Better than I'd expected, although I'd been led to expect garbage. The internet reviews are scathing, while even Wes Craven himself has disowned it as rubbish hacked out because he needed the money. This is the 1985 sequel to the original, by the way, not the 2007 sequel to the remake.
In several ways I rather like this film, but it's not frightening. It's not even close to being frightening. You know the way in which great horror will jangle your nerves even when nothing's happening, just through tension and anticipation? This movie is the opposite. Despite the bloody killings being carried out by cannibalistic hill-dwelling mutants, it doesn't even occur to you to be scared. Consider this. Our heroes get stuck in the desert at night and are looking at a median life expectancy of about fifteen minutes, yet because this is a horror movie they start splitting up, wandering around in the dark and having sex. Obviously we should at least think they're stupid for doing this, but we don't. The situation doesn't feel dangerous, even though it is.
Firstly, the mutants are a joke. Michael Berryman has made a surprising recovery from his death in the previous film, but he might as well have not bothered. In his first scene, he gets beaten up by a girl. In his second scene, he steals a motorbike and gets chased while he's driving away on it, then gets beaten up again. This is not how you terrify an audience. As movie pyschopaths go, he's hovering somewhere around Big Bird from Sesame Street. Even his death makes him look like an idiot, while disappointingly he doesn't seem retarded this time.
The other mutant is called Reaper. Yes, that's right. Only two mutants. He's apparently the brother of Papa Duke in the last film, which makes no sense but I don't think we're meant to be worrying about that. Now it has to be said that Reaper looks quite impressive. He's apparently 7 foot 4 inches tall, he resembles a caveman and it's a surprise when we learn that he's capable of speech. The line "Reaper not get fooled like Papa Duke" adds a nought to the end of his apparent IQ, even though what happens next is that despite his protestations he does indeed get nobbled in exactly the same fashion as his late brother did. He's effectively a beast, not a man. It's as if a bear wandered into camp.
Unfortunately he's hardly in the film. At one point he roars past on a motorbike, but we're more than an hour has passed before he gets a second scene. Reaper could have been great if the rest of the film had built up to him properly, or indeed at all. I liked the grisly remains in his underground lair. Once Wes Craven unleashes the gore, it's all good violent fun. A motorcyclist gets nailed by a crossbow you could use to hunt whales, for instance. Unfortunately by then the film has managed to inoculate itself against fear, so you're only likely to appreciate the splatter on a technical level. It's as if you'd been doing the ironing while you were watching or something.
It doesn't even feel much like a Hills Have Eyes film. Halloween, Friday the 13th and Craven's own Nightmare on Elm Street had turned the horror genre upside-down in the eight years since Part One, so it's basically a slasher film with a stand-in slasher (Reaper) for when the first one (Berryman) dies. Apparently even the music is reminiscent of Friday the 13th, although I can't vouch for that since I haven't started that series yet. The main effect of this is to change the series formula so that instead of straight odds (one family versus another), it's two mutants against seven or eight young, strong adults.
Michael Berryman isn't the only familiar story element. There's also Robert Houston, aka. Bobby, the first film's brother who gave the best performance in the franchise to date, but unfortunately he's only there in the beginning to wish everyone luck as they go off without him to get killed. Then there's the cute cannibal girl who helped our heroes survive, except that she's now well-dressed, civilised and calling herself Rachel rather than Ruby. She's older and obviously less cute, but still cool. Bobby and Rachel appear to be an item, which is bizarre given that the former's still having to see a psychiatrist for the trauma of what happened eight years ago. Even the dog's back too.
The film's strangest decision are its flashbacks, which together add up to six or seven minutes of recycled footage from the previous film. I can think of two possible explanations. The first is that the film was underrunning and this was a way of padding out the running time, although I hope that's not the case. The other is that Wes Craven might have relying on them to beef up the fear factor, perhaps even adding them in at the last minute after seeing the preliminary rough cuts and becoming the only person in the world to shit a brick at this film. I can understood that motivation too, but it's clearly wrong-headed. The flashbacks don't work. In the original film, those were strong scenes, but here they're just stock footage. No one's going to be scared of stock footage. You might however get a laugh from the scene in which the dog gets a flashback.
All that said though, I still enjoyed the film. Wes Craven's scriptwriting skills seem to be regressing, but he's improved as a director. He's lost the raw documentary style that comes of not really knowing what you're doing in the 1970s, but that's because he's become aware of cinematography. There are some nice shots in here, even in quiet bits like the opening scene with Bobby and his psychiatrist. You've got interesting close-ups and strong natural light. Similarly I think he does well with his actors, who may not always be giving the best line deliveries but nonetheless manage to be fun and likeable. He gets a good energy out of them. I enjoyed watching this cast, who overcome the handicap of the script turning them into idiots with occasionally eye-rolling dialogue.
Oh yes. That dialogue. The biggest problem is that the blind girl and the two black characters can't shut up about their disability and skin colour. It's attempted banter and just awful. Oh, and another of the characters is so stupid that he thinks Ruby/Rachel is imagining things when she says Michael Berryman is around, despite the fact that: (a) he's her brother, (b) she's a mutant herself and (c) she was having a fight with him. Now that's some powerful reality denial.
Nevertheless I liked the cast. They're enthusiastic and clearly enjoying each other's company. Two of the girls even go topless. I'd also heard that this film was about bikers, which is technically true but misleading. Everyone's actually working for Bobby, who's invented a new kind of super-fuel, and they're on their way to do a product demonstration by trying to win a motorbike race.
The script has head-scratchers. They start by saying that "this movie is based on fact", but the fact in question would presumably be that this is a sequel to a movie which really did get played in cinemas. This is the start of a Star Wars-like opening crawl of the story so far, suggesting that Craven thinks we'd need help to follow the plot. There's also a bit where the number of people in the party seemed to go from seven to eight and I was wondering where the extra person had come from.
I've laid into this film quite a bit, but in its way I basically thought it was good. It's got a wholehearted cast, fun gore and a blind heroine in a slasher movie. That's always going to be a cool idea. It's a failure at its goal of being scary, but if you can put that from your mind, you have a nice-looking film that might be good for an hour and a half's entertainment if you're in the right mood. I liked the mystery fridge, for instance. Wes Craven still can't make the night look like night-time, but this time he's picked more interesting locations and it doesn't look much like a desert half the time either.
Unfortunately almost half the film is gone before anyone dies and even after that it hardly seems to matter. I'll admit that I jumped at the bit where Ruby grabs Foster, though. I don't know why I did that.