The Hills Have Eyes Retrospective – 35 Years of Food, Family and Fun
by Marc Patterson
The other night I was chatting with Todd Wieneke (author of our Mandom column, and all around cool guy) as occasionally I am inclined to do. I randomly asked him about The Hills Have Eyes after our conversation had digressed from The Girl From Rio, to GI Joe. Here’s what he wrote back to me – something like five minutes after my question:
Hills Have Eyes, eh? Haven’t seen it in years but I recall it being a tame parable of the nuclear family — one traditionalist tribe born (in a literate sense) in the ambitions of the postwar nuclear age, and the other born as literal, actual detritus of the isotope. So one family is sociologically dubbed a nuke family and the other is formulated by the actual science. The “Normals” vs the “Fallouts.” And so arises the whole “what constitutes a family” conundrum, a by-product of the Flower Power era… so the film also kinda acts as a knuckle-dragging reaction to Charles Manson’s attempt to rip asunder the tried and true American Family. But who is the real villain? The patriarchal dysfunctional “normal” family that just wants to litter and consume its way through the land? Or the territorial pack-minded fallout family? Answer: Wes Craven for making us watch the damn film, which I recall being a total background movie: I could be baking a cake in the other room, come back, and still not care what’s going on. Mmm. Cake. That’s my 2 cents.
I should mention that when I say “wrote” I mean he typed that up on his fuckin’ Blackberry with his two opposable thumbs. I was speechless. Not only that, but he kind of took the wind out of my sail on this whole retrospective thing. But there’s no denying it – his response was pretty “boss”, as the young kids say.
But then – I started thinking about his response and while still paralyzed like Big Bob Carter in cannibal country, wondering “how the hell do I top that with only my thumbs?” I decided to concede defeat and move on to other topics. However, later – thinking back on my original experience with this film – which, by the way, wasn’t in some trashy drive-in, or even a home viewing late at night on VHS tape, but rather Anchor Bay’s 2003 two-disc DVD in an old crooked apartment building that didn’t have one flat floor throughout – I realized something: Fuck Todd. The Hills Have Eyes might be a bit tame and most definitely flawed, but I love this lowly spawn of Craven.
Here’s the thing, and I’m sure to take flack for this, but Wes Craven’s Hills Have Eyes is not the cult classic you think it is. Don’t get me wrong. That’s not to say it’s not a cult classic film – because it absolutely is – but after spending time with both the film and looking at critical response to the film throughout the years, I’ve discovered that this is a cult film of a strange sort.
Contrary to what most ardent horror fans may think, this title is often maligned as a second rate follow up to The Last House on the Left. I know. It sounds sacrilegious, but it’s true! It’s a title often overlooked by genre critics, and it barely gets a mention when the name Wes Craven comes up in horror circles. It’s always LHOTL, A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream. The quality of Craven’s filmmaking in Hills Have Eyes was questionable, though the shock value of the film kept too many from questioning it deeply. Interesting enough that, even amongst horror fans, I believe most would agree that the 2006 remake surpassed the 1977 original in both quality of film-making and depth of storytelling. (Count me amongst those ranks.) But there’s not a shot in hell that the remake is going to be remembered at all twenty years from now and while I think that’s tragic, since both Wes Craven and Peter Locke both had a strong hand in the remake, essentially getting to go back and re-tell their story, except doing so in a more effective way, it’s still a “remake”. I digress. I’m not here to talk about remakes.
The best that I can see, the commercial success of The Hills Have Eyes in the 70s was due primarily to the success of The Last House on the Left, which put Craven on Hollywood’s most notorious list. Not to mention it was certainly helped along by Tobe Hooper’s nightmarish vision, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a film that The Hills Have Eyes was partially patterned after – and in fact shares its same gritty aesthetic thanks to the work of art director Robert Burns, who was hired based on his work with TCM. You want to remember Robert Burns’ name because he would go on to work on other important titles in the horror oeuvre such as Don’t Go Near the Park, The Howling and Re-Animator. When you think of a certain 70s and 80s trademark aesthetic to horror films, you’re probably thinking about Burns.
