The Hills Have Eyes
Dir. Wes Craven
Premiered July 22, 1977
The last time I was in the Mojave desert was last year, shooting an Italian motorcycle commercial that quickly turned into a Fellinian bacchanal– you put attractive young people and weird neon lighting into the middle of the desert with no air conditioning and see what happens. It wasn’t my first time out there by any means, but it was my first time off the main roads, on one of the dozens of clandestine movie sets hidden among the Joshua trees, and anyone who has been out there in the wild has had the same thought: I could die out here and nobody would find me.
Wes Craven got this. And while he never wanted to be just a horror director, the genre called to him because of the kind of intuitive terror that brought us The Hills Have Eyes.
On their way to California, a retired police detective (Russ Grieve) stops for gas in the desert near an air force base, his wife (Virginia Vincent), daughters (Susan Lanier, Dee Wallace, Robert Houston), son-in-law (Martin Speer) and infant granddaughter (Brenda Marinoff) in tow. His goal for the day is to go searching for silver in an abandoned mine for his 25th wedding anniversary, but the ancient gas attendant (John Steadman) pleads with the family to keep going to Los Angeles, later revealing a terrifying story: he once had a gigantic, violent son who he released into the wild after trying to kill him in self-defense. Now, his son (James Whitworth) is leader of a feral band of cave-dwellers on the brink of starvation, and they will stop at nothing to eat.
Watching The Hills Have Eyes brings up a lot of different thoughts. As the plot kicked in, I began wonder if this qualified as a western. It’s worth remembering that the earliest days of Hollywood were also the last days of the Wild West, when Apache and Comanche insurgents were still shooting to kill. The Hills Have Eyes recall the terror that might have captured our great-grandparents as they crossed the desert themselves. And rather than being misunderstood people infringed upon by the white man, the hill people– based in part on a legendary family of incestuous Scottish cannibals– are something of our own making.
Secondly, its pacing is a wondrous improvement over the avalanche of B-movies from this period that seemed to think being padded and overlong qualified as making their movie good. On the other hand, I wish it had been a little slower; we barely get to know either of the two families in question, and it would have been better all around to get a better sense of these characters. Likewise, I was frustrated by the suddenness of the film’s ending. Wes Craven was long interested by the dehumanizing effects of violence, and it’s put to great effect here, but then it just ends. I left the movie with my heart racing– surely the sign of a good film, but equally a symptom of the general lack of closure. Either way, it’s still a classic of horror.
Signs This Was Made in 1977
Son-in-law Doug has a CB radio. Of course it doesn’t work. The old man settled in the desert in 1929. There’s a torn poster of Jaws in the family trailer, which kicked off a long series of horror filmmakers putting each others’ posters in their movies as a bit of friendly competition.
How Did It Do?
The Hills Have Eyes grossed $25 million against a $230,000 budget. Wes Craven had made a big splash with his Manson family-inspired 1972 outing The Last House on the Left, but it was a drop in the bucket compared to this sophomore success. The film was generally well-received by critics, most of whom praised its unflinching descent into violence while also expressing discomfort with its unflinching descent into violence. It’s complicated, I know.
Craven became a mainstay of horror cinema throughout the 1970s and 80s, flourishing throughout the slasher era. Craven himself wasn’t fully comfortable with this, but even if he was pigeonholed, he did some great work. Unfortunately, The Hills Have Eyes, like many classic horror films, got a bad remake in 2006.
Next Time: House