“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.” — IMDb
In 1977 Wes Craven had just one film under his belt — 1972’s controversial Last House on the Left. Apparently, Craven tried to stray from the horror genre with not much success, and his return was at least partially motivated by a desire to not go completely broke. Honestly, I’m not surprised to hear that The Hills Have Eyes could hardly be called a passion project.
The resemblance to Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre — which was released in 1974 — is obvious, but mostly serves as a stark reminder of how much The Hills Have Eyes does NOT compare in either quality or sheer terror.
The story centers around the Carter family as they travel through the desert on their way to California. They have an odd encounter with a gas station attendant who warns them to stay on the main roads (though not nearly urgently enough), but naturally they take their own route and wind up breaking an axle and crashing off a desert side road. As day turns into night some members of the family start to realize what kind of danger is hiding in the nearby hills…
** SPOILER ALERT! **
Honestly, this movie didn’t do much for me. I feel like it was a conglomeration of lots of good beginnings of ideas that just didn’t get fleshed out the way they needed to in order to be sufficiently terrifying, or even meaningful. It’s “shocking” in the way that any movie that showcases people outside of the “norm” tries to be — in this case we’re dealing with inbred cannibals — but shocking just for the sake of it doesn’t really cut it, in my opinion.
The cast is largely comprised of fairly unknown actors, which I think in many instances can result in very convincing, organic relationships… but in this case it missed the mark, with much of the dialogue and interactions feeling awkward and stilted.
The moments of gore are surprisingly few and far between… aside from one EXTREMELY memorable flash of one of the family’s dogs after being slain, which was supposedly a real dog the crew had purchased from the county sheriff. My husband and I just stared at each other wide-eyed for a solid 5 seconds after that. I’ve seen more than my share of dogs and animals dying in various horror movies, but usually they’re much more subtle than HEY HERE’S A REAL DEAD DOG, SURPRISE.
The movie was meant to be a modern re-telling of the Sawney Bean story from Scottish folklore. Initially, it was supposed to take place in the mid-90s, in a forest rather than a desert, with dozens of incestuous family members and focused primarily on the adolescents of the group as the leaders. I won’t lie, I would have rather seen that movie…
To be fair, there are a handful of scary aspects and moments in this film. When the matriarch, Ethel (Virginia Vincent), tries to call for help on the CB radio and gets nothing but heavy, raspy breathing on the other end. The fact that they are all alone in a vast expanse of desert (I maintain that basically anything happening in such isolation is terrifying). Ethel’s moment of hysteria after they find her husband, Bob, nailed to a stake and caught on fire (“that’s not my Bob!”) is brilliant.
I also loved how much the surviving dog, Beast, becomes this sort of hero in the movie, pushing Mercury off a cliff and ripping Pluto’s throat out. More dogs, please!
But those rare moments of fear are largely subdued by how comical much of the movie is. Even if we ignore how stereotypically the people continue to further their own danger (Bobby neglecting to tell the rest of the family about Beauty’s death or his own suspicions, Ethel being unable to properly use the CB radio, the entire car crash happening at all as a result of them just screaming about the map and low-flying jets), you can’t ignore the cannibals’ outfits (which look like the crew just went to the cheapest Halloween store they could find and bought a bunch of half-assed caveman costumes) and their overall exaggerated demeanor. I mean, we get it, they are “the other”.
That being said, I did appreciate the ending. I know people usually scream about movies not wrapping up in thorough, satisfying ways but I think for a movie aiming to showcase the depravity of humanity, it was perfect. I think it’s to be expected that humans will go to violent lengths to protect their family and their own lives, so it wasn’t maybe as shocking as it could have been… but the seeming moment of realization, of horror, on Doug’s face as he stabs Mars to death was definitely a highlight of an otherwise fairly dim movie.
Rating: 4/10 | Director: Wes Craven | Writer: Wes Craven | Music: Don Peake | Cinematography: Eric Saarinen | Starring: John Steadman, Janus Blythe, Russ Grieve, Virginia Vincent, Suze Lanier-Bramlett, Dee Wallace, Robert Houston, Martin Speer, James Whitworth, Michael Berryman, Lance Gordon, Cordy Clark