THE HILLS HAVE EYES (1977)
On the way to California, a family has the misfortune to have their car break down in a rural area inhabited by violent savages.
Wes Craven left an indelible mark on horror with two iconic franchises: A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and Scream (1996). However, the director’s earlier work in the 1970s is often overlooked in favour of his mainstream hits. Craven reshaped the horror landscape with his perverse and stylistic directorial debut, The Last House on the Left (1972); a stylish thriller filled with nauseating gore and unflinching terror, which maintains a cult following. Five years later, Craven returned with a gruelling tale that surpassed his debut’s reputation. Inspired by an infamous tale of folklore, The Hills Have Eyes is an unsettling voyage into the depths of depravity…
Retired cop Bob Carter (Russ Grieve) and his wife Ethel (Virginia Vincent) are taking their family on a road trip to California. While taking an unexpected detour to visit some silver mines in the mountains, the family stop at a gas station, where they’re warned to stop heading into the uncharted wilderness by the owner, Fred (John Steadman). Dismissing the man’s warning as incoherent ramblings, Bob continues travelling off-road, but after an accident leaves them stranded, the Carter family finds themselves stuck in the desolate and unforgiving desert. As Bob and his son-in-law, Doug (Martin Speer), try to find help, Lynne (Dee Wallace), Brenda (Susan Lanier), and Bobby (Robert Houston) stay behind… all unaware that a savage group of cannibals are living in the hills.
Considering the low-budget nature and almost purgatorial shooting conditions, the ensemble of newcomers deliver surprisingly good performances. Amongst the familiar faces, Dee Wallace is radiant as the eldest daughter, Lynne, who went on to star in countless horrors such as The Howling (1981), Cujo (1983), and Critters (1986). James Whitworth (The Black Angels) is suitably scary as the head of the despicable cannibals, Jupiter, with his formidable scarred appearance and almost cartoonishly growling voice making him a memorable villain. Genre icon Michael Berryman is typically fantastic as the menacing desert-dweller, Pluto. The actor was born with the rare condition Hypohidrotic Ectodermal Dysplasia which gives him distinctive facial features. Although he later appeared in Weird Science (1985) and The Devil’s Rejects (2006), Pluto remains the actor’s signature role and Berryman mixes his unique physical appearance with animalistic behaviours that makes the character fascinating to watch.
With the foundations of a promising career already laid, Craven’s artistic and creative talents truly began to establish themselves with this sophomore effort. What makes The Hills Have Eyes so impressive is the director’s command of atmosphere and location. While inspired by Tobe Hooper’s seminal masterpiece The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Craven immediately imbues unique moments of anxiety by focussing on the environment. Eric Saarinen’s (Death Race 2000) cinematography creates an unsettling encompassing atmosphere by exploiting the endless desert landscape and isolated surroundings. As the day slowly turns to night, the desolation and hopelessness of the Carter’s is palpable. The grainy 16mm cinematography transforms the dark expansive desert into an endless field of shadows where anything can hide. This gets exemplified when Bob is running down the highway and laughter can be heard in the darkness alongside him. With a budget of approximately $350,000, The Hills Have Eyes is a perfect example of how low-budget filmmaking aesthetic serves the horror genre so well. Without heavily relying upon gruesome set pieces, he’s able to disturb the audience in many other ways.
Although The Hills Have Eyes lacks the unblinking ferocity of The Last House on the Left, Craven succeeded in offering more unflinching brutality. While his handling of violence is more restrained than his debut, he still avoids the traditional sensitive conventions of Hollywood. There’s an unsettling scene featuring an animal’s corpse and constant hints that the baby is in danger. Perhaps the most controversial aspect of The Hills Have Eyes is the incredibly harrowing caravan sequence. As the Carter’s are distracted by an incendiary crucifixion, Mars and Pluto creep into the family’s caravan and, while stealing their possessions, the cannibals notice Brenda laying in bed. Thankfully, what unfolds is mercifully short but it’s incredibly distressing even for the toughest of horror fans. The sporadic cuts between a smouldering corpse and the sexual assault remain relentlessly brutal. Unsurprisingly, this excessive savagery caused endless censorship problems forcing Craven to remove several sequences.
When researching for The Hills Have Eyes, Craven discovered the myth of a 16th-century Scottish family of cannibals. According to the legend, Sawney Bean and his wife inhabited a cave on the Scottish coast. With no natural food source, Bean decided that preying on travellers was a rational solution. It’s a horrifying story, but Craven was more interested in what happened once they were caught and taken back to Sawney’s cave. Craven stated “they did horrendous things to them. Broke them all on the wheel. Hanged the women in front of the men. I was so struck by how on the one hand you have this feral family that’s killing people and eating them. But if you look at it they weren’t doing anything that much worse than civilisation did when they caught them. The most civilised can be the most savage and the savage can be civilised”. This folklore fit in with Craven’s already proven interest he explored to disturbing effect in The Last House on the Left.
