’t even see Bobby again, not even in an astral projection.
His team decides to make the trip without him. They’re joined by Ruby, who has left her family and integrated into mainstream society. They don’t heed the voice of experience and get themselves into the exact same situation as the Bobby’s family did. What then ensues is the textbook slasher film that I’m always up for, but when the first film required using dead family members as decoys to survive, the ante has to be upped.
I’ve yet to be as complimentary as I’d like to be. It’s worth one watch, especially just for a completist. The cast has some very familiar faces of the time. Kevin Spirtas (Friday the 13th Part 7 1988 – read our retro review here) as Roy, John Laughlin (Footloose 1984) as Hulk, and Peter Frechette (Grease 2 1982) as Harry. Besides Robert Houston and Janus Blythe, other returning cast members include James Whitworth as Jupiter and Michael Berryman Pluto, as well as a lot of flashbacks to the original for two purposes: To catch the audience up after seven long years, and to fill out the film’s run time. Production was halted at one point due to budgetary constraints, and when Craven hit it big with A Nightmare on Elm Street, he was coaxed to finish the film to cash in on his notoriety. He didn’t have enough new footage, so he padded it with scenes from The Hills Have Eyes for a retroactive continuity feel.
Harry Manfredini (Friday the 13th franchise) provided the score, and The Hills Have Eyes 2 really does feel like Friday the 13th part 3 in the desert. It clearly wasn’t a passion project for Craven, or, at least, it didn’t end up being one. The film does merit an anniversary mention, because it does fall into that strange category of second installments that have the same director/writer as the original, are set in a very different decade as the first, and take the blunt trauma of the first film down to more stylized levels of palpability. So, enjoy the eighties dirt bikes, headbands and really cool VHS box art. If nothing more, it’s a time capsule of the turning point in horror when franchises, and the brilliant, groundbreaking filmmakers that created them, were trying to find their way.