If the programming at Fantastic Fest reveals anything about the interests of contemporary horror fans, it's that they can't seem to get enough of watching people getting beat up, brutalized, debased or dismembered. But even though four consecutive horror films at the festival all focused on some aspect of intruders or invaders abusing their victims, the execution of each one was markedly different -- and consequently so was their quality.
'Hatchet II' is hardly the most technically accomplished of this year's offerings, and it's almost completely unoriginal, and yet it wears its vintage slasher clichés like merit badges, not merely acknowledging but gleefully celebrating their glorious familiarity. Adam Green, returning to the throwback aesthetic of 'Hatchet,' resuscitates his 2006 breakthrough with the same clumsy effectiveness as its indefatigable monster Victor Crowley, creating a movie that operates with a certain, charming simplicity, but doesn't dig up much else of interest than gore delivered by the gallon.
Taking place immediately after the events of the first 'Hatchet,' sole survivor Marybeth (now played by 'Halloween' alumna Danielle Harris) is rescued and returned to civilization by a lazy-eyed redneck who suggests that she is related to people responsible for the death of disfigured killer Victor Crowley (Kane Hodder). Confronting Reverend Zombie (Tony Todd) to demand his help, the two of them assemble a hunting party to venture into the swamp, recover the bodies of Marybeth's family members, and kill Crowley once and for all. But Marybeth's personal motives conflict with Zombie's professional ones, and their plan to take out Crowley quickly deteriorates when the group disperses into the bayou and hunters begin dying one at a time in mysterious, grisly ways.
When the first kill in a movie involves a man being choked to death with his own intestines until his head pops off, you get a good sense that a film is less interested in storytelling, character development or even general plausibility than simply being as gross as humanly possible. That isn't a bad thing, necessarily, but 'Hatchet II' offers the kind of gore that the word "gratuitous" does not do justice -- and indeed, it's the relative inventiveness of the kills that keep things interesting long after you stop caring that you never cared about the characters in the first place. In addition to featuring the year's second best gag involving a boat propeller and a human head, Green does things to human bodies that are so outlandish and over the top that it's only the technical proficiency of the special effects that keep the film from being an outright comedy.
At the same time, there's nothing except fan interest driving this movie's existence. Marybeth's motivation for returning to the swamps of New Orleans -- notably where everyone on her tourist expedition except for her died -- is because she wants to recover her brother and father's bodies, "because she has no family left," and maybe exact some revenge on Crowley. No cops are ever involved because Zombie talks her out of calling them, but at one point Marybeth's uncle says he's going to call them -- which we never know happens. And the assembly of hunters -- the actual recruitment process -- and their subsequent foray into the swamp only seems to occur in order to pad the film out to feature length, which it barely does ('Hatchet II' runs 89 minutes).
But of course, a movie about a killer requires people who will be killed, and Green puts together an effectively conventional cross-section of horror movie personalities in order to create his ensemble. But ultimately, the film's sort of depressing saving grace is its lack of ambition; notwithstanding those bloody payoffs, the straightforward and familiar way Green sets up and pays off his slasher-sequel homage (including some pointless, retconned mythology that connects the killer to his final victim) means that audiences can and will know exactly what they're walking into when they buy their tickets. The down side, on the other hand, is that audiences can and will know exactly what they're walking into when they buy their tickets.
Ultimately, 'Hatchet II' is a conventionally satisfying film, a serviceable addition to the slasher canon and a welcome alternative to the humorless, harrowing horror films that dominate the genre's current landscape. Plus, the film's one real breakthrough/accomplishment is that Dark Sky Films is releasing it in theaters nationwide without a rating, and national chain AMC will be showing it in major markets via their AMC independent program. And if its success leads to more films being distributed on a larger scale without being affected by the puritanical restraints of the MPAA, then it could truly become a benchmark of some kind. But personally speaking, I would have preferred to see that particular exhibition barrier broken down by something truly unique or transgressive, rather than a movie whose imagination is limited to the ways in which it can dismember a human body.