‘So you think you’re lucky to be alive’
Continuing the story of a murderous clan of inbred cannibals living deep in the rocky outcrops of the North American desert, we are re-introduced to Bobby (Robert Houston), a survivor from the first film, who is still traumatised by the events that saw most of his family brutally killed.
Despite his psychiatrist’s attempts to get him back into the desert to face his fears (under the umbrella of riding across with his new biker gang, to show off his newly invented motorbike super-fuel cough), Bobby stays at home, whilst his road-hugging mates do the honours. Amongst their number are Rachel (played by Janus Blythe, she was the character Ruby in the first film, the turncoat cannibal daughter who saved the remaining Carter family members). Also returning are Pluto (Michael Berryman), Brenda, (Susan Lanier) and Beast the dog. Inevitably, the touring party are intercepted by yet more cannibals in the desert and with a cavalier attitude to events and ‘facts’ in the prequel, a final showdown with the Reaper (John Bloom, though voiced by Nicholas Worth from the sleaze classic, Don’t Answer the Phone!).
Despite being the second highest grossing horror film of 1977 (behind Exorcist II: The Heretic, perhaps a bad omen), taking some $25,000,000 from a paltry $230,000 investment, the sequel was saddled with a disinterested studio (VTC) and a $700,000 cheque. Craven’s claims that he only made the film as he needed the money ring a little hollow; in the same year, he was directing the break out smash, A Nightmare on Elm Street, budgeted at $1.8 million – whilst the film’s success spurred the studio on to complete The Hills Have Eyes Part II, it was halted mid-production due to costs (hence Elm Street’s earlier release date).
The interruption to the film’s production meant Craven had to assemble the film with footage already shot, necessitating clips from the original film being re-used to pad it out. Clearly a frustrating shoot but none of this, budget nor studio apathy, come any where near to excusing the shambles onscreen. Through sheer bad luck, the two surviving ‘urban’ characters were the least interesting in the prequel and attempts to flesh them out here fail miserably, with Rachel’s torn personality though remarkable acclimatisation to fat-headed American middle-classdom, particularly wearisome.
The newer characters are even worse; meet Roy, Harry, Hulk (yes, Hulk), Foster, Sue and Jane as well as The Reaper, described as being Jupiter’s big brother, despite the first film categorically nailing the cannibal family tree out without any mention of him. Perhaps the most remarkable element is that Craven built such a credible nightmarish vision in 1977, yet forgets what made it so horrifying; the bad guys are now mere cartoons, whilst the innocents are, to a man, as annoying as they come, all fully deserving to be dispatched even quicker than they are.
The failing of many a horror film is to present the viewer with heroes who are either unlikeable or uninteresting and with unrealistic threats that are we are not able to relate to. Alas, Craven sees fit to trample all over his groundwork and make a film which is the forebear of so many modern horror films – one which tries to over-explain rather than plant ideas and ramp up the tension.
So lacklustre is the main body of the film, that it seems churlish to even mention the now notorious ending. The ending is not the worst bit of the film, only symptomatic of how overly contented directors can dismiss their audience as having such low demands. Craven has since disowned the film, which is rather like dismissing your own washing-up; it doesn’t go away and it will always have your mark on it. Musical duties were handled by Harry Manfredini, best known for his much-aped score to Friday the 13th. Replacing Don Peake’s metallic, inventive score with synth flotsam is the very least you should expect.
Remarkably, many of the actors went on to have meaningful careers. Bloom, already a veteran of the likes of The Incredible 2-Headed Transplant, continued to play over-sized characters until his death in 1999. Houston became an Oscar-winner (for directing not acting, natch), whilst Berryman continues to act in horror films up to the present day.
Daz Lawrence, HORRORPEDIA