While Craven implements cheap thrills involving rape, murder, and mutilation, The Hills Have Eyes isn’t simply an movie of gratuitous violence. Echoing Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971), it’s also a social critique of the human condition. Craven explored how a civilised society can easily descend into barbarism once provoked. The Carter family represents a typical middle-class American family, blindsided by anything but their comfortable lives; whereas the cannibals are products of government corruption, being innocents that have descended into depravity and madness. Craven stated “I used the theme in a more conscious way with The Hills Have Eyes. I constructed these two families as mirrors of each other. I found it very interesting to look at ourselves as having the capacity not only for good but for evil”. As the cannibals descend on the Carter family, they’re forced to defend themselves using the same brutal violence. Although they emerge victoriously, they’re also closer to the uncivilised cannibals than they would have ever imagined. Similar to the sheriff in The Last House on the Left, the audience is left questioning who the real victims are.
Following its release, The Hills Have Eyes received critical acclaim and helped establish Craven’s reputation as a horror director. Grossing $25M at the box office, it was a bigger success than The Last House on the Left. Craven himself returned to make The Hills Have Eyes Part II (1984), but the sequel was fraught with problems from the outset. Due to budget constraints, Craven was forced to constantly use flashbacks to the original and has since disowned it. Joe Gayton’s Mind Ripper (1995) was originally set to be The Hills Have Eyes Part III, before it was eventually rewritten, and Alexandre Aja (Crawl) directed a surprisingly effective and arguably superior remake The Hills Have Eyes (2006). While faithful to Craven’s source material, it took the themes of the original and expanded on them even further. The remake turns the mountain-dwelling cannibals into mutants, thus creating a different style and tone. Impressed with Aja’s reimagining, Craven and his son wrote the modern sequel The Hills Have Eyes 2 (2007).
Sadly, Wes Craven passed away in 2015 but The Hills Have Eyes expertly demonstrates why he became a favourite amongst horror fans. Although it lacks the elegance of A Nightmare On Elm Street and the satire of Scream, it remains a classic of 1970s horror. Admittedly, several moments cross the boundaries of good taste but there’s no denying Craven had an impressive knack for terrifying audiences. The cheap production and gritty aesthetic only enhanced the feeling of unease and helplessness. However, the most frightening element of The Hills Have Eyes is Craven’s social commentary critiquing class division still remains relevant today.
USA | 1977 | 90 MINUTES | 1:78:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Presented in the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1:78:1, The Hills Have Eyes has been given a satisfactory 4K restoration courtesy of Arrow Video. The 2160p Ultra-HD image has been transferred from the original film negatives and was supervised by producer Peter Locke. Although there are minor improvements compared to Arrow’s 2016 release, don’t expect to be overwhelmed here. Sourced from the original 16mm film stock, the excessive amount of grain seems even more pronounced in 4K. This is noticeable during the daytime sequences as the intense noise levels frequently spike. However, anything too pristine would strip away the character.
Arrow succeeds in intensifying the colour palette as much as possible. Primaries are well saturated with blue skies and crimson reds receiving a boost. Whereas Black levels and shadows complement the darker sequences, giving the image an improved sense of depth. Flesh tones remain natural and the detailing is adequately strong offering enough clarity and sharpness to please. From the opening sequence, there’s a noticeable improvement in fine details. The weathered exteriors of Fred’s gas station and the ‘NO MO GASOLINE’ sign are clearly visible. Overall, it is an improvement when compared to previous editions of The Hills Have Eyes. However, don’t expect the pristine clarity of contemporary releases.
The 4K Ultra HD release of The Hills Have Eyes features several audio tracks with optional English Subtitles. Arrow accommodate purist and provide an LPCM 1.0 mono track, accompanied with brand new DTS-HD 2.0 stereo and DTS-HD 7.1 remixes. Although the Mono track remains primarily at the front, there’s a surprising amount of dynamic to the midrange. Whereas the DTS-HD 7.1 mix sweeps the soundstage beautifully heightening the unnerving atmosphere. This is especially evident during scenes featuring the distant sounds of the cannibals. Dispersed evenly throughout the soundstage, they increase the ominous ambiance. Don Peake’s (The Prey) unnerving score benefits from the 7.1 track and is reproduced with strong fidelity. Each audio option provides crisp and clean with verbal exchanges always easy to understand.
writer & director: Wes Craven.
starring: Susan Lanier, Dee Wallace, Robert Houston, John Steadman, Janus Blythe, Martin Spear, Michael Berryman, Peter Locke.