Written and Directed by: Wes Craven
Starring: Martin Speer, Dee Wallace, James Whitworth, and Michael Berryman
Reviewed by: Brett G.
A nice American family--they didnít want to kill...but they didnít want to die.
Even Wes Craven himself has admitted that the fact that he created Freddy Krueger is likely to end up carved on his tombstone. Itís hardly the worst legacy that one could have because the dream stalker is one of the biggest icons in horror history and will be beloved for generations to come. However, before Craven stalked Elm Street, he was busy tearing up other regions of Americana. His 1972 debut turned a quaint Last House on the Left into a slaughterhouse full of revenge and murder and served as a stark precursor to the direction the genre would take in the 70s. Five years later, Craven returned to put another family through hell, this time taking them from the safety of their own homes and dropping them into the middle of nowhere, to a place where The Hills Have Eyes.
The Carters, a family of seven, are headed to California. Before they get there, they have to travel through a Nevada desert to take a look at an old silver mine thatís been left to them as part of an inheritance. Despite a gas stationís attendants warnings to the contrary, the family goes off the beaten path and end up stranded when their carís axle breaks. The ex-cop father, Big Bob, and his son-in-law, Doug each start walking in opposite directions, hoping to find help. The rest of the family--the mother, the son, the two daughters, and a newborn baby--are left with the family dogs, who begin to act strangely. They bark at something unseen by the others, but it soon becomes clear that the family is being watched by something evil living out in the hills. It turns out that thereís a family of vicious cannibals out there, and, worst-of-all, theyíre hungry because no one has passed through in a while.
The Hills Have Eyes is a film that draws you in from the get-go--its title is one of the most evocative and intriguing in all of horror, and the film itself certainly lives up to it. Like Cravenís other great films, the premise preys on the most primal of fears--in this case, itís being stuck in the middle of nowhere with no help as youíre terrorized by unseen assailants. From the opening moments, Craven infuses the film with a sense of dread isolation--the shots of the vast, empty desert are perfect tone-setters for a film that builds itself on tension and atmosphere before rolling along to a more violent, shock-filled conclusion. Itís a tightly-constructed piece of horror from that standpoint, as it gives the film an ample amount of suspense because Craven wisely keeps the cannibals shrouded in mystery for just the right amount of time.
When the film does ramp up, itís no less effective because the various assaults from the cannibal family are visceral and unrelenting. Craven also raises the stakes to a deadly level because heís not afraid to kill off characters, even the last ones youíd expect to be offed. Itís a mean and nasty film, mostly in spirit. It is violent, but not quite gratuitous or over-the-top in anyway (at least the R-rated cut--the uncut X-Rated version is long lost), and itís a better film for it because the film operates on both a psychological and physical level. Relatively speaking, itís easy to shock audiences with unrelenting gore, but when a film actually takes the time to actualize the violence and have the characters confront the aftermath, itís more effective. The violence in the film actually carries some weight because the characters are so grounded and realistic--it really feels like weíre watching an ideal American family get torn apart.
In that respect, the film is a natural progression of the themes Craven explored in both The Last House on the Left and A Nightmare on Elm Street. The former was concerned with the destruction of 60s idealism and questioned just how far normal people will go when confronted with violence, while the latter can play as an allegory for the American family being destroyed in modern times. The Hills Have Eyes takes a bit of both to create a film thatís concerned with the destruction of family ideals and security. The Cartersí plight is similar to the Collingwoods in Last House, as they have to resort to levels of violence they never dreamed of, and the film ultimately leaves us questioning who is the more savage between the two clans.
The family itself feels very ideal--thereís the hard-ass, ex-cop father, the Jesus-loving, God-fearing mother, the nice kids. Watching them get ripped apart has obvious metaphorical implications, and the film provides other subtle rejoinders that the American family was evolving at this point: the oldest daughter has taken to using foul language ever sine she moved to New York (from the heartland of Ohio), and the youngest daughter rolls her eyes when the mother suggests a family prayer. By the end of the film, it feels like even God himself is dead because those prayers go unanswered and thereís very little sense of familial security left. Thereís even some subtle political leanings, as itís hinted that the cannibal clan are a result of nuclear bomb testing (Alexandre Ajaís remake expounded upon this element to great effect), which is an obvious reminder that the sins of the past will continue to haunt us (something that Freddy Krueger also embodied). Itís pretty despairing stuff, but history seems to indicate that the film represents the pulse of America at the time.
Aesthetically, the film is low-budget and raw, and not at all very polished. It works well for the film, however, and Craven made many strides in the five years after Last House, which was a discordant and disjointed experience at times. Hills is a much more focused effort tonally, as his persistent use of creepy visuals and Don Peakeís brooding electronic score make for a horrific experience throughout. The cast is solid, and perhaps the most noteworthy is Dee Wallace, here playing a young mother of the newborn (a sign of things to come because she inhabited the requisite ďmotherĒ role throughout the 80s). Michael Berryman plays one of the mutant cannibals and has pretty much made a living off being a weird looking guy (no make up required here!). James Whitworth is convincing as Jupiter, the maniacal ring-leader--heís a deranged looking individual who oozes menace towards both the Carters and his own family. Susan Lanier was unbelievably 30 years old here, but she doesnít look a day over 18 in the role of Brenda, the sweet blonde daughter. Itís not a remarkable cast, but itís a solid one with performances that are just convincing enough.
Cravenís second film isnít as notorious as his first, nor will it ever be as highly-regarded as A Nightmare on Elm Street, but it still stands as one of his finer efforts. Personally, the film battles back and forth with Scream as my second favorite in his canon. Itís a thrilling, suspenseful piece of horror that reminds us just how good Craven can be when heís on (the flip-side of this coin would be its 1985 sequel, which even Craven himself rightfully disowned). Anchor Bay released the original Hills on DVD way back in 2003, but it still stands as one of the best horror releases of all-time. It boasts a masterfully-restored anamorphic widescreen transfer and features a mono soundtrack, a 5.1 EX Dolby Digital track, and, finally, a DTS ES 6.1 track thatís very immersive and adds a lot to the filmís atmosphere. The two disc release is packed with special features: an audio commentary with Craven and producer Peter Locke, retrospective documentaries on both the film itself and Wes Cravenís career in general, an alternate ending, theatrical trailers, TV-spots, behind-the-scenes-photos, posters, and original storyboard art. Thereís also a nice booklet that contains a host of domestic and international posters for the film. Itís a fitting release for a film that deserves it--this is a legit cult classic that will likely come to be more appreciated in time for being one of the best that Wes Craven has had to offer. ďThe Director of The Hills Have EyesĒ might not have the same ring as ďCreator of Freddy Krueger,Ē but there are worse fates. Either way, Craven created something that's Essential!
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