The 9 Things That Make Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes Part 2 an Underrated Classic
A couple of days ago, after the news of the passing of influential horror director Wes Craven at 76, the esteemed editor of this website published his list of Craven’s eight greatest movies. He assured us that his choices would be “slightly different than most others,” but it was a sensible, defensible list, including the delightful Swamp Thing, the atmospheric Serpent and the Rainbow, the Pirandello-esque Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, and the snappy Hitchcock-style thriller Red Eye. It omitted the overrated Scream, and rightly placed the first Nightmare on Elm Street at the top.
But when I finished it, my first urge was to leave a comment in the familiar form: No love for The Hills Have Eyes Part 2? I could see at once, however, that the likely answer, both from the Editor and most fans, would be no. No love for 1985’s THHEP2. But that movie is, I confess with hung head and lowered eyes, probably the Wes Craven movie of which I’m fondest. Here are some reasons why (“spoilers” throughout, by the way):
9. The “I Wouldn’t Go in There” Factor
Look, I get it; nobody thinks this is a good movie. Even I don’t think it’s a good movie in the usual sense. It’s a thrown-together, hastily made eight-years-later follow-up, and we who love it (I know of only one other person, really) love it the way one loves a not-too-bright pet.
But it may have a distinction. Perhaps because it was written, by Craven, without much effort to make the characters behave logically, it may be loaded with more examples than any other ’80s shocker of the “I Wouldn’t Go in There” factor that makes so many horror films so dubious.
The characters here, on their way to a motocross rally, cut across the same stretch of radiation-soaked desert where the original movie took place, even though THEY HAVE SURVIVORS OF PART ONE’S ORDEAL WITH THEM. When the bus breaks down, they immediately busy themselves with chasing the cannibals onto their own turf, exploring old mines and ramshackle cabins, and, no kidding, TAKING SHOWERS. In short, they do just about everything that no reasonable person would think of doing in this situation, and they seem to do it for no particular reason other than to move things along.
“Oh yeah, yeah, I seen this one before in the movies,” says one character, upon spotting a cannibal’s booby trap. The awareness doesn’t do him much good, however.
I remember when I first saw this film back in ’85, at a certain point my friend pantomimed suspending a heavy object over his head, then losing his grip on it and letting it crash to the floor of the theater.
“My disbelief,” he explained.
Yet this implausibility is somehow central to Part 2‘s charm. Craven played meta-movie games with standard horror tropes here way before Scream, and way more subtly. So subtly, indeed, that he probably wasn’t aware he was doing it. I’m not suggesting that THHEP2 was consciously intended as a slasher parody. Well, anyway, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t. But I will say that it contains, for me, at least as many laughs as any two of the Scary Movie movies.
8. It’s Easier to Take Than the Original
I know, I know, this isn’t a reason that a horror fan is supposed to be proud of. Hardcore horror fans are supposed to want to be put the through the wringer with harrowing, pitiless, inescapable terror and suspense. Anything less is supposed to be insulting. And the original 1977 Hills Have Eyes did indeed offer that kind of shock and lurid grisliness.
The trouble, for me, is…while I consider myself a horror fan, I don’t like my horror that intense.
Don’t get me wrong. I respect the cinematic skill required to generate raw horror. Tobe Hooper’s original Texas Chain Saw Massacre is, I think, one of the true pieces of cinema art America produced in the ’70s. I just don’t enjoy watching movies like this very often, and where all-out horror movies are concerned, I’ve gotten less comfortable with them as I’ve gotten older.
While Hills Have Eyes, the first, certainly isn’t a work of cinema on the level of Texas Chain Saw Massacre, it is a powerful piece of nastiness, and worth seeing once. But I don’t need to hear, a second time, the mother in that movie hysterically wailing “That’s not my Bob” again and again when she sees her husband’s burned body, and, as with Craven’s Last House on the Left, there are plenty of other appalling and all-too-believable scenes to which I have the same reaction. Call me a wimp if you will.
Hills Part 2, however, is re-watchable partly because there’s no sense of these hideous sufferings being experienced by actual human beings, only by one-dimensional, attractive but vacuous movie ciphers who are, besides, unencumbered with imperiled family connections and thus in more of a position to fight back. It takes the movie marginally out of the slasher realm into the less oppressive genre of action-adventure.
7. The Opening Credits
Still, Part 2 (which title distinguishes it, by the way, from 2007’s entirely different The Hills Have Eyes II) does draw upon the grisly power of the original film to generate atmosphere, not to mention to bolster the sequel’s skimpy running time. It employs substantial flashbacks, as we’ll see shortly, and it also uses the sounds of the original to unnerve us, especially at the very beginning.
