“The following film is based on fact…” The slightly dubious claim which opens The Hills Have Eyes Part II, belated sequel to Wes Craven’s 1977 savage cannibal wilderness horror, the introductory monologue recalls the events of that film and ends on a warning, that “none can forget that far out in the unmapped desert, beyond the towns and roads, the hills still have eyes.”
Released in the summer of 1984 and now remastered on Blu-ray for Arrow films, The Hills Have Eyes Part II is a cash-in desperately short of cash, once again written and directed by Wes Craven who was at the time disillusioned and struggling in the film industry, his hopes for 1982’s Swamp Thing having been dashed when the distributors were sold the weekend the film was released.
His script entitled A Nightmare on Elm Street having struggled for finance, Craven needed to be seen to be a working director so reluctantly agreed to the proposed sequel to his 1977 hit which grossed $25 million on its meagre budget, but with limited resources and little enthusiasm the results cannot be regarded as a classic by any standards, with Craven himself regarding it as “work in progress” which was abandoned when the money ran out.
Three of the cast of the original return, Michael Berryman as Pluto, thought to have been killed in the finale of the first film, Janus Blythe as his feral sister Ruby, rescued from her life as a savage and now living under the assumed name Rachel as a civilised member of society, and (briefly) Robert Houston as Bobby, one of the last survivors of the Carter family who were ambushed by the inbred savages who haunted the former nuclear test zone of the Nevada desert.
Still traumatised by those events which saw the death of most of his extended family, Bobby understandably declines to join the cross-country trip which will see is friends traverse that same stretch of land on the way to a motorbike meet where they hope to demonstrate their new fuel superformula, a wise choice as a short cut along a dirt road leads to a damaged bus and an encounter with the vengeful Pluto and his uncle, the Reaper.
Switching from the close-knit family of The Hills Have Eyes to the looser structure of “teens in danger” made popular by the Friday the 13th franchise, the fourth chapter of which was released only two months before, Part II suffers immediately from the inexperience of the cast and their underwritten roles, Craven relying on cliché to get them into peril and contrivance to pick them off with unfeasible booby traps.
Led by Tamara Stafford as Cass and Kevin Spiritas as her biker boyfriend Roy, the ensemble are largely forgettable with only a young Penny Johnson immediately recognisable from later having made into space both on Deep Space Nine and The Orville, though at 7’4” the late John Bloom who plays the Reaper can be easily spotted in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country as one of the inmates of Rura Penthe, the Klingon prison planet.
The wilderness of the filming locations of Joshua Tree, California, adding great production value, it was not an easy shoot in the isolated desert, production designer Dominick Bruno recalling in the accompanying documentary Blood, Sand and Fire that “it was really tough and miserably cold,” with conditions especially difficult for Berryman whose hypohidrotic ectodermal dysplasia makes it difficult for his body to regulate temperature in the fluctuating extremes of the desert.
The compromises of the production apparent, wires are visible to pull actors from their bikes, skylines have been blacked out in post-production to create the appearance of night shooting and stock footage from the first film extends the runtime, Blythe explaining her character was promised an additional scene which was never shot, leaving her bleeding, unconscious and unaccounted for at the finale.
Caught between a lacklustre “man versus nature” horror film and an inept action movie whenever the bikes are involved and absent atmosphere or tension, despite this the commentary provided by horror podcast ensemble The Hysteria Continues demonstrates a genuine affection for The Hills Have Eyes Part II which is not blind to the shortcomings of the film, among them “the most stereotypical group of teen victims you can conceive,” their knowledge going far beyond their self-confessed favourites of the slasher genre.