The Hills Have Eyes/Review

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Once upon a time, The Hills Have Eyes was the scariest, most brutal, and wildest mainstream horror film in release. It was a lot better made than Wes Craven's first feature, the much maligned and hated The Last House On The Left (1972). It had more gore, production value and better pacing than The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), and there was, quite frankly, nothing like it on screens in America at the time. It was primitive and brutal, had several themes and creative ideas to consider, and it was disturbing enough to get under your skin and stay there. Once you saw this film, you never forgot it. It was a film that intentionally twisted horror clichés and broke taboos. Of course looking at this 26 year old film now we can see many mistakes, technical flaws and several of the original ideas have been copied, over-used and turned into tired clichés. Yet even though we are much more conscious of the clichés and tricks of the trade, -it still works. It still remains Wes Craven's best film.


1977 was a time when JAWS knock-offs (Day of The Animals, Orca) and Johnny-come-lately Rosemary's Baby/The Omen/The Exorcist rip-offs were what constituted horror films (Beyond The Door, etc.). It would be another year before either Dawn Of The Dead or Halloween was released. DePalma's Carrie was the new big thing and an edited version of Argento's Suspiria was moving from city to city to play at a theater near you. Perhaps, if you were lucky, you were near a major city that played the bizarre midnight feature: Eraserhead. The big summer film that year was Smokey and the Bandit. The c.b. craze was at its peak. The worst film was; Crater Lake Monster, the campiest; Empire of The Ants and the biggest bomb was Exorcist 2: The Heretic.

A few more families were signing up for pay movies channels like ON and Select T.V. (and the The Z Channel). Cable and HBO were starting to really take off and saturate the nation. Beta video tape decks, were in some stores--- but they were very expensive and would only record one hour's worth of programming. The video revolution was still a couple years away from being a reality. If you saw The Hills Have Eyes in the summer of 1977 it was an experience you didn't forget. Few horror films went as far as this one did. Few films were as intense, disturbing and still had a gruesome streak of dark humor like this one did. The unrelenting, brutal attack on a fairly typical all American family stranded in the desert by a feral cannibalistic family was a horrific experience. It was primal, it had classical roots, and in fact was even inspired by a true story.


Writer-Director Wes Craven is a household name today and has created two horror film cash machine franchises: A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream. His father died when he was 4 years old and his mother and church members raised him in a strict, conservative Baptist household. So strict that the few movies he saw were squeaky clean ones from Disney. He didn't realize there was anything different about his upbringing until he was entering college. It wasn't until then that he began to see more movies. He was teaching and supposed to be working on his PHD, but the movie bug bit him. He helped some students make a movie and when his advisor told him it was time to stop wasting time and get serious about his studies, he quit teaching, quit pursuing his PHD and moved to New York City. His first jobs were as low paid production assistants at film production companies. He stumbled his way through making what wound up being one of the most controversial and reviled films ever made: The Last House on The Left (released in 1972).

Producer Peter Locke, came to him a couple of years later and said he had a little over $200,000 to do a movie, and he wanted to see his wife who was working in Las Vegas at the time, so if Wes could come up with a horror story that could be shot in the desert, they could make a movie. Craven went to the library and read about the legend of Sawney Bean. In the 15th century a young married couple was traveling from Edinburgh to London. Some cave dwellers in Scotland, who disappeared as the tides changed, kidnapped the wife. The husband escaped and authorities were shocked when they found a family of feral cannibals run by Sawney Bean. The clan was brought back to London where they were mercilessly tortured and horribly killed. Craven was fascinated with the brutality of the punishment supposedly civilized society doled out on the wild Bean clan. He began writing at first a tale that takes place in the future 1984 and involves a family trying to get through a check-point to enjoy a vacation in the desert. They would eventually be stranded and attacked by a feral cannibalistic clan, who lived near the place where the first atomic bombs were tested. They weren't a mutant family however, just a wild, savage one.


The low budget Locke offered meant the screenplay had to be stripped of its unnecessary 1984 science fiction ideas. Part of what Craven wrote was also autobiographical. As he imagined the all American family, he based Big Bob and Ethel Carter on a family he knew as a child-- Bob and Ethel Balmer. Bob Balmer was in law enforcement and his hobby was making 8-millimeter films-which is where a young Wes Craven first got his introduction to filmmaking. Some of Bob's dialogue in the film is taken from Craven's memory of conversations he heard at the dinner table. The fairly conservative, religious Ethel Carter in the movie was based very loosely on Craven's mother. The dialogue he wrote for Ethel in one of the movie's biggest dramatic scenes is based on what he remembered his mother saying when she found out her husband (Wes' father) had died.

Hills was shot on 16 millimeter under some very difficult conditions in the middle of the California desert (in Apple Valley about 15 miles outside of Victorville). Craven and Locke were city boys from New York and had no experience in the desert whatsoever. Craven was a self-taught filmmaker and knew little about actually making a film. He jokes that he wasn't even sure what a master shot was as he began filming Hills.


There's some disagreement and confusion by the way of when the film was actually shot. Based on it's original May/June 77 release date it would seem logical that the film could have been shot in September/October 1976 and that's what Chicago's Jon Putnam ( lists as the shooting dates in the DVD booklet. However, Craven is sure the film was shot much earlier than that (maybe 1974). Bob Burns was the art director and he brought with him a whole bunch of items he used on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (which was released in 1974), that he used to dress up the feral clan's cave dwelling. It's probable the movie was actually shot in September/October of 1975, since the editing process and the re-cutting of the film to obtain an R rating from the rating's board probably took longer than 6 months to complete. As any low-budge film maker will tell you re-cutting a film when you think it is finally done is an extremely difficult and time consuming process because often pieces of music and other elements have been meticulously edited into the film and when cutting it, they have to be re-edited-somehow-- since there is never any extra money available to re-record a film score. The most experienced cast members in HILLS were Virginia Vincent who played Ethel Carter and John Steadman, who plays Fred, the gas station owner. Both had worked extensively in movies and television for years. Vincent had made some classic movies like I Want To Live; Steadman was a veteran of Westerns. One of the real casting coups was Michael Berryman, the strange looking man-child Pluto in the film. Berryman had small roles in 1975'S One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Doc Savage: Man of Bronze, but Hills jumpstarted his career. Berryman was born with at least 26 birth defects, due in part to his medical doctor parents' experimentation with prescription drugs. He went through a number of operations during his life and the result is his unique appearance.

