This is an expanded version of the review I wrote for the R2 Special Edition double-disc release from Anchor Bay.
Firstly, a little story.
I'd be around eight or nine and reading my Planet Of The Apes Annual just before bedtime, when a close relative of mine, and his girlfriend, came round. Both were very agitated, though the girlfriend was clearly in the worst state, crying and shouting at him. The two argued bitterly, with my relative eventually giving up the fight and lapsing into a terrible sulk. What had happened was this - whilst sitting in our local cinema and mesmerised by the film that they were watching, the girlfriend suddenly leapt out of her seat, condemned the rest of the audience for all being sick and depraved, screamed in rage at her stunned partner for taking her to see such an evil film and then stormed out. The film, of course, was Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes (1977), and, after witnessing its awesome effect on people, I knew that I just had to see it.
“Oh, there'll be hell to pay now!”
I didn't actually catch up with this brutal shocker until a few years later on pre-certificate video. I still own the cassette - for nostalgic reasons, you understand. And it didn't disappoint, I can tell you. I knew exactly the scene that had caused the eruption ... because my girlfriend, at the time, had exactly the same reaction to it and, I have to admit, that the sequence in question, is still agonisingly powerful. But the film, as a whole, left a mark on me with its intense deconstruction of family values and the group dynamic, its painful reversal of the survival instinct and its corruption of morals. The always alluring debate of what we are all capable of doing to protect ourselves and our families had never been brought home to me so vividly before. It also had two fabulous German Shepherd dogs in it that kicked ass like no other dogs until Maximus' battle-loving mutt in Gladiator. More on them later, though. The tale of the extended Carter Family travelling by road to California, to celebrate the patriarchal Big Bob's retirement from the New York Police and his wedding anniversary with easy-going, God-loving Mama Ethel, details the quintessential belief that society cannot trust rural folk. That, in all likelihood, those existing on the fringe of civilisation basically just want to eat us if we get too close. And, you've guessed it, the family they meet when the break down in the middle of nowhere want to do exactly that. It has since become a sub-genre in its own right, with everything from Texas Chainsaw, Deliverance and the underrated Southern Comfort to Wrong Turn, Jeepers Creepers and the House Of Wax remake taking the same basic principles of white-collar folks taking on their evil-to-the-core, in-bred country cousins. Honestly, it's like America is still fighting that Civil War, isn't it?
“Do you always try to stop trespassers by hanging yourself?”
Even with the likes of Taxi Driver pushing the levels of violence to bloodier and more grittily realistic proportions, there was a level of violence in this film that was unprecedented at its time of release. Well its blood-brother, Texas Chainsaw, was an equal for savage impact, but the trick that Hills pulled was in making you eager to participate in that violence, angering you to enough of a primal degree that you wanted retributional blood as just badly as the poor Carters. So, rather like Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs (see BD review) from a few years before, the film took normal, somewhat conservative characters and pitched them so far off the beaten track that their invasive ways would bring them into direct and furious contact with folks of, shall we say, lesser social graces. They are warned by old Grandpa Fred at the dilapidated gas station out on the highway to oblivion that they should stay on the road, stop for nothing and just keep on going. But the Carters are decent folks and they swerve to avoid a little bunny hopping out into the dusty blacktop, banging up the car, and the camper van they are towing behind it, in the process and stranding them in the Mojave Desert where the rocky and intimidating hills surrounding them ... do, indeed, have eyes. And teeth.
“I knew he done it! I hit him with a tyre iron ... I split his face wide open ...”