All things being equal, fans of hardcore brutality-laden cinema could simply not afford to pass on the follow-up effort to such a seminal shocker and so paid out cash at the box office to catch what was sure to be an equally devastating hit of gore-soaked violence. But was it? Regardless of opinion, the fact largely remains that while Craven adequately delivered an end product that satisfied to most gore-hound standards, thanks to heavy use of atmosphere, the film itself runs shockingly light on the viscera.
So, why is this film important? On its own I firmly believe it’s not. But within the context of time and space, and because of the careers it both helped launch and solidify (Dee Wallace and Michael Berryman most notably) this takes on a deeper value to the horror community. It’s part of the reason why the remake, in spite of how good it was, fails to be remembered. No one cares about a well-made remake starring a bunch of no-names, no matter how good it is. But a mediocre film, elevated by a rabid fan base, and featuring a veritable ‘who’s who’ cast is likely to be remembered for a long time, and so it has, critics be damned.
It’s been 35 years since Craven unleashed this backcountry madness upon the world. Back in ‘77 I was still shitting in my diapers. As I grew up in rural Connecticut my family conducted many cross-country road trips. Every fuckin’ summer I can distinctly remember the monotony of travelling miles upon miles in the family car, pop-up camper in tow, through great stretches of nothingness in the American Mid-West, visiting distant relatives we’d see only on these annual sojourns. We didn’t have iPods, and for some time there weren’t even Walkmans. No, it was classic family togetherness that just doesn’t exist anymore. For all intents and purposes, my white bread, corn-fed, Bible-thumping family could very well have been the Carters. My first viewing of The Hills Have Eyes immediately took me back to those torturously hot car rides. Now, years later, as a husband and father, I can only imagine the horror of breaking down in the middle of nowhere with no way to call out for help. You’ve got to keep everyone maintained, organized, collected and calm, while finding that help. That situation on its own is tough enough. Toss a ravenous pack of starving mutants into the mix and you’ve got yourself a special slice of pure horror. So I laughed nervously at the Carters’ reaction to their off-road expedition gone sour. The men strike out for help while the women and kids make a picnic, seemingly oblivious to the grave seriousness of their situation.
There’s no lulling anyone into a false sense of security in this film. Craven makes sure we know right up front that all isn’t right in those desert hills. We’ve been personally introduced to the killer clan of cannibals and when night falls and the men haven’t arrived back at camp the tension rises, appropriately so. The women, who up to this point have been kicking back, playing house and making tea, are left completely to their own devices. Paranoia, the cold of the desert, and not being able to get hold of anyone is creating an environment of ominous fear. Craven turns the tension up when the women try to radio for help and are greeted with a primal grunting on the other end, a savage response from a predatory monster who has ill intentions. Ma Carter denies that it could have been anything. “Static,” she claims. Lynne (Dee Wallace) knows better and when Doug finally makes it back to camp she tries to warn him. No one listens though. No one ever does.
Meanwhile, miles across the desert, Bob has finally made his way back to the gas station and finds the old hillbilly attendant about to hang himself. He probably should have let him get away with it, but Bob being the old retired cop he is cuts the old man down and chews him out for being stupid. We’d laugh at the irony if old Jupiter (James Whitworth) hadn’t crashed the party, killing the old man in one jump scare you won’t easily forget. It’s here, prior to Jupiter’s sneak attack, that we get the backstory on who the cannibals really are: a product of nuclear testing, an evil spawn not fit for the likes of modern society, relegated to live off what the land provides like a pack of wild dogs. It’s not enough of a moving story to elicit much sympathy from the audience though. Because we’re a bunch of gum-chewing, blue-jean wearing movie watchers we’re firmly planted into the Carters’ point-of-view. We’re horrified, not for what has been done to these poor humans, but for what is about to be done to the Carters. This is a glaring fault on the part of Craven, and one that was corrected by the Alexandre Aja remake. As a morality tale, as a film designed to undermine the idea of the conventional family, this whole script is unbalanced. Aja’s remake at least allows us to spend time getting to know both families, and we even see the cannibals as victims, causing us to be both afraid and sympathetic at the same time.