Dee Wallace played Lynne. Wallace had been in a religious film prior to Hills. Later she would star in E.T. and then marry actor Chris Stone and become Dee Wallace Stone professionally. Robert Houston who plays Bobby had trained as a gymnast, and graduated from Harvard prior to making his film debut in Hills. He produced the Oscar nominated documentary Mighty Times: The Legacy of Rosa Parks. In 1980 he wrote the English language version of Shogun Assassin (the Roger Corman produced American edit of two of the Lone Wolf and Cub/Babycart movies). Janus Blythe who plays Ruby got the part because she demonstrated she was an extremely fast runner during the auditions. She had been in Tobe Hooper's Eaten Alive (with Robert "Freddy Kruger" Englund) and in DePalma's Phantom of The Paradise. Susan (the screamer) Lanier who plays Brenda Carter had done numerous television appearances but Hills was her first major film role. Former stunt man Lance Gordon played Mars. Martin Speer made his debut as Doug in the film as well. James Whitworth was a building contractor who impressed Craven enough at his audition to get the part as Papa Jupiter, the sadistic clan leader with the split open nose. He worked in a few films and TV shows after Hills, but no one seems to know what happened to him in recent years. Hills proved to be the final screen appearance for Russ Grieve (Big Bob Carter) and Cordy Clark ('Mama'). And finally the character Mercury was played by a little known actor by the name of Arthur King. Arthur King? It was actually producer Peter Locke playing Mercury crediting himself humorously as Arthur King. Don Peake did the spare tonal synthesizer score and Eric Saarinen fresh from being run ragged by Corman on Death Race 2000 was behind the camera.


The Hills Have Eyes opens in the dry desert with Fred (John Steadman) packing up to leave his middle of nowhere gas station. A strangely costumed desert rat named Rudy (Janus Blythe) at first wants to trade some goods for food---she's starving. Desperately she tries to get Fred to take her with him when he leaves, but Fred only laughs at her. It turns out she's a wild child that lives with a feral clan somewhere in the desert. They apparently prey on lost tourists and steal what they can from the military base to survive. Their conversation is suddenly interrupted when a station wagon pulling a camper rolls into the station. We are introduced to the extended Carter family. Bob has retired from the police force of a major city. His wife Ethel has been given a silver mine by one or her relatives as a silver anniversary wedding present. Bob and Ethel have made it a family affair by taking their entire family on their vacation/mine finding trip. This includes son Bobby, daughters Brenda and Lynne, son in law Doug and their infant granddaughter Katy. Also along are the two German Shepherds named Beauty and Beast. The family quickly gets on our nerves, but Fred is compelled to warn them to stick to the main road and forget about finding any silver in these parts.

Son-in-law Doug has a funny feeling and thinks he sees someone in the shadows. He doesn't say anything to anyone, however. Naturally the family goes on their merry-way. They are spooked by low flying f-16s doing maneuvers, and when Big Bob swerves the vehicle to avoid a rabbit in the road, the station wag breaks an axle. They are stranded in the deserts, miles from anywhere. Ah, but they are not alone. The hills have eyes belonging to a very dangerous and savage family clan of cave dwellers. The civilized Carter family will be stripped of everything they find comforting and necessary to exist. A dog will be brutally gutted, a family member will be sadistically murdered and the women and baby will be killed, raped and/or kidnapped. To survive the remaining family members must become as brutal and vicious as the feral clan. It is the only way. But if they survive without their humanity, what then?


One of the interesting concepts explored in the film is the idea of keeping secrets from various family members. Young Bobby doesn't tell anyone that he saw the gutted corpse of the pet dog Beauty for quite some time. He is ashamed of being afraid and upset about the dog and doesn't want to share his 'weakness' with other family members. Later on we will see members of the feral clan cowering in fear and withholding information from Papa 'Jupe'. In the beginning of the film Ruby's secret is that she wants to leave the clan. This arc of family secrets leading to the disintegration of both family units in the film is fully explored. After all the feral clan itself is the result of a family secret, -- just ask Fred- the gas station owner about that. Craven has certainly mined some very personal things from his upbringing and put them into this film.

The Hills Have Eyes broke rules and was unconventional in 1977, yet it sometimes feels overly familiar and clichéd when we watch it today. Craven's first film, The Last House on The Left was so reviled and hated by critics, Craven created more conventional types of 'normal' characters that audiences could root for. They seem a bit compromised and 'false'. Many genre movies have re-used elements from this film that a lot of it may seem overly-familiar and derivative (even though many things in this movie were original in 1977). That's not the fault of Craven, but in a way is a tribute to how influential the film has been. In fact some of the very horror clichés satirized in the Scream series are played straight in Hills. Still there are plenty of jolts and scares in the movie that will still get you squirming in your seat. It's primal stuff as blood lust rage boils and explodes from both the supposedly wild savage clan and the civilized Carter family. However the seemingly simplistic family under attack scenario has several layers working just below the surface worth considering. It's another reason Hills is so memorable to people years after first seeing it.

Reviewed by Count Graf Orlock

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