Although clearly inspired by ’80s slasher movies, HATCHET had enough going for it to appeal to horror fans interested in something more than just creative kills. Sadly, HATCHET II delivers little of interest to anyone but gore-hounds. Yes, it should appeal to fans of the original- the self-proclaimed “Hatchet Army” – but HATCHET II falls prey to a problem that typically plagues sequels: it’s not just more of the same; it’s way more of the same, as if more and bloodier kills are all that were needed – forget about the clever humor and aura of mystery that made the gore in the first HATCHET feel like part of a really good, fun horror movie. “Hold on to all of your pieces,” warns the poster tagline, and it might just as well be directorial advice to the editor: HATCHET II is little more than a series of splatter effects set-pieces held together loosely, if at all, by the screenplay.
HATCHET II gets off to a decent start, picking up literally where the last frame of HATCHET left off, as Marybeth (now played by Danielle Harris) escapes from Victor Crowley and finds shelter in the cabin of Jack Cracker (John Carl Buechler, who did the makeup in the previous film). There’s a good disgusting joke regarding a drink container that fans of the first film will recognize, and there is an equally funny bit with Jack thinking he has found the mother lode: a video camera with a “Girls Gone Wild” type recording – only to be sorely disappointed when the girls (Mercedes McNab and Joleigh Fioravanti, returning in cameos) are too busy insulting each other to disrobe.
Things go almost immediately downhill, however, when Victor Crowley predictably shows up to dispatch Jack. Killing off a returning character is an overly familiar cliche, and HATCHET II does nothing amusing or unexpected with it (unlike HATCHET, which played with our expectations that the white guy’s black buddy would be the first to go). Instead, we get an overly protracted gore scene in which Crowley disembowels Cracker, who miraculously does not die but instead runs away – until he comes to the end of his rope – er, intenstines – at which point Crowley uses said intestines to slowly pulls Cracker back across the floor before delivering the coup de grace.
The scene establishes the formula that will be repeated almost without variation throughout the rest of HATCHET II: Something bloody will happen, but the victim will not die, giving Crowley time to inflict more damage, and he will take his own sweet time about it. The promotional campaign is breathlessly touting that HATCHET II is being released “uncut and unrated.” At times like these, it feels un-edited as well, as if every possible frame were included. Consequently, the rhythm of the kill scenes is off; they don’t build so much as drag on. With the victim’s fate sealed, there is no suspense, only a vague curiosity about just how long the torture will be extended – usually well past the point when all but the most hardcore horror hounds will have lost interest.
As for the story and characters – well, there ain’t none, at least not much. There is a back story, explaining the origin of Victor Crowley, but it is delivered in an unimaginative way: a lengthy flashback with voice over. It’s a long piece of exposition that comes too early in the film, slowing things down instead of doing what a sequel can do best: hit the ground running, on the foundation laid by its predecessor.
The flashback does tie up some loose ends from HATCHET, but most of it relating to Crowley’s birth- which involves infidelity and a curse – does nothing to affect the events that follow. It also dispels some of the mystery surrounding the character. One of the interesting elements of the first film was that Crowley was the subject of conflicting legends: was he dead or a live? a serial killer, a zombie, or a ghost?
Once the back story is out of the way, HATCHET II finally gets started, sort of. Marybeth wants to go back into the swamp to retrieve the bodies of her dead brother and father, so she enlists the aid of Reverend Zombie (Tony Todd), who has his own reasons for wanting to be rid of Crowley (Crowley is bad for the tourism business). We get an extended sequence of the Reverend enlisting a posse of sorts to go into the swamp and take out the rampaging killer, a scene padded with shots of the camera slowly panning across anonymous faces in the crowd. (Judging from the response at the cast and crew screening, this was a chance to give cameos to everyone who worked on the film.)
Around about this time, you know that HATCHET II is in serious trouble. The script is filled with obligatory lip service dialogue to explain why characters do things we never believe they would do; we’re simply supposed to accept the behavior because how else are we going to get a dozen more victims into Crowley’s path? Marybeth will not go to the police. The victim’s from the first film will have no one else looking for them who would go to the police. Marybeth will hook up with Reverend Zombie even though he is not particularly trustworthy. Her uncle will go along for the ride against his better judgement. Reverend Zombie will hire lots of hunters because he wants safety in numbers, but when in the danger zone, he will split the group up, thus undermining the safety that comes from large numbers. Lots of other people will follow him into the swamp, hoping to claim the bounty on Crowley’s head, even though most of them don’t believe Crowley exists. (Boy, are they in for a rude awakening!)
Even with all the set-up, there is ultimately not much to do once the posse gets into the swamp. There is a connection between Marybeth and Crowley, but it is never exploited. Although Marybeth should be the lead character, she is sidelined while we watch the newbies killed off one by one. Reverend Zombie turns out to be the prime mover, more or less leading the lambs to slaughter, believing that when Crowley has sated his thirst for revenge, he will finally stop terrorizing the swamp.
Unfortunately, this last plot thread leads to the all-time worst twist ending. The Reverend – who knows precise details about events that took place outside his personal knowledge – is surprisingly ignorant about crucial details that should be within his personal reach (like the name of his late friend’s brother). Even worse, Marybeth, who is aware of Zombie’s error, keeps her mouth shut until it’s too late to save anybody, springing her revelation like a trump card after the damage has been done.
