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The Hills Have Eyes

The Hills Have Eyes
Anchor Bay
1977 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 89 min. / Street Date September 23, 2003 / 29.98
Starring Susan Lanier, Robert Houston, Martin Speer, Dee Wallace, Russ Grieve, John Steadman, Michael Berryman, Virginia Vincent, James Whitworth
Cinematography Eric Saarinen
Art Direction Robert Burns
Film Editor Wes Craven
Original Music Don Peake
Special Effects Greg Auer, John Frazier
Produced by Peter Locke
Written and Directed by Wes Craven

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, slick films 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 siege movies.

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 cast reprise.

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 horror show.

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:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Good
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: commentary, two docus, alternate ending, still, art, storyboard galleries, TV spots, trailers
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 2007 Glenn Erickson

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