After making his directorial debut with the gruesome revenge picture The Last House on the Left (1972), filmmaker Wes Craven made an unlikely detour into pornography—helming an X-rated flick titled The Fireworks Woman under the alias “Abe Snake”—before returning to his comfort zone of low-budget horror with The Hills Have Eyes. Infinitely more disciplined than his first movie, but still just as nasty, The Hills Have Eyes concerns an American family that imprudently wanders into the remote desert lair of a wilderness clan comprising inbred psychopaths. In principle, the picture should be extraordinarily frightening, a spiritual cousin to Tobe Hooper’s chilling The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). However, Craven takes the opposite tack to Hooper’s disturbing verité approach, opting for a comic-book style that puts The Hills Have Eyes on a continuum with John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) and George Miller’s Mad Max (1979).
In all three movies, clever writer-directors indulge themselves by depicting the hidden worlds that monstrous people have created. Yet while Carpenter brilliantly employed minimalism and Miller wisely focused on high-octane action, Craven tries to gene-splice adventure and horror. This experiment is only somewhat effective, because parts of The Hills Have Eyes are too cartoonish to be frightening, and others are too frightening to be cartoonish. Still, because Craven eventually found his sweet spot of ironic horror with the Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream franchises, it’s interesting to study The Hills Have Eyes as a marker along the path a director walked while perfecting his style.
When the picture begins, the large Carter family travels through the Southwest in a station wagon pulling a camper. Despite warnings from a crusty gas-station attendant, patriarch Big Bob (Russ Grieve) takes his people into a remote area because he wants to explore a mine. Car trouble leaves the family stranded, making the Carters easy prey for a band of psychos led by Jupiter (James Whitworth). Skirmishes follow, eventually leading to all-out war. Jupiter’s band comprises deformed cannibals who wear animal skins and bone necklaces (even though they use modern devices including walkie-talkies), so the film asks viewers to believe these people could thrive for generations as scavengers. Similarly, like far too many horror movies, The Hills Have Eyes is predicated on One Bad Decision, namely Big Bob’s reckless trek into the boonies. Yet even with these narrative hiccups, The Hills Have Eyes is comparatively credible, since the Carters demonstrate smarts by using strategy and weapons against their assailants. The material involving Jupiter’s people is sillier, especially the excessive scenes involving a jeopardized baby. However, there’s no denying that The Hills Have Eyes possesses a certain pulpy allure.
As for the actors, future E.T. star Dee Wallace, playing one of Big Bob’s daughters, has the most familiar face, while offbeat-looking Michael Berryman, portraying one of Jupiter’s killer kids, makes a disturbing impression. Like Craven’s The Last House on the Left, this picture became a cult hit and has enjoyed a long afterlife. Craven made a poorly regarded sequel, The Hills Have Eyes Part II (1985), and a 2006 remake earned a 2007 sequel of its own.
The Hills Have Eyes: FUNKY