Cravenous: The Hills Have Eyes Part 2

hhe-ii

I’m honestly surprised that Wes Craven agreed to tackle a sequel to his 1977 movie The Hills Have Eyes, especially considering how adamantly against an open ending he was for A Nightmare on Elm Street. Then again, even though The Hills Have Eyes Part 2 came out after Nightmare, Craven started working on it before that film released. Perhaps his experience with this film was partially what drove his disinterest in leading another of his films down the franchise route.

There’s not really a whole lot to say about this sequel. True to most 80s horror sequels, it takes the original idea, guts it of value and back-fills it instead with more gore and more gratuitous nudity. That’s pretty much this film in a nutshell. The only original characters to return for this film are Michael Berryman’s Pluto (who gets royally shafted in this film), Robert Houston’s Bobby, and Janus Blythe’s hill girl Ruby, who now goes by Rachel. Oh and Beast, the German shepherd, who is probably the most interesting character from the entire film.

The premise is that Bobby is still severely traumatized by the events of the first film and when he learns that the motocross team he trains and has developed a high-octane fuel for is going to compete in the desert near where those events happened, he freaks and can’t go. So his wife, Rachel/Ruby, takes his place and leads his unknowing team of dirtbiking dudes (and their girlfriends) off into the empty terrain of her former home. Of course, they break down and the remaining cannibal clan find them. You’d think the clan would be led by Pluto (who, by the by, shouldn’t have made it to the sequel since it seemed pretty clear from the first film that Beast killed Pluto, but whatever). Instead, the leader is the Reaper, the brother of Jupiter, the leader from the first movie.

Now, that’s where the plot really falls apart for me. This introduction of the Reaper is painfully convenient, especially considering how important it was to stress how horrible Jupiter was in the first film—so horrible that his own father abandoned him alone in the desert to fend for himself. No mention there of a brother. And yet for the sequel, we get a brother who is supposedly even worse than the first guy? Perhaps they were only supposed to be brothers in name only, but if that was the case, then they needed to stress this a bit more. Otherwise, it just feels like a flimsy plot contrivance.

I would have much rather seen Pluto as the big bad of this film. Craven could have made him a proper badass to better explain how he survived the first film. Instead, he turned Pluto into a bumbling, skittering Falstaff to the Reaper’s terror. And, spoilers ahoy, he bites it well before the end of the film. A shame, really.

The returning character who doesn’t bite it but instead bites others? Beast. Most badass dog on the block, yo. So badass that he has flashbacks. I kid you not, denizens. Beast has a flashback to the events of the original movie, and it might possibly be one of the greatest moments in film history. Dog flashback. Thank you, Wes Craven. Also, thank you for letting the dog survive this time. And kill Pluto. Again.

Spoilers.

Craven does introduce an intriguing plot element by having one of the characters, Tamara Stafford’s Cass, be blind. I liked the utilization her other senses to figure out what was happening around her. Kane Hodder appears in the movie as a stuntman. Guess it was in between Friday the 13th films for him. Peter Frechette’s in it, for you two Profiler fans out there. Oh, and Penny Johnson plays Sue. It’s not until many, many moons later that she lands her job as Kassidy Yates on Deep Space Nine.

Not much else to say about this movie. It’s an okay sequel, but not really necessary. However, I’m glad that Craven took the reins on the sequel rather than let others tamper with his original creation. Wonder what might have happened with the Nightmare franchise had he held on to those reins as well…

Cravenous: Deadly Blessing

The next film in the Cravenous line-up is Wes Craven’s 1981 offering, Deadly Blessing.

deadlyblessing_poster

Could your poster be any more sexualized?

[Loba Tangent: Here’s a treat that might not be around for a while. I couldn’t find this Wes Craven movie on DVD, but the whole thing is currently on YouTube. Go now. Watch it while it’s still available, denizens.]

Right off the bat, you’ll notice several differences between Craven’s first two mainstream films and this one. First, it looks far more stylish and professional. Pays to have a far larger budget. Whereas The Last House on the Left came in around $90,000 and The Hills Have Eyes edged closer to $230,000, this one clocked in at an impressive $2.5 million. Switch up from 16MM to 35MM film, get yourself a big-name star with Ernest Borgnine, get yourself a big-name composer with James Horner (this was actually one of his first composing gigs), and, hell, while you’re at it, treat yourself with a couple of newly minted actresses: Sharon Stone and Lisa Hartman.

