The Hills Have Eyes. 1977. Directed & Written by Wes Craven.
Starring John Steadman, Janus Blythe, Peter Locke, Russ Grieve, Virginia Vincent, Suze Lanier-Bramlett, Dee Wallace, Brenda Marinoff, Robert Houston, Martin Speer, James Whitworth, Michael Berryman, and Lance Gordon. Blood Relations Co.
Unrated. 89 minutes.
★★★ (eOne DVD release)
I want to start off this review by talking solely about Wes Craven. It’s hard to pick a top director in horror for me because there are many different, talented individuals in the genre who have put out a ton of great work. But at the top of the list, you’ll always find Craven.
With his first feature in 1972, the now infamous The Last House on the Left, Wes Craven announced himself to the world as a young and angry filmmaker with not just balls, but with a vision. I truly think many of his movies can be looked at as more than just horror, they often have a bit of message buried deep down; sort of in the similar way George Romero instills his zombie films with a bit of political/social commentary from time to time.
He went on to do The Hills Have Eyes, but his career was only beginning to cook with gas around this time. Another 7 years in, he had movies like Deadly Blessing, Swamp Thing, and a much hated (but a movie I actually enjoy a bit) sequel The Hills Have Eyes Part II. Then came A Nightmare on Elm Street, and from then on it was Master of Horror Wes Craven, not simply Wes Craven.
Also just to note, I’m a big fan of his movie The People Under The Stairs. If you feel like it, check out my review here. I’ve got a lot to say about it and I won’t take up your time any more here than I already am!
So needless to say, in regards to Wes, I love a bunch of his movies. Even despite what others might say and how they may feel, I’m a big fan of the first three Scream movies; the fourth wasn’t terrible or anything, just not my cup of tea. Most people I know hate the 3rd, sort of like the 2nd. Some I know don’t even like the very first one. For me, they came at a time when I was just on the verge of high school – the first came out when I was 11 years old. So I’m not sure, maybe nostalgia plays a part in it. But I still watch Scream at least a couple times a year, plus the other two usually get a view not long after.
Back to The Hills Have Eyes, though. This is one of those 1970s horror movies that hits you right in the gut. I know that Craven is a big fan of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, so there’s no surprise to me even the cinematography is a little similar. Above all, I think Craven probably meant bits of his film to be – at least in small part – an homage to Hooper’s movie. I don’t know, but it feels that way to me. Not at all saying Craven rips TCM off. This is its own beast. Comparisons probably come from a few of these minor points: 1) Carter family is out in their car/camper driving on a roadtrip, 2) they’re in an unfamiliar place, and, 3) a family (of sorts) descends upon them and terrorizes each one. Other than that I don’t see anything else similar, totally different stories. Each a great horror in its own right.
What The Hills Have Eyes has going for it is a genuinely dreadful atmosphere, in part through the cinematography and direction, as well as everything from the music by Don Peake to the locations Craven used while filming. A truly horrific movie that smacks of realism while also drawing in almost urban legend-like fears to make the audience experience the terror of the Carter family in a visceral fashion.
The Hills Have Eyes sees the Carter family on vacation – Big Bob (Russ Grieve) and his wife Ethel (Virginia Vincent) driving their car along with their teenage kids Bobby (Robert Houston) and Brenda (Susan Lanier); in the camper out back is the oldest daughter Lynne (Dee Wallace), her husband Doug (Martin Speer), and their baby Katie, as well as the dogs Beauty and Beast. At an old gas station, they stop and meet a man named Fred (John Steadman). He advises to keep on the main road, but the Carters further on end up running off the road and crashing the car. Once they’re stranded, Bob leaves for the gas station to find Fred and get help. At the same time, one of the dogs – Beauty – runs into the hills where someone attacks her. When Bobby finds Beauty’s body, torn up and bloody, he’s terrified, but falls and knocks himself out. Coming to, he’s afraid to scare his family.
Meanwhile, Big Bob witnesses Fred killed and hung in an outhouse by a crazed lunatic: a hideous looking man named Mars (Lance Gordon) hiding in shadows. Once all hell breaks loose, the rest of the unsuspecting Carter family lays in wait out in the darkening desert, unaware that Bob will not be returning.
But somebody will. And he’s bringing his brother.
I honestly love this film. Though, I do love the remake by director Alexandre Aja a tiny bit more. Shoot me, whatever.
Reason I say this is because one thing I do enjoy more in the original is the scene involving Big Bob Carter (Grieve) and the old man at the gas station, Fred (Steadman). First of all, their acting is solid. Each of them holds their own. What I like most is how Fred lays out a little bit of the history about the people in the hills; he makes mention of whacking the “devil man”, as he calls him, right in the face with a tire iron. Not that it’s anything earth shattering, I just like how later when we get our first good look at Papa Jupiter (James Whitworth) there’s that noticeable, jagged split in his forehead. Mostly, I think John Steadman does a fantastic job with the short supporting role of Fred; it’s brief, but the story he tells Big Bob at the gas station is creepy, sort of unsettling. An awesome bit of drama with the horror to follow.
Much of what I think appeals to a lot of horror fans, like myself, is the fact Craven gives the film such a low budget style and it effectively brings us into its realism. Sure, the story is out there. At the same time, parts of it are so very raw and realistic that it’s hard to deny how scary The Hills Have Eyes can be at times.
For instance, one real perfect scene in terms of being unsettling is when Bobby (Robert Houston) first hears a bunch of noise out in the bushes in the dark. It’s an eerie few moments. The way the camera tightens in on his face, the darkness around him. We see little glimpses of Papa Jupiter making noise out in the desert bushes.
