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Wes Craven is the now-famous director of horror efforts like the intense but ragged Last House on the Left and the later, slick The Serpent and the Rainbow. Craven developed into a fine director, shepherding two major horror franchises in the Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream series and eventually scoring a mainstream success with a Meryl Streep movie about a dedicated music teacher.
The Hills Have Eyes is his second outing from the middle seventies. His cast and crew ran themselves ragged in the Mojave Desert for a few weeks to tell a horror tale that combines the savage carnage of Last House with more original elements. The defending-the-family revenge saga of Straw Dogs plays a hand, as does the struggle with inbred sub-humans in Deliverance. Ex college teacher Craven founded his tale of terror on a true incident from Scottish history, and adds a few mythical touches of his own. Nowhere near as bleak as Last House, Hills finds transgressive themes of its own to exploit for its effective, raw shock scenes.
Horror movie rule #1 ... stay off the back roads. The Carter family's trailer is disabled en route to California, and they fall prey to a clan of inbred cannibals that slaughter and rob passersby to survive. This feral 'alternate family' is ruled by Jupiter (James Whitworth), a crazed savage. Using one victim to trick the rest, the desert dwellers seem intent on wiping out the family as horribly as possible, as they rape the daughter (Susan Lanier) and steal another daughter's baby. How long can the surviving Carters remain alive?
Savant remembers a very scary afternoon in an East L.A. theater watching this notable shocker, a far-fetched story that succeeds by being reasonably intelligent and logical. When savages are slaughtering your family, there's no time to contemplate Why or How. Craven's script quickly puts the Carters into a believable jam, their only sin being to wander 'off the beaten path' where maniacs have awaited victims since horror movies were invented. 'Big Bob' Dad (Russ Grieve) is a police detective from a rough town. He's not one to be intimidated by the incoherent warnings of old Fred (John Steadman), a gas station guy and estranged father to the monster family in the hills. Through no fault of their own, the Carters are put through a gauntlet of blood and horror.
The Carters are anything but ready for trouble. Big Bob's complacent wife Ethel (Virginia Vincent) is caught completely out of her depth, and reacts to the brutality leveled at her family with an uncomprehending denial. The rest of the Carters fall prey to bad communication and judgment, The clan's first attack occurs when Dad and son-in-law Doug Wood (Martin Speer) go for help leaving the trailer protected only by son Bobby (Robert Houston). Then two members are killed horribly and another mortally wounded. Daughter Susan (Lanier) collapses into one of those useless catatonic states favored by horror movies after the groundbreaking Night of the Living Dead of a decade earlier.
Those still functioning must formulate a plan of survival. They only have one wild card in their favor - their German shepherd dog named Beast. Just as all seems hopeless the Beast leads a counterattack and the audience jumps to its feet rooting for the underdog defenders. The Grand Guignol horrorshow is unhindered by the intellectual and literary baggage of the Sam Peckinpah and John Boorman siege movies. Craven generously allows the Carters a fighting chance.
As proven in hundreds of inept straight-to-video productions, anybody can make this kind of movie. Craven and producer Locke didn't have that many models to imitate. Their story relies on some desperate booby traps, including one likely inspired by the improvised killing of the shark in Jaws. But their characters always seem right, even when they're not well acted. Craven puts us in shock by eliminating his most interesting characters first, in traumatic ways. The kids and son-in-law left to fight don't communicate worth beans. But the brother and sister muster the ruthlessness needed to prevail, and the son-in-law has luck and some unexpected help on his side.
The feral family of cannibals has long since been eclipsed in subsequent gross 'n' nasty movies, but in 1977 the Jupiter clan set us back a step or two. Papa Jupiter's face has been horribly split since his childhood. He's stolen a family for himself by kidnapping prostitutes and raising three strong sons, named after planets. Pluto is portrayed by horror icon Michael Berryman, a good actor using his congenital deformation to play a monster. Berryman's domed skull and protruding brow became the iconic image from the movie.
Jupiter's crimes make more sense when compared to Charlie Manson's functionally similar ranch cult out in Death Valley. Craven's storytelling also alludes to fairy-tale forms. The twin dogs Beauty and Beast figure largely in the Carters' defense. Not only does Beast attack with Lassie-like intelligence, he takes on a spectral function: the superstitious Pluto becomes spooked when he imagines that the second dog is the ghost of the former.
The kidnapping of the Carter's grandchild, a baby, touches on more fairy tale references. It is rescued by a provident combination of protectors, with a pig momentarily used as a substitute. This alludes both to Alice in Wonderland and earlier terror-fairy tales about gypsies or trolls stealing infants and replacing them with suckling pigs. Wes Craven shows his English Lit background here just as he did in his cribbing of the myth behind Bergman's The Virgin Spring for Last House. Always looking for high-toned reasons to champion otherwise un-credentialed horror films, film critics eat up on literary references: a crude gut-ripper can become a 'Dark Statement of Our Times.'
Image Entertainment's Blu-ray of the original The Hills Have Eyes is a good encoding of this roughly shot film, which is limited by the original (16mm?) photography. 1 Even with the HD boost, sharpness and contrast are limited. The DTS-HD audio is in mono, with another PCM track in stereo.
Image has retained all of the good extras from the Anchor Bay special edition DVD released in September of 2003. Perry Martin's excellent in-house docu assembles five actors, the director and producer of this overachieving horror tale. Craven is his unprepossessing self as he explains that on this second film he still barely knew what he was doing in the directing department. The others convincingly contradict him. Cameraman Eric Saarinen explains the commercial triangle of 'fast, good and cheap': a producer can have two but never three. Delightful actress Dee Wallace of The Howling and E.T. tells us that it was her first professional gig. She and her fellow players Lanier, Houston and Berryman amplify the producer's observation that the show was a grueling labor of love by beginners that wanted desperately to be in the business. Some of them did continue. Saarinen became a regular cameraman for Albert Brooks. Wallace spent most of her time in the horror film trenches but got her bid for immortality playing opposite a pasty alien with baby-doll eyes. None of these people think The Hills Have Eyes is Shakespeare, but they are rightfully proud of it as a ripping good horror show.
The other docu is a basic AFI 'directors series' profile that sees Wes Craven from the viewpoint of a dozen of his fawning actors. Along with the expected galleries of stills, posters, trailers and TV spots is an audio commentary with Craven and producer Locke. An alternate ending re-orders the final scenes and tacks on an unnecessary group hug finish. The final ending is much better, although I'll bet the actors prefer the alternate's cast reprise.
Even as Grand Guignol Hills has its limitations. The Carter family only becomes sympathetic after they start being killed off; they're really ciphers for our own self-defense instincts. The slaughter is the content here, and judging by Craven's later work, he tried hard to move into more creatively rewarding themes. 2
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Hills Have Eyes rates:
1. Although the cinematographer discusses this in the docu, I'm not sure whether Hills is 16mm or 35mm. The transfer looks like 16mm, well shot but grainy and on the soft side. The cameras in the production stills look like they have 35mm magazines on them, unless they're fatter for sound blimping purposes. A still of Wes Craven in his editing room shows 16mm film cores behind him on a shelf - but he has long hair and the shot might be from Last House on the Left.
2. The show in which Craven first won my respect is a half-hour episode of the second Twilight Zone TV series, with Robert Klein as a man stuck in a warped world where ordinary words change their meaning. The terror of being unable to communicate or relate to people was more 'real' than a dozen fantasy monsters or terror situations. It's as sensitive and intelligent a fantasy as I've ever seen, and evoked strong feelings of isolation and panic.
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Also, don't forget the 2011 Savant Wish List.
T'was Ever Thus.