Craven actually got this movie after impressing one of the producers from his previous directing gig, a 1978 made-for-television movie called Summer of Fear (or Stranger in Our House, depending on where you look). Unfortunately, the only way I could find to watch this one is to buy the DVD, which is currently ridiculously priced because clearly people want to make money off the fact that Craven is now dead. Because people suck. It’s a shame, though, because this sounds like a movie I would totally dig, if only for that movie-of-the-week nostalgia. Based on a Lois Duncan novel, it stars Linda Blair as a young woman coming to terms with the fact that her recently orphaned cousin who moved in with the family might possibly be a witch. I’ve seen a couple of clips from it. Totally groovy late 70s style. Also? A beautiful classic Dodge Charger. Clearly, someone had reason to have some spare Chargers setting around, waiting for some screen time. Luckily, this one hadn’t been painted safety orange just yet.

Anyway, Max Keller decided he wanted Craven to direct the next picture he produced, which ended up being this somewhat sleek yet somewhat clunky “religious horror” tale set among a fictional fundamentalist religious sect known as the Hittites. This time, Craven was only a co-writer, working on revising a rather messily composed screenplay by Matthew Barr and Glenn Benest, the latter of whom was responsible for adapting Duncan’s novel for the Linda Blair MOTW. Even though Craven was only a co-writer, there’s little room for doubt that he took this script as an opportunity to this time explore some of those fundamentalist demons that haunted his own past. You also can recognize Craven’s aptitude for naturalistic dialogue. That was always one of the beautiful things I loved about Craven’s writing: He had this enviably innate sense of rhythm when it came to character dialogue. Even when dealing with the stilted delivery of green actors, that rhythm still made it through.

Ultimately, I would consider this movie the first major disappointment from Craven’s directorial oeuvre, thanks to several factors that were completely out of Craven’s control. First, of course, was the script, which he fixed but clearly did not write. Second was the too-late realization on Craven’s part, which he discussed in later interviews, that basically this film’s larger budget came at a much larger cost to his creative freedom. The linchpin evidence of this truth? The ending of this movie. It’s appalling. Seriously, it makes absolutely no sense at all. Slight spoilers ahoy: The movie, which as I have already mentioned, was a religious horror akin to movies like Rosemary’s Baby or The Sentinel, and moves along at a fairly logical pace, playing out more like a mystery thriller but with some solid scares and some appeasing horror gore. The ending, though? It’s like it came from a completely different film. It suddenly veers off onto some bizarre supernatural horror tangent, complete with cheesy demon rising from the pits of hell to capture our heroine in the final scene. It’s such a ludicrous moment that swings in so far from left field, you’d think Pluto was closer in orbit than this ending. It was shockingly ill-conceived and jars you completely out of the movie, which might not have been spectacular but was at least tolerable up to that point.

I get what the producers wanted. They wanted a purely shocking surprise ending that none of the viewers would expect. There’s nothing wrong with that, so long as it’s done with some modicum of logic. Even the most fantastical stories need to have some kind of logical structure or you’re going to lose your audience. Supernatural horror, when done well, can be incredibly frightening and satisfying. Craven would prove this point more than adequately when he finally decided to venture on his own terms into the realm of the supernatural with his greatest solo contribution to horror mythology. This, however, misses the mark in a surprisingly ludicrous fashion.

Besides, this film already contains a twist that works in context with the story laid out before its reveal. This is the tricky part though. This particular reveal is pretty significant and one that is telegraphed ahead of the reveal to the audience but in a way that some might miss. There’s another horror movie that came out a few years after Deadly Blessing with a similar, though more tantalizing, version of this film’s surprise reveal. I don’t really want to say more. Suffice it to say, this could have passed as the one mostly satisfying surprise of the movie.

As I mentioned previously, this time we get more familiar faces, with Ernest Borgnine pulling a quick “Dr. Loomis” guest role for Craven and Lisa Hartman and Sharon Stone in one of their earliest movie roles. Stone would never physically appear in another Craven movie, but we’d encounter her in mention many years later in another iconic Craven-directed movie—made all the more humorous thanks to those titillating rumors about Stone’s role in Craven’s divorce from his second wife, Mimi; Craven even confirmed part of the rumor but denied that it was entirely true…and that’s all that I’m going to say about that piffle. Best Sharon Stone moment from this film? Craven having a live spider dropped into her mouth during a pivotal dream sequence. Stone insisted the spider be de-fanged first, but still…mayhaps this is what drove her to such later animosity toward Craven?

Additionally, we see the return of Michael Berryman to the Craven fold, this time playing a rather lackluster character who doesn’t really contribute much to the story before being quickly snuffed out (spoilers). Oh, and Jeff East, who was most recognizable to me as the young Clark Kent from the 1978 Superman film. Finally, Craven cast as his lead actress Maren Jensen, who will be recognizable to sci-fi fans as Athena from the original Battlestar Galactica. Random, pointless trivia moment: This role was Jensen’s last before she retired from acting.

