The Hills Have Eyes, 1977.
Directed by Wes Craven.
Starring Susan Lanier, Dee Wallace, Michael Berryman, Robert Houston, Russ Grieve, John Steadman, Lance Gordon, Martin Speer, James Whitworth, Virginia Vincent, Janus Blythe and Cordy Clark.
An all-American family travelling across country fall foul of a clan of cannibals that live in the desert.
Quite surprisingly, this is the first UK Blu-ray release of the late Wes Craven’s 1977 notorious horror outing The Hills Have Eyes; surprising because, despite the title being a well-known and not very obscure movie, the hilariously awful 1984 sequel got an HD release first. Nevertheless, it’s here now and thankfully it was cult movie specialists Arrow Video who got to give it its UK Blu-ray debut.
The Carters are a typical all-American family driving across the US desert to spend some family time together celebrating mum and dad’s silver wedding anniversary. Stopping off at a run-down gas station they are warned by the grumpy old owner about staying on the main road and not venturing off into places they don’t belong, but as is the way in these situations the family end up off-road with a broken-down car and little in the way of resources. Dad ‘Big’ Bob (Russ Grieve – Foxy Brown) and son-in-law Doug (Martin Speer – Coma) walk off in opposite directions to look for help while mum Ethel (Virginia Vincent – The Black Orchid), son Bobby (Robert Houston – 1941), daughters Lynne (Dee Wallace – The Howling) and Brenda (Susan Lanier – Cut!) and Lynne and Doug’s baby Katy all stay with the Winnebago, and all seems well until the two family dogs run off into the hills forcing Bobby to go look for them. What follows is a nightmare as a family of feral cannibals, led by the fearsome Papa Jupiter (James Whitworth – Black Angels), stalk and attack the innocent Carters, who are forced to use desperate measures in order to survive.
What strikes you most about The Hills Have Eyes is what an all-round improvement it is over Wes Craven’s previous foray into horror, 1972’s The Last House on the Left. While still very much in the grindhouse tradition, Craven was working with a bigger (but still tiny) budget and was able to translate his staple themes of archetypal characters mirroring each other in a more cohesive way, and the success of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre a couple of years before meant that backwoods horror and political allegories were all the rage in genre filmmaking. It also helped that Craven cast relative unknown Michael Berryman (The Devil’s Rejects/Weird Science) in the role of Pluto, one of Jupiter’s sons, as Berryman was born with 26 birth defects, giving him an unusual look that was capitalised on to promote the film, and 40 years later he is still the icon of the franchise and adorns most of the merchandise.
What doesn’t quite hold up all these years later, however, is the overall look of the cannibals themselves, with both James Whitworth’s Papa Jupiter and Lance Gordon as his other son Mars looking like they went a bit mad with the dressing up box and came out of it with a selection of bad wigs, stick-on scars and false teeth. The character of Mama, the matriarch of the cannibal clan, is also an unnecessary addition that adds nothing to the plot and threatens to take away from the immediate physical threat of Jupiter, Mars and Pluto. And then there’s Ruby (Janus Blythe – Eaten Alive), the daughter of the cannibal family, and although you (unfortunately) have to watch the sequel to give her character a bit of background, she does play an integral part of the plot. However, like her male siblings, time has not been kind to her and she resembles one of the human survivors from Planet of the Apes in what was possibly once a bit of a bit threatening look but now comes across as a bit camp.
What is possibly more interesting than the overly stuffed cannibal unit is the dynamic between the members of the Carter family. ‘Big’ Bob is obviously the patriarchal figure who doesn’t mince his words but there is a conflict between him and the more laid-back Doug that adds a little friction in the early stages of the film when the car breaks down and the two men – both heads of their own families – have to go in search of help, Bob with gun in hand and Doug preferring not to be armed. It’s a point that is brought to the forefront a little more in the 2006 remake but here it plays as a simmering subplot about attitudes towards gun culture and self-protection until the moment when Doug has to step up and do what is necessary. Leaving the younger Bobby ‘in charge’ back at the Winnebago with a handgun also brings up the point about the use of firearms for protection and Bobby’s attitude is the same as his father’s, perhaps even more so, which plays into Doug’s actions later on.
But as with most Wes Craven films you can view it as some sort of intellectual social commentary or you can view it as a simple horror movie and The Hills Have Eyes is as uncompromising a horror film as anything else that the 1970s could throw at audiences. Obviously, 40 years later the films initial impact is going to have dulled a little but The Hills Have Eyes really only has two factors that go against it. The first is the existence and enduring legacy of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a film that heavily influenced Craven’s movie (and he even borrowed a couple of Chain Saw’s crew) and, thanks to its timeless quality, continues to be the standard for redneck/backwoods horror, meaning that The Hills Have Eyes will always play second fiddle. The second is the fact that it has a remake that is arguably better, certainly more brutal and more in line with modern audience sensibilities which, when it comes to down to choosing which one to watch on a Saturday night in front of the TV, means the remake is probably the obvious choice.
However, all things considered and going on its own merits, The Hills Have Eyes is still a fun ride and Arrow have bulked up the package with some juicy extras, some of which were available on the previous Anchor Bay DVD release from the early 2000s such as the Looking Back on The Hills Have Eyes documentary that features interviews with Wes Craven, Michael Berryman, Robert Houston, producer Peter Locke (who had a small role in the movie as Mercury) and other cast and crew. There is also the old DVD commentary from Wes Craven and Peter Locke, which does reveal a few neat little facts about the making of the film. For new features there is an audio commentary from film academic Mikel J. Koven, a commentary from actors Michael Berryman, Janus Blythe, Susan Lanier and Martin Speer, interviews with Martin Speer and composer Don Peake, outtakes, the alternate ending in HD, new artwork, postcards, trailers and all manner of good stuff to tickle your fancy. It’s a bumper package of a film that felt like it has needed a format makeover for ages before it got lost amongst the reissues of other seminal classics from decades gone by. Whether The Hills Have Eyes is a stone-cold classic up there with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Halloween and The Exorcist is a discussion that could generate hours of conversation but sometimes being top of division two is a better place to be than the bottom of division one, and although Wes Craven would go on to reinvent the horror genre with A Nightmare on Elm Street and then deconstruct it with Scream, The Hills Have Eyes is still iconic enough to stand up four decades after it first terrified audiences. Just don’t follow it up by watching the sequel, unless you like movies with dogs having flashbacks.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★