Now panicked, knowing what is in store for his family, Bob runs back to save them. But his old heart, strained from years of abuse from a steady intake of backyard barbeque and beer, starts to act up and ultimately the old man meets his grisly fate at the hands of Jupiter. This set-piece was a big moment in the film when everything started turning around and the ominous horror explodes into vicious violence on screen. All of the nasty cruelty that Craven was notorious for erupts in one non-stop barrage of chaos. Big Bob goes from eating barbeque to becoming barbeque, burned alive on a stake as the cannibals systematically attack the RV, kidnapping baby Katy, killing her mother Lynne (Dee Wallace) and taking out ol’ Mama Carter, while even getting a quick chance to rape the youngest gal Brenda (Susan Lanier). It’s pure madness, yet highly efficient madness.
Even within this highly efficient attack we start to see cracks in the clan. Young Ruby (Janus Blythe) has already revealed her intents to defect from the clan, though it’ll likely be a futile effort. Her assistance in the violence is hesitant at its best moments, traitorous at its worst, as ultimately she ends up taking arms against her clan, joining forces with the Carters. Then there’s Pluto (Michael Berryman). It was Pluto who wanted a piece of Brenda’s sweet-sixteen ass in that trailer, fiendishly groping at her body while she wailed in horror. But it was Mars who jumped in, kicked Pluto out, referring to him as a boy, and took over. Enraged, Pluto proceeded to tear the RV to shreds. He wasn’t angry at the Carters, but angry with Mars for treating him like a small child. Again, here’s an area in which I found fault with Craven’s film. As much as Craven might try, we simply can’t elicit empathy for these monsters. They’re little more than unruly children, prone to temper tantrums, raised by pack mentality. There’s absolutely nothing “counter-culture” in their actions. There’s nothing sub-textual about how they exist or function. In fact, opposite to Craven’s intent they’re so comically retarded it’s a wonder they can function with any sort of vicious savagery at all. It’s also amazing that no one has criticized their dialogue for being so mainstream American, when in fact they wouldn’t have had access to the linguistic nuances of such modern English. But yet, they remain extremely fluent, as if they grew up watching episodes of Scooby Doo in their network of caves.
So, with a pathetically weak WASPy family and a mentally deficient clan born of bad genetics of course it’s Beast, the fierce German Shepherd dog, who strikes back first, taking out Mercury. And it’s a good thing because Doug, instead of being a man and chasing down his baby, solemnly retreats to the nest defeated. In my mind there’s no doubt that Beast is the true hero of the film. He protects his human family and avenges the death of his sister Beauty, by ripping out throats and tearing off faces. Again you might question if Craven is doing his job effectively by allowing a dog to carry off the more brutal retaliation instead of the whitebread city slickers. But that’s something that remains to be answered.
Eventually you’re going to come to ask, is there a winner in all of this madness? Not really. The cannibals remain essentially stoic in their behavior. Craven is clear that these monsters are what they are and there is no room for character growth or integration into mainstream society. There was a muddled attempt at making Ruby the missing link, but since that alternate ending got cut in favor of the morally ambivalent one we have, the link remains lost.
And then there’s the Carters who ultimately sink to the animalistic nature of the cannibals in their attempt to fight back and survive. When you get to the point where you’ll tie your dead grandmother to a chair in a field to be used as bait, well, you know your life probably won’t ever be the same again. But again, none of this is a real revelation. Is it truly surprising that we “civilized” citizens will cast aside our social etiquette to fight tooth and nail for our survival when put into the most life threatening of situations? That we would cast aside our so-called “humanity” for our loved ones, our babies? That we too can be as barbaric as our worst enemies? These things shouldn’t be revelations, yet this appears to be Craven’s final word on the matter, as if Vietnam was the first war the human race ever took part in and Charlie Manson was indeed the Messiah. No, in fact these dark truths have been there for centuries and our animalistic nature still bubbles beneath the surface, waiting to emerge in the face of catastrophe. We may come from different backgrounds but at the end of the day, when survival is on the line, it doesn’t matter if you live in a cave, an RV, or a cushy mansion; you’ll still smash bones with the best of them. Animals, aren’t we all?