The Film: The Hills Have Eyes (1977)
The Principles: Director/Writer: Wes Craven Actors: Janis Blythe, Russ Grieve, Suzie Lanier-Bramlett, Dee Wallace, Martin Speer, James Whitworth, Michael Berryman, Lance Gordon
The Premise: On the way to California, a family has the misfortune to have their car break down in an area closed to the public, and inhabited by violent savages ready to attack.
Is It Good?: It’s the best movie Wes Craven ever made. Inspired by the story of Sawney Beane, the father of a family of cannibals living in Scotland in the 1400s, who (along with his family) killed and ate several transients over the years. While the specific details of the case are somewhat suspect, the story is that they were judged insane and executed without trial, but that their deaths featured very barbaric manners of torture. Craven took this idea of a family of savages and the civilized people who became even more savage in retaliation and turned it into an exploitation movie that questions the civility and savagery of mankind.
What this movie really boils down to is the story of two families from polar opposite lifestyles clashing in the isolated wilderness because they could never coexist. In the light corner we have the Carter family: patriarch Bob (Russ Grieve) who is an ex-cop and a major swinging dick, wife Ethel (Virginia Vincent) who is a bit of a busybody and a ditz, mature older daughter Lynne (Dee Wallace) as well as her molestachioed husband Doug (Martin Speer), and the most annoying cutesy-bickering siblings this side of Donnie and Marie Osmand: Brenda (Suze Lanier-Bramlett) and Bobby (Robert Houston.) In the black corner we have Jupiter (James Whitworth) a psychopath abandoned in the desert as a child where he learned to survive off the land and the people stupid enough to get lost there, his ex-prostitute wife (Cordy Clark), surprisingly well-adjusted daughter Ruby (Janus Blythe), and three murderous sons Mercury (producer Peter Locke), Mars (Lance Gordon), and Pluto (Michael Berryman.)
While Team Carter are unquestionably the heroes of this picture and Team Jupiter the villains, Craven doesn’t shy away from showing the ugliness of the Carters (like when they muse over the time their dog ate someone’s poodle with laugher or Big Bog’s borderline abusive behavior) and the sense of camaraderie and family between the cannibals.
The real message of The Hills Have Eyes is that we’re all savages at heart and the only thing which separates Jupiter and his family from Bob and his is that the Carters have a sense of decorum and a fear of the consequences of such actions whereas Jupiter and family don’t care how others would feel or fear retribution.
In much the same way that the barbaric torture supposedly inflicted on the Beane family showed the savagery of the supposedly civilized people of 1400s Scotland, the counter attack by the surviving Carters is fast and vicious. Even the family dog gets in on the action, and that dog is the secret hero of the picture.
The Beast (played by a German Shepherd by the name of Striker) is the Ash or Reggie of this picture. He kills two of the cannibals (one would return in the sequel but I treat The Hills Have Eyes 2 like I treat Caddyshack 2 and pretend it doesn’t exist) and somehow knows that his family will need the USAF radio that one of the dead cannibals was carrying. In fact, it’s Beast who saves everyone’s life by giving them a means to hear the cannibals communicating with one another.
In 2006, a remake of this film was made replacing the clannish desert people with deformed mutants caused by radioactive testing in the area. All the characters would return in fairly faithful updated forms (though Mercury and Mars would be replaced by Goggles and Lizard) but the movie kind of missed the point of the 1977 original and just made things more gory and dark.
Some of the acting can be hokey, Jupiter and Mars are rather laughable when they get worked up. The reason the Carters become stranded in the desert is a bit convoluted and ridiculous: the Carters are on their way to California but stop off to see a silver mine that was bought for Bob and Ethel for their silver anniversary, but they end up on an Airforce testing zone where the planes frighten Bob into driving eratically and then he swerves to miss a rabbit in the road.
The Hills Have Eyes is a surprisingly philosophical movie and practically drips with deep thematic material and a wicked sense of humor. While Wes Craven had hits peppered throughout his career, The Hills Have Eyes represented a high water mark of quality that was never quite met again.
Random Anecdotes: Michael’s Berryman has a condition called Hypohidrotic Ectodermal Dysplasia that causes him to have no hair, teeth, or fingernails. Additionally it means he has no or few (often nonworking) sweat glands which likely made working in the desert on 120 degree days hellish and life-threatening.
At one point, Craven considered having the cannibals kill the baby but the entire cast threatened to walk if he did it.
Robert Houston, who played Bobby, “directed” the 1980 cult-movie Shogun Assassin and his last acting credit is in an episode of Growing Pains as “Retard.”
Shortly after the trailer siege, a poster for Jaws can be seen on the wall. The poster is torn in half as Wes Craven’s way of saying that The Hills Have Eyes is scarier than Jaws, director Sam Raimi placed a torn The Hills Have Eyes poster in the cellar in Evil Dead as a way to one-up the joke. This caused Craven to feature The Evil Dead playing on the TV in A Nightmare on Elm Street which Raimi responded to by featuring Freddy Kruegers’ glove hanging in the fruit cellar in Evil Dead 2.
Cinematic Soulmates: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), The Hills Have Eyes (2006), Offspring (2010), The Woman (2011), Death Valley (1982), Albino Farm (2009), Monster Man (2003)