The Hills Have Eyes, 1977.
Directed by Wes Craven.
Starring Susan Lanier, Robert Houston, Martin Speer, Dee Wallace, Russ Grieve, John Steadman, Michael Berryman and Virginia Vincent.
A family on a road trip take a detour into a barren stretch of the Nevada desert where they quickly become the prey of a violent family of cannibals.
Road trips are a pain in the backside. Driving miles upon miles with your family, just hoping to get there before Disneyland closes so you can avoid having to deal with your screaming ungrateful kids and annoyed spouse. Now imagine how much worse that road trip would be if you broke down in the middle of the desert with a family of psychotic cannibals stalking your every move. This leads me to the subject of today’s entry, Wes Craven’s cannibalistic cult classic The Hills Have Eyes.
As only the second film directed by Craven, I couldn’t help but compare The Hills Have Eyes to his debut; The Last House on the Left, a film that I had mixed feelings about, feeling that its disturbing plot was ruined by tonal shifts so sharp that they were in danger of causing whiplash. Turning what should have been a dark horror into what felt like a goofy comedy at times. However, with Hills, Craven has clearly learned from his mistakes and begins to demonstrate the skill that would turn him into a respected horror favourite.
The tone is consistent, maintaining a relatively straight-faced serious approach throughout, with the small amounts of humour flowing much more naturally than in Last House. Most of it contained to the sporadic bit of darkly humorous dialogue. Not once did I throw my arms up in frustration at the sight of bumbling Sheriff falling off a chicken truck, and for that small act, this film is far superior. Even the music composed by Don Peake, while not as memorable as Last House’s kazoo tinged tunes, is at least much more fitting for a horror film and is appropriately sinister. The off-key string plucking of the opening theme setting a decidedly uncomfortable vibe. Although some moments, such as when the drums pick up the pace, occasionally make it sound less like a horror film and more like a lost episode of a 1970s cop show.
Made on a low budget and shot in 16mm, the film has a gritty visual style that suits its violent story well. The heavy use of handheld camerawork giving the violent scenes an almost documentary-like look. Craven makes excellent use of his filming location of the Mojave desert, the heat of the sand almost seeping out of the screen to make you sweat, the seeming endlessness of it all creating an atmosphere in which you feel the isolation of the Carters. Craven’s handling of violence is much more restrained than his debut, much of the gore being confined to a few short scenes of blood spurting from wounds. A rape scene does occur that is upsetting, but it is at least kept mostly off-screen and is mercifully short.
The story is simple but effective as the Carter family’s road trip to California takes a decidedly wrong turn into the barren desert, with the introduction of the savage Jupiter clan making for a terrifying ordeal of rape and murder. What makes this story a little bit more interesting are the social themes lurking within, with it, according to Craven and critics, a tale of class conflict between the affluent Carters and the poor downtrodden Jupiters. The film also looks at the often desperate things people might do to survive, playing further into the class conflict. The “civilised” Carters are forced to become killers to survive, much as the Jupiter clan does every day. This contrast and eventual similarity between the two families creates a fascinating dynamic as the film progresses, eventually placing both families on an almost even pegging, becoming almost like twisted mirror images of each other.
In particular, I found Papa Jupiter, who leads the clan, to be a fascinating and fearsome villain. I loved the scene in which Fred, the crusty old gas station owner (revealed to be Papa’s father), tells the backstory of Papa’s origins. The story of a child who nearly killed his mother upon birth and later terrorised his family, creating the image of someone who was born an evil monster. That and the description of a gigantic man-sized ten-year-old who can survive a tire iron to the face is downright terrifying. The scene in which this story is told is made even scarier by the sudden appearance of Papa himself crashing through a window to snatch his father away. While the character loses some of his mystique after this terrifying introduction, that initial dread and fear that characters display towards the mere mention of him certainly linger.
The performances are a mixed bag, some delivering sold turns while others come off a tad amateurish or prone to overacting. My favourite performance was James Whitworth as Papa Jupiter, with his formidable scarred physical appearance and almost cartoonish growling voice making for an entertaining if somewhat overacted villain who you can’t wait to see get his comeuppance. I also particularly liked the performance of John Steadman as Fred the gas station owner, if only because of his pitch-perfect delivery of the origins of his monstrous son. That and he reminds me of a forgotten sidekick from an old John Wayne film.
With a suitably dirty visual style, a simple but effective story littered with social themes and some entertaining performances, The Hills Have Eyes, while not his best film, expertly demonstrates the skill that would see Wes Craven cemented as a favourite among horror fans. Check it out.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★