The Hills Have Eyes: Future Films/ Image Entertainment
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Rating: USA: R/ Uk: 18/ Australia: R
In 1972, first-time filmmaker Wes Craven unleashed his debut film, Last House on the Left on unsuspecting horror fans nationwide (check out my review here at Epinions if you’re interested). Now regarded as an exploitation classic, LHotL was a disturbing portrait of depravity, sexual violence, and the thin line that separates the civilized human being from his more animalistic and criminal brethren. To say that Last House shook up film audiences would be an understatement—even today, nearly thirty years after its initial release, it still has the power to shock and repulse film audiences.
So, was this Wes Craven really a talented filmmaker, or just another exploitation hack who got lucky? Unfortunately, genre fans would have to wait six years to discover the answer. You see, it seems that Last House was so effective, so disturbing, that it nearly killed Craven’s career before it had a chance to get started (I’ve read some rumors that the film got him unofficially blackballed for a number of years). It wasn’t until 1978 that we got to see a second Craven helmed production, but the wait was worth it as The Hills Have Eyes clearly demonstrated that the director had a method to his madness.
Big Bob Carter (Russ Grieve: Foxy Brown) has just retired from the Cleveland police force, and after a life spent dealing with the dregs of humanity, he’s decided to pack up his brood (his wife, son, two daughters, son in law, infant grandchild, and two dogs) and head for sunny California. However, he gets the bright idea that they should stop in what appears to be Nevada in order to check out an old abandoned silver mine (after all, it’s the eve of his anniversary, his wife informs us—his silver anniversary). After stopping to gas up the old station wagon (wherein the cliché old coot local character warns them to stay on the main roads) Big Bob heads off the beaten path—he was a cop, and by god, he’s gonna see this mine. But, after driving nearly fifteen miles along what amounts to little more than a dirt trail, Bob and family discover that this is also an Air Force bombing range—a point driven home by the two fighter jets that buzz right over the car, causing Big Bob to wreck the wagon.
Trapped now in the middle of the desert, things are actually about to get worse. See, not only is this an isolated bombing range in the middle of nowhere, but it’s also the home turf of a demented group of cannibals ala Sawney Beane and his clan (or the inbred cannibals featured in Jack Ketchum’s horror novel Off Season)—and these crazy cannibals are hungry.
Here we have another horror film that seems to work because it has a relatively simple premise that feeds off some universal fears. No one likes being stranded when the car breaks down, especially not in some strange and isolated locale. Craven understands this and then spends nearly the entire first half of the film working on just that idea alone—yes, we know that the Jupiter and his mentally defective family are hiding in the hills, biding their time, but for roughly the first forty-five minutes, they’re only peripheral characters. Instead of throwing us right into the conflict, Craven allows us the opportunity to get to know the family—that way, we’re more likely to feel fear and anxiety when the monsters do show up.
But, this tack is only partially effective. Unfortunately, the quality of the performances vacillates wildly from character to character. It’s hard to feel any real sympathy for Big Bob, particularly after a scene near the beginning where utters a racial epithet in casual conversation. Son Bobby (Robert Houston, who sort of resembles a really young Mark Hamill) and oldest daughter Lynne (Dee Wallace, in her film debut) are good, but youngest daughter Brenda (Susan Lanier) and mom Ethel (Virginia Vincent) seem to overact quite a bit. Perhaps the film’s most even keeled performance comes from Martin Speer, who plays Dee Wallace’s husband. Speer plays his role in a believable fashion, for the most part, and rarely crosses the line into melodrama.
Of course, the bad guys don’t fare any better. Jupiter (James Whitworth) is essentially a caricature—a one-dimensional monster who really has little in the way of motivation. Craven (who also wrote the script) tries to give him some backstory, by having his father (who owned the gas station at the beginning of the film) relate a story about how as a boy Jupiter was huge and evil—a fact which caused the old man to cast him out into the desert. Unfortunately, this story has that tacked on backstory/character motivation feel to it, and it really doesn’t answer many questions.