There’s not really a whole lot of substance to this film the way there was for the previous two movies. It’s a shame, because I would have loved to have seen Craven delve more into his own religious upbringing for this story. I also would have loved to have seen his solo take on the schism between the patriarchal religious clan and the secular, independent women depicted in this movie. We get a bit of this examination through the Borgnine character’s rejection of his son for marrying outside the sect and the subsequent shunning of his widow and her friends. Plus, there are some interesting conversation starters about how the religious sect views female sexuality versus female acquiescence.

Clearly, however, Craven was not really driving this train even though he still brought a great deal of technical acumen to the actual filming. Once more, he delivers a nicely paced film with excellently timed scares. I’d also like to point out one scene in particular that will be instantly recognizable to fans of Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street. It’s a bathtub scene, this time involving a serpent rather than a knife-gloved hand. The setup and execution of the introductory moments of the scene are almost identical between these two movies. My vote is for the latter version being more compelling, but it was a joy to see the spark of the idea catching fire in Craven’s mind.

Cravenous: The Hills Have Eyes

First, some full disclosure: I’ve skipped a Craven-directed movie, but some of you might not realize it. Remember what I wrote in my first Cravenous entry about the relationship between horror and porn during the late 70s and 80s? Well, Craven’s next documented movie after 1972’s The Last House on the Left was a 1975 Swedish-cocreated “arthouse porn” called The Fireworks Woman. You might have never heard of it as a Craven film because he wrote and directed it under the name “Abe Snake.” Gee, wonder why. He appears in the film as well. See?

The Fireworks Woman

Doesn’t he look groovy?

The movie is available online if you’d like to watch it. It’s about a brother and sister’s sexual obsession with each other. I decided to skip it, but you feel free to tackle that one, denizens. I’m holding out for the other Craven movie that features a canoodling brother and sister team.

/foreshadowing

[Loba Tangent: Oh, and just in case you’re wondering about the interconnections between these two genres? It’s because a lot of horror movies received X ratings from the MPAA, and the only theaters that would go anywhere near such a rating were…you guessed it: adult movie theaters. See? Travis Bickle could have taken Betsy to see a nice Wes Craven movie on their first date…]

So next in the horror line is Craven’s 1977 film The Hills Have Eyes.

We get some recognizable faces this go, with Horror Queen Supreme Dee Wallace in one of her first film roles. Also making one of his earliest appearances in movies is Michael Berryman, the gentleman whose unique visage graces this movie’s poster. Berryman, whose Hypohidrotic Ectodermal Dysplasia causes his odd appearance and leaves him with no sweat glands, hair, fingernails, or teeth, has bankrolled a full career from horror and science fiction movies, thanks in part to appearing as Pluto in this movie. We’ll even see him a few more times in future Craven films, as the director was often quite loyal to his actors.

As with his first film, Craven clearly still was fascinated by the exploration of humanity’s depravity and breaking points. He also was still fascinated by exploring the superficiality of our “civility.” No matter how refined we imagine ourselves to be, we still are animals—just scrape the surface a little bit and you’ll see. With this film, Craven wanted to explore exactly how much (or little) we’d need to scratch to find that ferocity. His test subjects?

A nice American family. They didn’t want to kill. But they didn’t want to die.

Fairly straightforward setup summed up perfectly in the movie’s tagline. We’ve got the all-American family extreme, traveling together across the country, camper in tow: Father, Mother, Three Siblings, One Son-in-Law, One Baby, and Two Dogs. What could be more white-bread, middle-class idyllic? The patriarch of the family, a recently retired Chicago cop who barely tolerates the simpering simplicity of his wife and two daughters, establishes himself as the cock of the walk right from the start.

Talk about foreshadowing.

He’s also on a mission, to locate a long-abandoned silver mine that he and his wife have jointly purchased for each other to celebrate their “silver anniversary” the next day. Even after being warned by the local gas station owner (who’s caught by the family in the middle of packing his own truck in preparation to leave the area) not to travel the dusty, dangerous dirt roads that strike off from the main highway, Mr. Retired Cop treats the warning as he must treat anything that doesn’t gel with what he wants: He ignores it.

Hilarity. It’s watching and waiting to ensue.

Also watching the camper is a band of hill people with questionable hygiene, even more questionable breeding, and supremely disturbing culinary tastes. All that tasty meat traveling along their roads? Too tempting to resist.

Just as Craven drew inspiration for his first horror movie from Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (which, in turn, drew inspiration from a 13th century Swedish ballad), this time he drew inspiration from the Scottish folklore of Sawney Bean. Mr. Bean and his clan lived in a sea cave, subsisting off the belongings and flesh of travelers who ventured too near Sawney’s domain. Who says studying folklore is a waste of time? Craven’s impressive knowledge of mythology and folklore served him quite well throughout his career, indeed.

