The Hills Have Eyes (1977)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #415

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Number of Views: One
Release Date: 22 July 1977
Sub-Genre: Exploitation
Country of Origin: United States
Budget: $230,000
Box Office: $25,000,000
Running Time: 89 minutes
Director: Wes Craven
Producer: Pete Locke
Screenplay: Wes Craven
Special Effects: Greg Auer, John Frazier
Cinematography: Eric Saarinen
Score: Don Peake
Editing: Wes Craven
Studio: Blood Relations Co.
Distributor: Vanguard
Stars: Martin Speer, Virginia Vincent, Dee Wallace, Susan Lanier, Robert Houston, Michael Berryman, Lance Gordon, Russ Grieve, Janus Blythe, James Whitworth, Peter Locke, Cordy Clark, Brenda Marinoff

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Suggested Audio Candy:

Don Peake The Hills Have Eyes

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August 30th, 2015 was a sombre day for horror aficionados the world over. Wesley Earl Craven died, leaving a massive void behind him, and the world mourned one of the boldest visionary filmmakers of our times. While he reached a fairly ripe old age of 76, it still didn’t feel like his time. I grew up with Craven, films such as A Nightmare on Elm Street and The Serpent & The Rainbow providing the backdrop for my own adolescence and, while none of his features would make my all-time top twenty, a fair number of them populate my top one hundred. As well as being astute in his craft, former humanities professor Craven was also a kind, gentle man and well-considered by his peers. The horror industry may currently mourn him but I prefer to celebrate his numerous achievements. Thus, I have decided to appraise one of his finest and most controversial films.

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The Hills Have Eyes arrived at a time when seventies exploitation provided the midnight screenings at countless drive-ins all over the United States. Craven made no secret of his adoration of Tobe Hooper’s 1974 exploitation classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and intended to pay affectionate homage to it. This also meant reusing many of the props as art director Robert A. Burns cut his teeth working on Hooper’s debauched classic. Craven’s film was placed under similar scrutiny by the censors, with the MPAA demanding several cuts in order to award it the R-rating it required to reach a wider audience. Frustratingly, like so many other movies of its era, the absent footage has long since been misplaced, meaning that the true director’s cut will never be seen.

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Under the working title Blood Relations, the film was originally intended to be set in woodlands, with most of the cannibals being juveniles and the purpose of their skullduggery being ritualistic, as opposed to survivalist. Eventually, Craven opted for a desert location in Nevada, much to the crew’s displeasure, as the temperature was prone to reach up to 120 degrees in the searing mid-afternoon heat. While they struggled with the conditions, it was Michael Berryman who drew the shortest straw. Suffering from Hypohidrotic Ectodermal Dysplasia means that, aside from a lack of body hair, he also doesn’t possess a solitary sweat gland. After five months of shooting in unbearable conditions, I would imagine that unhinged glare of the promo art to be entirely authentic.

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The feral family depicted are based loosely on a fifteenth-century clan led by Sawney Beane who roamed the Scottish highlands, cannibalising passing transients, before being captured and executed without trial. While they populate the red corner, the Carters prove a surprisingly formidable opponent in the blue. These comprise former lawman Bob (Russ Grieve), his homemaker spouse Ethel (Virginia Vincent), minors Bobby (Robert Houston), and Brenda (Susan Lanier), eldest daughter Lynne (Dee Wallace), her husband Doug (Martin Speer) and their newborn infant Katy (Brenda Marinoff). On the surface they appear to be just your average bickering nuclear family but there’s nothing like watching on as half of your loved ones are harshly decimated to stoke the fires for some good old all-American retribution.

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Having received directions from gas station attendant Fred (John Steadman), and finding themselves marooned in an abandoned airfield, the brood has become sitting ducks for any resident neanderthals and it just so happens that Fred’s nearest and dearest fit that particular bill rather inconveniently. Patriarch Papa Jupiter (James Whitworth), rules a roost which comprises three spiteful sons, Mars (Lance Gordon), Pluto (Berryman), and Mercury (Pete Locke), and want-away daughter Ruby (Janus Blythe). The clan make up with survival instinct what they lack in airs and graces and it isn’t long before they sniff out the Carters and infiltrate their happy motor home.