After a short preface in which, as in Texas Chain Saw Massacre or any good campfire tale, we’re assured that this story is all based on fact, the credits start. Over a slow pan of the desert, we hear disturbing sound-bites from the first movie, including a repeated sample of the mutant cannibal patriarch Papa Jupe (James Whitworth) saying “I’ll eat the brains of your kids’ kids!” The effect, not to put to fine a point on it, is freakin’ creepy.
6. Blind Final Girl’s Bluff
None of this is to say that there’s no authentically creepy new content in Part 2 proper. Cass (Tamara Stafford), the hapless heroine of Part 2, is blind. She’s by no means the first example of a blind “final girl,” of course; earlier specimens include no less than the likes of Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark (1967) and Mia Farrow in Richard Fleischer’s grueling See No Evil (1971). But the heroine’s disability allowed Craven to engineer a really skin-crawly scare sequence.
In the clip above, you see poor Cass play a non-fake version of the familiar in-the-dark Halloween game sometimes called “Poor Joe.” It’s like a concentrated version of Ray Bradbury’s chilling 1948 story “The October Game.”
5. The Stupidest Attempt at a Fake-Out Scare in Horror Movie History
Another distinction! And its stupidity also arises from the heroine’s blindness.
Near the beginning of the film, a guy rides up to the front of a handsome house on a motorcycle. When he removes his helmet, we see that he’s wearing a scary mask. Next we see him, in broad daylight, put an aluminum ladder against the side of the house, climb up, and crawl in through the bedroom window of our heroine Cass, who we have just seen shut off a talking alarm clock. He leers at the lovely young thing in the bed, then inexplicably leaves, then returns to find the bed empty, and…boo! Cass scares him from behind, and we see that she wasn’t scared for a minute.
No more were we. Nothing about the relaxed manner of the sequence, not to mention its placement in the movie, fools us into thinking that actual menace has entered the story at this point. But of course, this isn’t the only thing that makes the scene so lame, nor the main thing. No, what really earns this interlude a place in the annals of feebleness is that it’s at this point that we fully register that…she’s blind. And that means that this guy wore a scary mask to scare his blind girlfriend.
“I was gonna scare you since you always feel my face first,” he explains. So he rode all the way to her house wearing it under his helmet, and climbed a ladder in it? Sorry, not buying.
You can watch for yourself, starting at about 7:05 into the above embed, which, by the way, is of Shaitani Parbat, the Hindi dub of Hills Have Eyes Part 2, thus allowing you to savor the movie with just a dash of international spice.
4. It Compares Favorably to Deadly Friend
Whatever the limitations of Hills Have Eyes Part 2, it’s better than Craven’s release from the following year, Deadly Friend. Right? Or are there legions of Samantha-heads who feel toward that movie the way I feel toward Part 2?
As I recall, the demise of the great Anne Ramsey was the most amusing moment in Deadly Friend. Maybe the only amusing moment.
Basketball decapitation, sure. But Deadly Friend can’t boast a…
3. Dog Flashback
It really shouldn’t be necessary to say anything other than “dog flashback” to convince you of Hills Have Eyes Part 2‘s greatness. The freakin’ dog has a freakin’ flashback, to an extended clip from HHE the First, complete with a shot of his face going all wavy. We can virtually hear him thinking “Hey this reminds me a lot of that time when…it’s almost as if it were yesterday…”
It starts at about 5:44 in the clip above.
2. The Reaper
Despite what looked like a pretty thorough send-off at the end of the original HHE, Michael Berryman’s Pluto returns in Part 2, and this time he’s top-billed. It’s another reason to like the film: it gave star billing to a memorable actor who, based on my couple of chats with him, is also a nice guy.
But Part 2 also had a cast member who wasn’t in the original film. A new mutant cannibal marauder, Papa Jupe’s brother “The Reaper,” was played by John Bloom, who at upwards of seven feet tall is thought to be the tallest actor ever to have played the Frankenstein Monster on film, in Al Adamson’s hilariously dreadful Dracula vs. Frankenstein in 1971. He was also the half-wit host body for The Incredible 2-Headed Transplant that same year. He popped up in smaller roles in everything from Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country to Harry and the Hendersons to Bachelor Party before passing on in 1999. But he may never have had quite as juicy a part as the Reaper.
Which leads us to…
1. “The Reaper Sucks!”
Near the end of the film (about 2:04 in the clip above), the Reaper makes a third-person boast: “Reaper don’t get fooled like Papa Jupe! Oh no!” To this, our young hero, trying to lure his enemy into a trap, yells out “The Reaper sucks!” Who needs Shakespeare, with dialogue like this?
I’ve treasured this insufferable city-boy taunt since I first saw the film, and it seems especially apt at the loss of Craven at just 76. So, on Craven’s behalf, and with much gratitude for his body of work, allow me echo the sentiment:
“The Reaper sucks!”
Previously by M.V. Moorhead:
The Top Ten Taxmen in Pop Culture
The Top Ten Triumphs of Tracey Walter
10 Bizarrely Great Manifestations of Brother Theodore