I always try to include a more contemporary horror master in my 31 Days of Horror. Last year I reviewed Tobe Hooper’s borderline offensive cult classic The Funhouse (1981). This year’s Master of Horror is the dearly departed Wes Craven and his 1977 jaunt into the desert, The Hills Have Eyes. I went into this having watched the remake first – a movie infamously known in my house as being one of the rare times I almost walked out of a theater. I don’t know Craven’s reaction when the remake came out, but if I were him I’d have crafted my own horror feature where I hunt down the new director. Craven’s vision, presented here, is a bleak tale whose post-Vietnam allusions are reminiscent of Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971).
An all-American family headed to California take the wrong turn off the main road and find themselves being hunted down by an incestuous cannibal family.
Craven’s plot doesn’t get any simpler, in fact it’s a recipe book (no pun intended) of horror tropes: an adorable, normal family doesn’t heed the harbinger’s warning to stay on the main road. A car accident leaves the family stranded with no means of escape. Cut to being hunted down by the horrors lying in the desert. I don’t think the cookbook involves incestuous cannibals desperate for baby meat, though. Craven, who embraced shocks with both arms open, already had frightened and sickened audiences in 1972 with the grotesque Last House on the Left.
Here he’s grown by leaps and bounds as a director, tightening the pace to its breaking point. The family is presented without any unique attributes; their names are basic, there’s little history to them. You’re left to deduce how their related in a way that parallels the twisted family tree of the desert cannibals. Craven’s aware that audiences don’t need a family history to care about these people. You care because they’re average; they’re John Q. Public who could very well be you on a family road trip. The most recognizable name and face is horror queen Dee Wallace as Lynne, and even then she’s one of the first characters removed, leaving the audience unmoored by characters they care for as people, not celebrities.
There’s as little history on the family as their is on their attackers. We know the leader was born deformed, escaped from his family and went on to raise a gaggle of children with various issues of their own. If memory serves the remake added in some background revolving around nuclear testing, but the extent of the villains problems stem from being poor in the desert, with disability being the main reason for fear. Michael Berryman’s Pluto, whose face graces the box cover, has appeared in other horror films. Like the rest of the baddies, they’re broadly painted with the blackest shades possible. Raping and pillaging the family’s RV, you’d assume things couldn’t get any worse until they make off with baby Katy. Craven builds the tension before the attack, reliant on noises – this being the ’70s there’s a callback to the obscene caller, popular in horror of the decade.
Unlike Last House on the Left, Craven doesn’t mirthfully indulge in the horrors of violence, although there’s nothing implied about what happens to the characters (Brenda’s rape, though, isn’t explicitly shown). We watch the family fight off their intruders before succumbing to their demise. Characters you don’t expect to die will, and there are moments of solitude as the characters mourn their dead. The death of matriarch Ethel (Virginia Vincent) is a somber moment where her family tries to make her comfortable, a glimmer of hope in a world of shadows. Vincent gives a fantastic performance. Her hysterical breakdown at seeing her husband is a mix of sobs and shrieking laughter that haunts as much as it hurts.
For as much as it differentiates itself from Craven’s debut, The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes dabble in Vietnam-esque discussions of pacifism and extreme violence. We watch the cannibals terrorize the family for half the runtime, only to watch the Average Americans dole out punishment just as ghastly. Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs had the tagline “everyone has their breaking point,” and The Hills Have Eyes shows that anyone can unleash their darkest, most violent tendencies if pushed far enough. You’re never sympathizing for the villains here, though Ruby (Janus Blythe) is going against her violent family, and Pluto is a victim of his upbringing than anything else, but you are left to wonder how big a role nature vs. nurture plays in our mindset on violence.
Recently released on a beautiful Blu-ray by Arrow Video, with an alternate ending that plays far better than the abrupt “The End” we’re treated to, The Hills Have Eyes is another ’70s horror classic you’d do well to watch…if you can.
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