Once this movie kicks off, Craven again offers us no reprieve from the action unfolding on-screen—or from the violence. This is a fight for survival, and as such, there are no time-outs or moments to catch our breath. Once our protagonists realize the dire nature of their predicament, it’s almost too late. Well, definitely too late for several members of the family (spoilers). However, when that survivalist mentality that Craven very obviously loved to explore so much finally kicks in for the remaining protagonists, it’s go time. We get a couple of great traps, including one that uses…disturbingly interesting bait.

We also get a, pardon the phrasing, bleak-as-fuck ending. Serious spoilers from this point forward: Some of the crimes that the cannibalistic clan perpetrate upon our wholesome American family are the sexual assault of one sister (though far less disturbing than anything from The Last House on the Left, it’s still troublesome that Craven felt the need to include it and the resulting tipple into the rape revenge trope), the murder of the other sister, and the kidnapping of that sister’s baby for the purpose of holding a baby barbecue. Because I heard they taste like chicken. When the baby’s father realizes that his wife is dead and his daughter is missing, nothing could stop him from going out into the hills to bring her back.

Admittedly, the ending could have been far worse than it actually was. Craven initially contemplated having the clan go through with killing the baby. His own crew threatened mutiny, however, if he chose to go that route. Instead, he went with having the baby’s father succeed in capturing the kidnapping cannibal and murdering him in one of the most high-octane first-person death scenes to appear in movies up to that point. Placing us in the position of the cannibal, we witness the utter loss of control…of civility…by the baby’s father, Doug, as he repeatedly plunges the dagger into his captive, well past the point of death. Logic, however, cannot penetrate the control of “fight-or-flight” evolutionary programming to which Doug has completely succumbed. Craven is almost purely focused on forcing us to watch Doug’s unraveling, cutting away only to show the knife plunging in every now and again or the emotional distress of the cannibal’s sister as she watches her brother’s murder. The camera and the audience, however, is captured by the pure descent of Doug into that most primal survivalist mode. We hear his guttural grunting, we see the way spittle flies from his mouth, hangs from his lips, spews downward onto the camera. And when Doug finally stops? The movie ends.

Literally, the last thing we see is Doug, the realization of his actions just beginning to register on his face before the scene freezes and fades to red. Even with The Last House on the Left, Craven gave us a moment of decompression before fading to black, perhaps to regroup alongside the protagonists as they begin to process their actions. Not so in this case. The original ending that Craven filmed was far less dystopic, with Doug returning with his daughter and the cannibal’s sister (who had helped him rescue his daughter) to meet up with the rest of the survivors and begin their journey back to civilization. Craven opted for the more shocking and bleak ending, forcing us to process Doug’s actions and contemplate on our own the ramifications of all that had just transpired.

Doug’s devolution isn’t the only one we witness within this film. Two of the siblings, Bobby and Brenda, when encountering the patriarch of the cannibal clan after their trap failed to kill him, both quickly embrace their more primal responses. Both siblings have been running on fear and adrenaline for many hours—Bobby being the first to know something was wrong with where they were stranded after finding one of the family dogs disemboweled in the hills (yeah, Craven took the low blow by killing one of the dogs; he also used an actual dead dog in the scene, having collected the body from the sheriff’s department), and Brenda being the sister who was raped a few hours earlier—and so their violent response is almost synchronous and definitely autonomic.

Even the surviving dog plays a role in Craven’s character study. Beast in many ways seems not only intent on protecting his human family but also in seeking revenge for the death of his mate, Beauty. Some of Beast’s actions seemed somewhat anthropomorphic, but Craven drew nice parallels between his primal predatory instinct toward the cannibals and the human protagonists’ similar instincts: Want to survive? Then kill.

Craven’s insatiable need to examine the primal undercurrent of human civility is a fascinating one that continues to be relevant today. What are the factors that contribute to our standings in society? Are we born with intrinsically good or bad intentions? Or are there external circumstances that contribute to our choices? Craven seems to argue a bit in favor of both points with this movie (kind of). We learn through secondhand exposition that the cannibal family’s patriarch was born with evil intent in his heart (as secondhand information, however, we must extrapolate our own opinions of this information). Craven also once more focuses on class and education standing as influencing certain aspects of the story (the well-heeled American family with their college-educated children versus the uneducated hill people who have turned their survival into a bloodsport), as well as an underlying current of misogyny. The retired cop character ignores the thoughts of the women around him. The sister from the cannibal family is chained because she wishes to leave the hills and find a better life. The mother of the cannibal family is almost incidental to the story beyond the fact that she was a prostitute in her earlier years. And, of course, there is the continued use of sexual assault as the ultimate attack against women in horror films. Combine all these elements together and they equal another offering from Craven in which he posits that, yet again, we are the ultimate horror monsters.