But then the worst of all happens, as Bobby goes back to the camper where he finds himself locked out. Rattling at the door, Craven gives a peek inside where Pluto (the amazing horror actor Michael Berryman) is waiting with his hand right by the handle. The Carter women – Ethel and Brenda – sleeping soundly. Highly effective scene, and the way in which it’s presented really makes it work. Craven served as editor on this one, so I love some of the techniques he used. In my mind, if he’d chosen to let Bobby go on and wake up Doug/Lynne, then went back to show Pluto inside, this would’ve been far less shocking. It’s the way we watch the camera almost move through the door, Craven cutting from Bobby outside, to see Pluto’s hand, and then the camera slowly crawls up to reveal his face. Amazing example of how editing can do all the work in terms of an effective creep-out moment.
Another part of why this movie is a hit amongst horror hounds has to do with the viciousness of it all. This came even a year before John Carpenter’s Halloween, but films like Peeping Tom, Psycho to a certain extent, and most certainly the fantastic Black Christmas had already begun the slasher trend; even if it was in its early stages at that point. What The Hills Have Eyes does is take away the slasher gimmick. In turn, it tries to aim for that real life feel, as I’d mentioned before. I’m glad Craven didn’t go with everything he’d initially planned, as it was meant to be a modernized version of Sawney Bean. Apparently it would’ve been nearly 20 years into the future, and honestly it all sounds like a real mess.
With the film we know today, Craven brought a sense of reality to it all. I think Alexandre Aja did a good job updating things and including other real life situations into the remake. But here, there’s very much a gritty, visceral atmosphere throughout the entire movie. It’s a savagely emotional horror, as we’re watching this normal family on a roadtrip together become fodder for a bunch of cannibalistic serial killers living out in the desert. And I think that’s another aspect of what takes The Hills Have Eyes away from the slasher sub-genre more than it already is – the whole family is involved. Not only do some of them get killed, it isn’t one sole survivor left as is so often the case in the typical slasher horror movie; Doug, Brenda, and Bobby are the three last bastions of civilization left out in the desert once their loved ones are killed and the baby is stolen. I find that a neat aspect. Particularly in 1977, I think though Craven went on to do some slasher stuff he did a nice job of not doing the same old thing everyone else was doing. Even some of the nasty stuff in Black Christmas, a favourite of mine, doesn’t compare to the brutality of Craven. Furthermore, while we do get a bit of explicit terror here, there is an excellent use of shadow in all the locations in which Craven films, adding a mysteriously creepy quality. Just goes to show also what you can do on a budget. Not everything in horror requires tons and tons of cash being thrown into special effects and whatever else; part of it requires innovation and a keen eye for natural lighting, as seems to be the case here.
Producer Peter Locke does a good commentary on the DVD release from eOne Entertainment, alongside director-writer Wes Craven. Pretty enlightening stuff. Also, it’s fun to hear these two guys watch the movie and be captivated by it. Funny because so many artists, filmmakers particularly, don’t actually like to sit and watch their stuff much. Or at least that seems to be the gist of opinions and even more so with actors. Craven and Locke both admit at one point they forgot to say much because they were sucked in watching; Locke had recently watched it again to prepare, Craven says he hasn’t watched the film in years.
Moreover, I think Craven puts a point on what I’d said earlier about his films. One line from Mars has him say “I’m in yer out!”, as he gnaws on Big Bob’s forearm and rants at a dead, burned Bob. Chilling scene. But what Craven says is that this is the white man’s ultimate fear, that the outsiders are going to get in and then they’ll be ousted. So again, I think behind even some of Craven’s most outrageous horror there are poignant pieces of knowledge. Maybe they don’t always come across perfectly, especially for those who aren’t deeply into horror. However, I don’t think you can deny it once you look at it long enough and think about what Craven says. Of course you can always make your own subjective meaning out of movies, but this one really does fit. Aja picks up on this aspect of the original and amplifies it during the remake, which is a reason why I enjoyed it even a little more.
Finally, the acting is all solid. From Michael Berryman, always a treasure onscreen in horror, to Papa Jupiter played by James Whitworth who is extremely unsettling each time we see him. Most of all, I thought Susan Lanier as Brenda did an impressive job with her character. As Pete Locke says on the DVD commentary, you actually feel for her situation and you feel that she’s beyond broken, it’s sadness you get out of her in so many scenes. The one scene with Susan Lanier and Virginia Vincent, as her mother Ethel who is all but fully dead, is heartbreaking and amazing all at once.
All over, I think the acting helps this film’s script, as the actors all put in their good work to help everything off the page come alive.
Overall, I love this movie and it is most certainly a 4 out of 5 star horror. Some of the acting could’ve been a little better, but most is excellent. My biggest problem is with a bit of the costuming and the makeup. Naturally, the budget was less than a quarter million dollars, which in terms of movies is a very low budget independent project. So I can’t knock them terribly. All the same, it still could’ve been better.
Either way the little problems I have with the movie don’t take away from its greatness. This is a classic of terrifying horror cinema. Wes Craven has created so many memorable horror characters and films that it’s sometimes impossible to believe it. There’s seemingly no end to it at times. The Hills Have Eyes, no matter if it’s one of his first, will always be one of the best Craven movies and I can watch it again and again. Solid horror with creepy performances and an unsettling premise.
Check it out if you’ve never seen it, I always recommend it as a classic horror from the late ’70s. The DVD from eOne is nothing spectacular, though, it does contain the commentary which I enjoyed thoroughly. I’d love to pick it up on Blu ray soon to see if there are any further features. I’d love to see some of what was cut because it sounds vicious and pretty wild horror fun!