It took a few viewings, but I finally unlocked the secret of enjoying 1984's The Hills Have Eyes Part II. Normally I'd just ignore a bad movie, but something kept nagging at me about this one, as if I was just in the wrong mindset on my previous viewings and denying myself the enjoyment that a few of my own friends have had with it over the years, not to mention the occasional internet stranger. So when Arrow announced a new Blu-ray, I figured I'd give it yet another look to see if I could "get it right" this time, and even if I didn't - well, at least I'd have something to replace my terrible full-frame, murky as all hell DVD copy just in case I ever needed to watch it again. I'm all about them silver linings.
As it turns out, it DID click this time! How, you ask? OK, first off, you have to wipe yourself of the knowledge that Wes Craven wrote and directed it, which sets expectations for the film it can't possibly hit. For those unaware, Craven didn't particularly want to do the film, but was flat broke and out of work after the failure of Swamp Thing, so he took the job when it was offered since didn't have ownership rights - if he said no, someone else would happily cash that much-needed check, and his name would probably still be on it somewhere anyway. But the production was cut short, prompting a hasty cobbling together of what they had (with flashback footage to pad it out a bit) so they could make something releasable out of it. Craven immediately disowned the film, and set about getting his next movie made... which was Nightmare on Elm Street.
You read that correctly. One of the most unfortunate things about Craven's filmography is that most of them will be displayed in release order, not production order, so to those who won't take the time to look up the copyright dates, it looks like he followed up his greatest triumph with this junky sequel. In reality, it was the other way around, but it in no way helped Hills 2's chances of looking good when people watch it as "his followup to Nightmare" (ironically, his actual next movie was Deadly Friend, which isn't exactly a highlight for him either). But as he never got to properly finish it and publicly disowned it, I don't think it's fair to compare it to the true "Wes Craven films" any more than you would Piranha II for Jim Cameron, or Solo for Lord & Miller.
And the title doesn't help, because Hills 1 and Hills 2 are essentially different sub-genres. So basically what you gotta do is ignore the credits entirely and watch this movie as an unofficial Italian sequel to Friday the 13th. I've written a lot about such films; completely unrelated Italian films that are presented to audiences in some territories as proper sequels to Dawn of the Dead (Fulci's Zombie), Terminator (Shocking Dark, which is actually an Aliens ripoff), and of course, the many "Evil Dead" sequels. Obviously, these films never have the slightest thing to do with the franchises they're piggybacking onto, and any specific similarities are coincidental, but as long as they share a general sub-genre (i.e. "zombies"), the Italian distributors would decide they were fair game to slap a number on a popular title and call it a day.
With that history in mind, it's almost too easy to think of some Italian horror fan seeing this movie as "Friday the 13th Part 5" in the mid-'80s. I mean, let's face it - while the film's plot is more or less identical to the original Hills (in that a big vehicle full of people breaks down in the desert, then they get killed off by cannibals who live in the mountains there), the group of characters seems far more suited for Crystal Lake than the desert. While there are two returning survivors (three if you count the dog), they're not really the focus - our heroes are a group of bike racers and their girlfriends, and they're all played by the same kind of actors you'd see in a Friday film (in fact one of them, Kevin Blair, actually DID star in The New Blood a few years later). As a "bonus", the film was composed by Harry Manfredini, and as you probably know by now that means the score sounds exactly like Friday the 13th anyway, since the guy - as noted by one of the Hysteria Lives podcast guys, who contribute a commentary - "he has *a sound*".
The slasher vibe doesn't end there; the characters also play pranks on each other and split off to have sex, only to get picked off by Pluto (Michael Berryman), who survived his seeming death in the first film. He's got a partner named The Reaper (his uncle, if I'm following the family tree), but they rarely appear together, and Reaper only really starts being proactive after (spoiler for 35-year-old movie ahead!) Pluto is killed again. As a result, the film very much follows a "lone brute kills teens one by one" kind of template as opposed to the original's "family vs family" survival movie dynamic, so you're more likely to be thinking about any number of '80s slashers more often than the 1977 film it's technically following. No, this one's a straight-up body count movie, complete with a variety of implements and a "find the dead friends" sequence, except this is a weird movie so the person finding them all is blind and has to keep feeling their dead faces to figure out who's body it is.
That's far from the only "off" thing about this particular film. The blind girl is kind of like Daredevil whenever it won't hurt the slasher suspense; she can hear soda and sense people are nearby and that sort of nonsense, but is occasionally unable to detect the hulking killer about to attack. And one of the heroes is Ruby (Janus Blythe), the hill person from the first movie who ended up helping them out, but she's a completely normal person now, and if you're thinking maybe her feral side will come back as she's out in the desert and "reunited" with her brother Pluto... well, you're wrong. He recognizes her (and helpfully fills in the backstory of how he survived and who Reaper is), but otherwise treats her like the other racers, and she in turn rarely gets to show off much of her survival instincts that were so crucial last time around. It's almost like they accidentally cast the same actress as a different character and had to quickly throw in a few lines to connect them as one. And yes, the dog has a flashback sequence.
Jokes about the pooch's strong memory aside (they've all been told by now, and they're certainly not funny anymore), it's a pity that the flashbacks make it hard to forget that you're watching a sequel as opposed to some standalone B-movie slasher, because again, that's actually what this movie is, and you'll have far more fun with it if you put less stock into its ties to a superior film. Despite supposedly being unfinished it never feels particularly "broken" in any way - no glaring plot holes or character gaps, and thankfully most of the unusual/padding kind of stuff occurs early, so you'll largely forget all about it by the time the racers start getting slashed. And Arrow's Blu has a nice transfer at its proper aspect ratio, so you can at least actually SEE it for a change. It's not a great film by any means, but it's certainly got enough B-movie fun to enjoy, and it's nowhere near as bad as its rep - which I myself have probably contributed to in the past.
As pretty much always, Arrow has included a newly shot retrospective with a few folks from the movie, including Berryman and Blythe, plus producer Peter Locke, who like Craven was just kind of going for the ride that was going to happen with or without them. They are honest about the film's shortcomings, but have nothing but good things to say about Wes, and give credit to this or that person or chunk of the movie when warranted, so it's not a thirty-minute bitchfest. To me, that's the best way to go about these things - let's not forget that every movie is someone's favorite, and they don't want to drop good money on a special edition just to hear the people who made it tell them they're wrong for liking it. And now that it's been given a respectable release, we can all sit back and appreciate that Wes Craven's "worst" movie is still entertaining - may every filmmaker in his wake be so lucky.