Less violent, less distressing and generally less down on life than Alexandre Aja's The Hills Have Eyes, this rote sequel is almost a tonal crossover from the horror genre to action, focusing on a platoon of armed-to-the-teeth soldiers who end up traipsing around the same abandoned nuclear test site full of hidden sinkholes, caves and other places out of which the prairie dog mutants from the previous film can pounce. Empowering this new crop of victims with massive assault rifles and other weapons is an odd choice, since the signature of the Hills franchise is a more pure form of victimization than an Aliens knock-off can deliver. Prior to now, the series has taken the trouble to flesh out the mutants as rape-crazy, biker-style predators who stalked unaware innocents, while The Hills Have Eyes II mostly uses them as pop-up monsters for blurry boo-moments -- here and there, a pickax-wielding mutant will suddenly appear behind one of our heroes, or a crusty arm will reach out of the darkness to yank someone backwards.

Unconvincing would be a generous way to describe the so-called National Guard troop served up for slaughter. Played by actors with no visible muscle tone and sporting un-colorful nicknames like "Private Mickey Mouse," the troop spends the first twenty minutes of the film enduring brow-beatings from the world's most cliched drill sergeant, who screams in everyone's faces and orders a slacker to stand on one foot with his rifle over his head. One of the troop members looks and sounds distractingly like Patton Oswalt doing a 'retarded soldier' character, while another wears a big bandana up around his forehead, which is also a grab from Aliens, if I remember correctly. The leads are played by too-model-perfect-to-be-a-grunt Jessica Stroup, too-wimpy-to-pass-for-a-soldier Michael McMillian and Daniella Alonso, whose entire character arc is boiled down to the fact that she carries a cell-phone video of her young son and watches it numerous times during the film, much to the boredom of the audience.

p>An unexpected, but persistent problem that plagues the film is bad makeup. Once the close-quarters fighting between soldiers and mutants begins, it becomes painfully clear that we're dealing with actors wearing slip-on masks, tamped down with a bit of special effects grease paint here and there. One mutant that's featured prominently in the latter half of the film almost seems to be wearing a Halloween mask of Sloth from The Goonies. Say what you will about Aja's take on the Hills people, he certainly brought some new creature feature ideas to the table, including one mutant who was almost nothing more than an amorphous blob -- a vanilla smoothie with eyes. Director Martin Weisz brings absolutely nothing new to the table, mutant-wise, and he also seems to struggle with some basic staples of the horror genre, like how to successfully hide your 'boo' moments until they are ready to be sprung. There was never a moment in Hills II when I couldn't have shut my eyes ten seconds in advance to miss such a moment, if I wanted to.

Speaking of shutting your eyes, there's one rape scene in the film, which for me, was jarring for all the wrong reasons. The scene is shot with such trepidation -- mostly close-ups of someone's distressed face and enough gruff, blurred movement to clue you to what's happening -- that you have to wonder why it was included in the first place. Was it originally more brutal, but the MPAA ordered it cut down? I doubt it, since Aja's film was much grittier. Did Weisz get a memo from Wes Craven before shooting entitled 'Things That Must Happen in a Hills Have Eyes Film,' obliging him to film it? That's probably what happened, but again, Weisz has made a film about butt-kicking empowerment, not victimization, so the clumsily shot scene fits in about as much as a rape scene in a Charlie's Angels film would. It's also followed immediately by the female escaping the rapist's clutches and pummeling him in the balls while pulling growl faces. Girl power!

There's no getting around it -- this film is really worthless, made for no other reason than that someone saw an opportunity to make a few bucks. I'm trying to think of a clever moment, a witty bit of dialogue, or an interesting shot sequence I can mention, to balance out the negative things, but I can't. It's just what I've described -- a bunch of unconvincing, monosyllabic soldiers wandering around an abandoned site, getting picked off one by one. In case we don't get it, one of them actually says "Hey, they're picking us off one by one!" I won't even discuss the ending, except to say that, like the rape sequence, it was unexpected for all the wrong reasons. The one good thing I'll say about The Hills Have Eyes II is that someone had the good sense to do away with that horrible, twangy mountain-man song that played over the trailer and every advance clip I saw of the film. It's almost out of my head now.