Still, uneven performances aside, the film manages to work—for the most part. In Last House on the Left, Craven explored the issues of class struggle and the thin line between man and monster. Here he returns to that fertile ground, once again bringing civilization into direct conflict with the ideas found in Darwin’s Theory, the ‘haves’ versus ‘the have-nots’. Craven asserts the notion that in order for man to survive against beast (even if the beast is in fact a man) he must revert back to the beast’s level (which was an idea that figured prominently in the climax of Last House as well). Only those who can push aside their civilized selves and fight at the primal level will survive. It’s an idea whose main power is derived from the uncomfortable realization that for all our civilization and domestication, we’re essentially only one step away from being savages like Jupiter and his family.
Craven’s direction here has improved in the six years since his last outing as well. There’s nothing overtly flashy in his work on this film, but he does manage to capture the drabness and despair inherent in the desert surroundings. There’s very little in the way of bright, vibrant color to be found in The Hills Have Eyes—which really adds to the dry, dusty atmosphere. In many ways, this film is clearly inspired by Tobe Hooper’s seminal The Texas Chainsaw Massacre—and while this film, on the whole, falls short of Hooper’s masterpiece, it’s still a well-crafted movie.
Still, it’s not without some flaws. First off, the film takes a long time to get going. We spend the first half getting to know the family, which is nice, but devoting roughly half the film to this seems to be a bit more than necessary. By the time the film finally gets moving, it’s nearly over—a fact which brings me to another problem, the abrupt ending. Craven ends the film at an odd point, wherein the villains appear to be vanquished, but there’s no resolution. I think that one could make the case for Craven not wanting to give any resolution—choosing instead to end the film in mid-action in order to keep the audience amped and agitated, but as a whole, it feels gimmicky.
Another problem is that film resorts to using several plot contrivances so that Craven gets the situations he wants. First off, when the first dog is found gutted (by young Bobby), he neglects to tell anyone—which makes sense. The women are the only ones around, and there’s no reason to scare them. However, when Doug returns to camp, Bobby doesn’t ever let him know what’s happened—until it’s much too late to do anything about it. Granted, even if he had known what was going on, they’d have been powerless to actually stop it, but they wouldn’t have been taken completely by surprise.
Finally, my last beef with the film is more a personal quibble than an out and out flaw. The dog that lives in this film suffers from the Lassie Syndrome—which is basically my pet name for whenever a film features an animal (normally a dog) that is not only as smart as a human, but also apparently understands spoken English as well. Beast, the German Shepherd that lives, might be the smartest dog ever. He kills one guy by pushing him off a cliff, then has the foresight to pick up his radio and return to camp with it. Later, Doug tells him to head off the bad guys, saying essentially “go on boy’ and jerking his head in the general direction—and the dog responds by taking off, tracking down Michael Berryman’s character, and incapacitating him. Maybe it’s just me, but this all seems like cheating (and what’s even funnier is that in the abysmal sequel to this film, we’re treated to what might be the first ever dog flashback in cinema history).
The film is fairly violent (it is an exploitation film, after all) yet there’s not a lot of gore to be found. Big Bob gets a stake through the hand and a prickly pear in the mouth, we see a few gunshots, a few stabbings, and a pretty nasty dog bite, but that’s about it. Craven admits that he might have gone too far in LHotL and he really tones things down here.
Ultimately, The Hills Have Eyes is a solid early effort from Wes Craven. It’s not as powerful as Last House on the Left, as intriguing in concept as A Nightmare on Elm Street, or as slick as Scream but it’s still a powerful film. Craven eschews the lame comedy sequences that marred LHotL here (and the awful banjo music as well), but the film still falls just short of classic. The Hills Have Eyes is a good film—one that I’d recommend to fans of Texas Chainsaw Massacre and exploitation films in general. Check it out if you can track down a copy.
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