CHARACTERS & PERFORMANCES
One of the great things about HATCHET was that the characters were engaging; even when we knew that the rules of the genre marked them as archetypal victims (e.g., the Jerk), we were sorry to see them go. As much as the film was based on a gore aesthetic, it still maintained suspense, presenting its kills in a manner designed to provoke screams of fear, not shouts of approval.
HATCHET II, conversely, gives us generic victims whose deaths never register as anything more than bodies to be battered bloody, and the cast does little to bring them to life before their unexpectedly untimely deaths. Even Parry Shen, who was so funny the first time out, seems completely stumped by his obligatory role (as the twin brother, of course), which requires him to perform a variation on his previous routine (speaking with affected accents that do not match his Asian appearance). What was funny once, provokes only exasperated sighs the second time.
Kane Hodder is back as Victor Crowley and (in flashback) Victor’s father. Although he pulled off a nice dramatic moment or two in HATCHET, here he is pushed too far by writer-director Adam Green, and the emotions start to feel forced and melodramatic – a director indulging his star at the expense of the film.
If you wonder why I’m blaming Green for Hodder’s performance, the reason is that something similar happens with Danielle Harris, when she is called upon to express grief. Harris is cute and feisty, but the script doesn’t know what to do with her: is she an emotional wreck or a righteous avenger? Also, she seems less authentic than Tamara Feldman did in HATCHET; there is something a bit too glamorous and “Hollywood” about Harris for us to accept her as the daughter of a local gator-poacher. Her presence is really a sop to the horror fans, who remember her from HALLOWEEN IV and the 2007 HALLOWEEN remake.
Tom Holland seems to be around for much the same reason: not because he used to act way back when, but because horror fans may remember him for having directed FRIGHT NIGHT. He’s given more or less the John Agar role, and he certainly makes an effort, but he comes across a bit stiff, as if uncomfortable being back in front of the camera.
Tony Todd, having made a cameo in HATCHET, is rewarded with a lead role here. A fine actor who has been poorly used by the horror genre since his memorable debut in CANDYMAN1992), Todd seems to be enjoying himself as Reverend Zombie, but his joy may come at the expense of the film. He throws in a series of exaggerated spook-show hand gestures, suggesting that the Reverend is a charlatan, yet the scripts seems to want us to take his knowledge of the supernatural as authentic. Todd is also victimized by some awkward dialogue that sound uncharacteristic when coming from a voodoo houngan.
THE REAL PROBLEM
Ultimately, HATCHET II never makes any of its characters into anything interesting enough to hold our attention. For all the back story dumped on us in the first act, the lead characters turn out to be not much more important than the supporting victims; there is little or no dramatic tension, because the connections between characters are too tenuous.
When Trent (R. A. Mihailoff) finally comes to grips with Crowley, the scene should explode on screen, because Crowley is settling a personal score instead of targeting another random victim. (Trent was one of three kids whose Halloween prank resulted in Crowley’s death, from which he returned with a literal vengeance.) But the scene does not exploit this possibility with an exchange of closeups or even a glance of recognition. Nor does HATCHET II play with the fact that, for once, we might root for Crowley.
Instead, the only tension in the scene comes from the fact that Mihailoff played Leatherface in THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE III, a film for which Hodder acted as stunt supervisor. If you know the behind-the-scenes background, then you know why Trent is just about the only character who lays a glove on Crowley: it’s so we can see a cool fight seen between two stunt men, one who played Leatherface and the other who played Jason (Hodder wore the hockey mask in FRIDAY THE 13TH 7 through X). It’s almost a good moment – the only time when Victor Crowley seems to work up a little sweet, even seem almost vulnerable – but the end result is not half what it should have been.
Even more disappointing is the final face-off between Crowley and Reverend Zombie. The later has certainly done enough wrong so that we are happy to see Crowley sights land on him, but there is no strong personal connection. (Zombie, we are told, could have been – but was not – with Trent and his friends on the fateful night of Crowley’s death.) Considering the effort spent on establishing a back story, there should have been something in there to make the confrontation payoff on something that had happened in the past.
Also, it would have helped if Zombie had not been such an idiot – ditching his shot-gun and preferring to go hand-to-hand with Crowley. As with Mihailoff, the motivation here is less the characters than the actors: instead of Leatherface-versus-Jason, we get Candyman-versus-Jason. The script needed to give us some reason to think the Reverend might prevail, something that would put the outcome in doubt – something hat would make us sit up and take notice, instead of sit back and wait for the inevitable demise of another victim.
COUP DE GRACE
It must be said that, for all its failings, HATCHET II ends on a wonderful note, one that works brilliantly by setting up an overused cliche and then overturning it. SPOILER For once, at least, a final girl does what we have always wanted her to do to make sure that her apparently unkillable opponent does not rise one final time before the fadeout. END SPOILER
In a film plagued by sequel cliches, it is nice to see that setting up the next installment in the franchise was not a concern that was allowed to ruin the ending of this film. If there ever is a HATCHET III, one hopes it takes its cue from this moment and tries to do something subversive with the slasher formula, instead of simply offering up more lambs to the slaughter.
HATCHET II (Dark Sky Films, October 1, 2010). Written and directed by Adam Green. Cast: Danielle Harris, Tony Todd, Kane Hodder, Parry Shen, Tom Holland, R.A. Mihailoff, A.J. Bowen, Alexis Peters, Ed Ackerman, David Foy, Rick McCallum, John Carl Buechler, Kathryn Fiore, Mercedes McNab.