June 4, 2023
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Sequel looks at horror with gruesome eyes

Emerging in the wake of a string of dismal horror remakes, last year’s “The Hills Have Eyes” didn’t seem like it had much hope of setting itself apart from schlock like “The Fog” or the craptacular Paris Hilton vehicle, “House of Wax.”

Yet the film’s unexpected mix of great casting, cheesily gruesome makeup effects and plain fun was able to silence the haters (most of them), and more importantly make the film a box office success. Smelling the franchise pie on the windowsill, Fox Searchlight Pictures quickly greenlit the sequel. What follows is “The Hills Have Eyes 2,” a hastily put together gore-fest that aims high but falls low.

Despite the first film’s vaguely cliffhanger ending, “The Hills Have Eyes 2” picks up with none of the original cast members. The film’s waiting-to-be-disemboweled this time around are a gang of National Guard trainees. On their last day of training in the New Mexico desert (it’s always the last day), the gang receives a mysterious distress call and heads off into the hills to investigate.

It doesn’t take long for things to go wrong. A female cadet is kidnapped, and the group must abandon its investigation to save her. Those pesky mutant miners who refused to get off their land when the government conducted nuclear testing are at it again.

The best horror films have always been the ones that scared audiences but also made them think. “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” was as much about aliens as it was about McCarthyism. “The Last House on the Left” was Wes Craven’s reaction to the brutality in Vietnam he saw each day on the nightly news. And “The Grudge 2” was a systematic analysis of post-war industrial relations between the United States and Japan. (Just kidding.)

So maybe the decision to make the victims of “The Hills Have Eyes 2” National Guard trainees, as opposed to sexy teens or sorority sisters, reflects some desire on the filmmakers’ behalf to craft something with substance and spectacle. With Craven (who wrote and directed the original) returning to write the sequel, chances seemed good.

The film introduces the soldiers in the midst of a brutal battle in some Middle Eastern locale. Machine gun bullets whiz, grenades explode, and just as the group is about to be blown to bits by a suicide bomber, the whole thing is revealed as an elaborate training exercise. Showing the horrors of war is a clever foreshadow to the horrors that await the trainees in the New Mexico desert, but it’s ultimately the one and only time the film offers anything that could be considered commentary on the war in Iraq.

But that’s fine and all. College film critics aside, the main reason people came to see this movie was the mutated freaks. Or more specifically, to see those mutated freaks do some sick, twisted stuff, and then get theirs in the end. “The Hills Have Eyes 2” has some of that. Not as much or as inventive as the first film, but some.

The opening’s delightfully disgusting mutated birth sequence stands out in particular. When the radioactive dust settles, there are enough prop limbs, eyeballs and assorted guts lying around to film another “Saw” or “Hostel” knockoff and its sequel.

Inventive freaks couldn’t save the film from its unconvincing cast, lack of any real suspense or frightening moments, and overall tedium. It’s understandable that the film was rushed out so quickly, as it had only a brief window to cash in on the original. (Original remake, that is.) But perhaps horror films, unlike radioactive mutant babies, take more than nine months to develop properly.

“The Hills Have Eyes 2” was written by Jonathan Craven and Wes Craven, and directed by Martin Weisz.

“The Hills Have Eyes 2” received two out of four stars.