Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Savant has reviewed two Wes Craven horror efforts, the intense but ragged
Last House on the Left and one of his later,
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, yet another of those pioneering
efforts from a core of ambitious young filmmakers. This group 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 some more original
elements. The defending-the-family revenge saga of
Straw Dogs plays a hand, as does the struggle
with inbred subhumans 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.
En route to California, the Carter family cruises the desert backroads. Disabled by
an accident, they fall prey to Jupiter (James Whitworth), a crazed savage and paterfamilias to a
clan of inbred cannibals who slaughter and rob passersby to survive. Using one victim to trick the
rest, the savages seem intent on wiping the Carters out as horribly as possible, raping the daughter
(Susan Lanier) and stealing another daughter's baby. How long can the surviving Carters stay alive?
Savant didn't see many of the new breed of horror films of the 1970s when they were new, but
remembers a very scary afternoon in an East L.A. theater watching this notable shocker. It succeeds
by being reasonably intelligent and logical; its far-fetched situation becomes credible in its sheer
immediacy - when subhuman savages are slaughtering your family, there's no time to contemplate
Why and How.
Craven's script quickly puts the Carters into a believable jam, their only sin being to wander 'off
the main highway' where maniacs have awaited victims since horror movies were invented.
'Big Bob' Dad (Russ Grieve) is no fool but a police detective from a rough town, and not one to be
frightened 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.
This is a family thrown into a meat-grinder situation they've never had to even contemplate.
Big Bob's pleasant but thoroughly complacent wife Ethel (Virginia Vincent) is caught completely out of
her depth. Her feeble reaction to the brutality leveled at her family is uncomprehending denial.
The rest of the family fall prey to bad communication and judgment under the clan's first attack.
Dad and son-in-law Doug Wood (Martin Speer) go for help leaving the trailer protected only by son
Bobby (Robert Houston). He learns there must be something terrible in the hills around their wrecked
car and trailer, but tells nobody. Thus the family is thrown into chaos - two members killed horribly,
one mortally wounded. Daughter Susan (Lanier) goes into one of those useless catatonic states
favored by horror movies after the groundbreaking Night of the Living Dead of a decade earlier.
The few left alive and functioning must formulate a plan even with their food and ammunition mostly
gone. They only have one wild card in their
favor - their German shepherd dog named Beast. Just as it looks hopeless, the Beast leads a
counterattack and the audience jumps its feet rooting for the underdog defenders. Sensing
that nobody would accept the totally downbeat, grinding death gargles of Last House on the
Left, Craven wisely allows the Carters a fighting chance. It's a Grand Guignol
horrorshow unhindered by the intellectual and literary baggage of the Sam Peckinpah and John Boorman
As proven in hundreds of inept straight-to-video productions, anybody can make this kind of movie. Craven
and his producer Locke didn't have that many models to fall back on and their story relies on
some desperate booby traps more likely than not inspired by the improvised killing of the shark in
Jaws. But the 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 they're-not-coming-back
ways. The kids and son-in-law left to fight don't communicate worth beans, and would seem to have
little more than youthful strength on their side. But the brother and sister find the
ruthlessness needed to prevail, and the son-in-law has luck and some unexpected help on his side.
The feral family of cannibals have long since been eclipsed in subsequent gross 'n' nasty movies, but
in 1977 they set us back a step or two. Papa Jupiter has a horrible split face from his childhood,
and has made himself a family 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 cannibal clan is given an expert origin story, but it doesn't make sense until one
contemplates the ambitions of Charlie Manson to found a functionally similar ranch cult out in
Death Valley. The predatory clan lends Hills a formal structure: savage brute cannibals
versus unsuspecting middle Americans.
Craven's storytelling also alludes to fairy-tale forms. The twin dogs Beauty and Beast figure
largely in the defense. Not only does Beast attack with Lassie-like intelligence, but he becomes
a spectral devil-dog in Pluto's imagination, when the inbred giant thinks that the second dog is the ghost
of the former.
The second reference helps temper the horror of the kidnapping of the Carter's grandchild, a baby.
The Jupiter clan intend to feast on the child, but 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 uncredentialed horror films, film critics eat up on
literary references: a crude gut-ripper can become a 'Dark Statement of Our Times.'
Anchor Bay's special edition of The Hills Have Eyes has a good enhanced transfer that is as
sharp and grain free as the original (16mm?) photography allows it to be. 1
The audio comes in both 5.1 and
DTS, in classy remixes that will thrill fans that only remember Vanguard's mangy release prints.
The collateral extras are an impressive mix. Along with the expected still and poster galleries,
trailer and TV spots are an audio commentary with producer Locke and director Craven. 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 would have preferred retaining the alternate's
The two disc set's big plus is an excellent in-house docu that brings
in five actors, the director and producer to tell the tale of their overachieving horror tale. Craven
is his unprepossessing self as he explains that on his second film he still barely knew what he was
doing. The others convincingly contradict him in the directing department. 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. openly admits
that it was her first professional gig, and along with her fellow players Lanier, Houston and Berryman
amplifies the producer's observation that the whole show was a grueling labor of love by beginners
who 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.
The lengthy docu covers all bases with a sense of perspective and good humor; none of these people
think The Hills Have Eyes is Shakespeare, but they are rightfully proud of it as a ripping good
The other docu is a pretty basic AFI 'directors series' profile of Wes Craven, that sees him from
the viewpoint of a dozen of his fawning actors. The AFI series has a standard approach of treating every
director as if he were John Ford. This distorts Craven in a way that the other doc does not - Craven is
an interesting director, not one that merits any particular mantle of greatness. He's a maker of effective
shockers who raised himself out of the Tobe Hooper neighborhood by virtue of some smash commercial hits.
The Hills Have Eyes worked in 1977 because it exploited cruder fears and emotions than
normally shown in entertainment features. It works up a bloodlust through the
manipulation of events over which we can't help but have extreme emotions - key family members
slaughtered, a baby stolen to be eaten. I'm sure there were audiences that reacted strongly to
a dog and a canary being killed, too. It's effective and impressive and creatively miles ahead
of most of its competition, but even as Grand Guignol Hills has its limitations. The Carter
family only becomes sympathetic after they start being killed off; they're really cyphers for our
own self-defense mechanisms. 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:
Supplements: commentary, two docus, alternate ending, still, art, storyboard galleries, TV
spots, trailers, DVD-rom Screenplay, CD-Rom Screen Savers
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 21, 2003
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 was a half-hour
episode of the second Twilight Zone, 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 was as sensitive and
intelligent a fantasy as I've ever seen, and evoked strong feelings of isolation and panic.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2003 Glenn Erickson
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