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From the offset, Craven imbues his film with a sense of isolation, using shots of the vast, desolate wasteland to set the tone before reigning it back in and focusing on the penned-in Carter livestock. Once their homely Winnebago becomes compromised, it’s game on, and the family feud commences. This is where The Hills Have Eyes finds a rattlesnake pace which it relentlessly maintains for the remainder of the feature. It’s like playing draughts with the Mansons and playing fair isn’t in Papa Jupiter’s game plan. However, he does have smarts, thus the primary port of call is to flambé his opposite number Bob before the very eyes of his mortified loved ones and wrestle that home advantage. There’s nothing like a flame-grilled head honcho to disassemble your family unit.

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While pops is still smoking in the clearing, Jupiter’s boys are wrecking merry havoc in the trailer, unbeknownst to those attempting to douse the flames outside. This scene is particularly torrid when you consider that the numbers are whittled down so swiftly and unceremoniously. Round one definitely goes to the hills and the Carter’s are left to count any cost to their obliterated collective. By forcing them to confront the aftermath, Craven’s film hits on a far more personal level, as we put ourselves in their sorry shoes and ask ourselves whatever next? How does one ever bounce back from such a visceral exhibition of malicious intent? The Hills Have Eyes poses these discomforting questions and then reminds us of snatched bairn Katy and our maternal instincts kick in full throttle.

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We only need cast our minds back to 1971 and Dennis Weaver’s backbitten commuter David Mann from Steven Spielberg’s restive rod movie Duel to be granted with the necessary perspective. Mann resolute rearguard was one thing but ultimately he was the only one threatened with missing his p.m. appointments. Speer even looks a little like Weaver if you squint your eyes but his exasperation is far more intense and, once cause graduates to effect, he becomes the true hero we hang our hats upon. Lanier and Houston both contribute also, but theirs is more of the Kevin McAllister mild mischief variety, where Doug is prepared to really get his nails grimy. It’s a fascinating showdown and the second half of The Hills Have Eyes is unapologetically unflinching.

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This is all well and good but what of the unruly opposition? What do our resident heathens bring to the game? Berryman must never have dreamed that one day he would become one of the most deliberated poster boys of the decade. While not destined to be seen squeezing his rump into a pair of pre-shrunk 501 denims at the local laundromat any time soon, his boggling eyes were ideal to stare at us from within such gritty hills and that image still haunts my soul to this very day. As for his brothers in arms, what they lack in charm they more than make up for with smarm, while their dental plan is questionable at best and table manners leave something to be desired. I’ve always found budgerigars to be rather purposeless as domestic pets but they do evidently make for delightful finger foods.

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After his debut feature The Last House on The Left had detractors spitting feathers, his second foray into horror is even more mean-spirited in many respects. Its perpetrators lack any kind of reason and their crimes can be considered even more heinous, should you play the numbers game. However, The Hills Have Eyes didn’t leave the same obnoxious tang on my palate. There is simply no time to mourn our fallen comrades and it rewards at a far brisker pace than its forebear. Also notable is that five years had passed by the time this hit the marketplace and audiences were becoming a little more battle-hardened. Craven used the interim learning to grasp his directorial reigns with a little more conviction and it is visible in an end product which positively oozes rough justice.

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If you look back on the plethora of appraisals I have constructed for Craven’s other works, you will be aware that I never considered him to be in the leagues of the Romeros, Carpenters, or Argentos. This may well be so, but I revere him to the moon and back for supplying me with so many reasons not to slumber in tranquility come nightfall. The Hills Have Eyes may not be the kind of movie to encourage repeat views but it is a significant gear in the seventies exploitation mechanism and reason not to take that cross-country jaunt across Nevada. In acknowledgement of the great man himself, Pluto joins Krueger, Krug, and their entourage in my subconscious each time I nestle my weary head into the pillowcase and, for that, I will always be indebted. Rest well my friend and I’ll be seeing you soon in my nightmares.

Dedicated to Wes Craven (1939-2015)

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Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 8/10

Grue Factor: 3/5

 

For the Grue-Guzzlers: Craven applies the same tact that Hooper used for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in that the barbarity is left largely to our imaginations. Any inhumanity dished out is swift and merciless but he never lingers on the vile acts themselves and instead points us towards the glaring fallout. Step into the Carter’s shoes and consider their forfeiture for a second and there is plentiful excruciating to grimace through here.

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Read The Hills Have Eyes (2006) Appraisal

Read The Hills Have Eyes 2 (1984) Appraisal

Read The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) Appraisal

Read The Last House on The Left (1972) Appraisal

 

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