Ostensibly the dependable go-getters, Big Bob (a pitch-perfect Russ Grieve) and son-in-law Doug (Sonny Bono lookalike, Martin Speer) head off in different directions to get help, leaving teenage son Bobby (an absolutely wonderful and convincing Robert Houston, who really should have gone on to bigger and better things) in charge of the family – which is made up of mom (Virginia Vincent), Doug's wife Lynne (played by The Howling and ET's own Dee Wallace-Stone), scream-queen daughter Brenda (an equally strong Susan Lanier), fragile baby Catherine, and the two dogs, Beauty and Beast. Doug finds an old army PX and brings back enough stuff to open up his own army surplus store - missed the weaponry, though, didn't you, Doug? Big Bob goes back to the gas station, and it is here that the back story of the film is supplied in haunting, raspy fashion by the grizzled old, fried-faced Fred. He knows only too well what's lurking out there in them thar hills. His tale of woe is almost comically macabre, yet the pain with which he delivers the fate of his wife and daughter at the meaty paws of his own monstrous son, (“He come out sideways … almost tore poor Martha in half!”) is our first real indicator that the “almost fun” feel that the movie has had so far is going to drastically alter very soon. The sound of the desert wind keening in through the blackness of the night is truly unsettling, and the feeling of isolation – totally cut off in the badlands in literally the middle of nowhere - is all too pervasive. “They're okay,” Big Bob says of his family after hearing the horror story, but Fred knows different. “Like hell they are!” he implores, but the situation has already gone beyond the point of no return and California may as well be on the dark side of the Moon for all the promise it now holds. There's a huge shock moment here, too, that still ranks as one of the best movie-stingers in Horror's estimable canon of knee-jerking primal heart-stoppers. The utterly dumbfounded look on Big Bob’s face says it all, and the amount of popcorn that must have been spilled at this point must surely have been a record-breaker. Interestingly, Steve Miner copied this device in Friday The 13th Part II. But it is the awful humiliation and torture that Big Bob, who has been set up as the most reliable, resolute and downright unflappable hero of the gaggle of fugitives, undergoes upon his ill-fated return trip that really lingers in the mind, almost harking back to the excruciating suffering of the poor girls in Craven's first foray in fear, the infamous and execrable The Last House On The Left. (I saw that uncut a very long time ago and vowed I would never, ever watch it again. I've stuck to my word right through its remake and the orginal’s re-release on Blu.) Thank God, then, that we don't get to see too much of his imminent crucifixion to a Joshua Tree, and then subsequent immolation, in what has to be one of the most disturbing demises I've come across in movies ... so far. And I've seen a thing, or two. Craven keeps things glimpsed with just enough emphasis to horrify, but wisely steers away from the most explicit of imagery. Thus, the scene is all the more profoundly raw because of how it is almost abstractly executed – lots of deep desert shadows and some gut-wrenching growls of pain. Just when we think we’ve comprehended the worst of his torments, Big Bob then gets a second stage of agony, and something grim and nasty coils-up in your stomach. The fumbled rescue attempt that the rest of the family embark on is acutely akin to old pioneering settlers finding the results of an Apache atrocity staked-out and burned in the desert sun.
“Beast never barks until he's ready for the kill. He likes to catch his victims unawares.”
With the tough guy out of the way, the cannibal clan make their horrendous move against the uncomprehending family. Well, I say uncomprehending. Bobby already knows that something is seriously amiss. He's made a gruesome discovery of his own, but been unable to communicate it effectively to the others until it is far too late. He’s even heard the weird animal sounds that the cannibals are employing out there in the growing gloom. Robert Houston gives the most accurate portrayal of a teenager on the cusp of manhood that this genre has ever offered. He's frightened, courageous, angry and distraught all at once. Listen to his anguished attempts to convey his suspicions - stuttering, faltering, his voice quivering from high to low in a terrific example of someone trying to restrain some fierce overriding emotions and to keep his composure, proving to the older Doug that he can handle it. His pain at the loss of one of the dogs is the snot-spilling equal of Russell Crowe’s Maximus, when the outlawed Roman general discovers the remains of his burned family. That later deaths do not elicit the same depth of despair in him is down to the fight for survival taking logical priority, turning his grief into something else. His sister, however, comes across initially as a whining irritation. When the proverbial hits the fan big time, she simply never stops screaming. But, then again, this serves to galvanise the emotions and Lanier's depiction is still never less than genuine - especially given what is coming up next. In the history of horror films, the raid on the camper, whilst the most combative members of the Carter family have been lured away to put out a fatal fire, stands as one of the most brutal and aggressive scenes to pound away at an unwitting audience. It is filled with shootings, stabbings, a rape and a poor parakeet getting its head bitten off. The intensity of the sequence builds to a crescendo, tipped by Don Peake's edgy droning score that sees the two families finally come face to face in a showdown that shreds the nerves. Craven's handling of all this is exemplary. He effortlessly manages to cap one shock with another, until we pray that the bad guys will just go away and give us all a moment to gather our senses and take stock. That scene - you know the one I mean, the one that has people screaming and denouncing others for watching this sick tripe - is in here, folks. You'll know it. The cannibals find something in the camper, something small and innocent, which will fit quite nicely into their cooking pot for supper. No matter what age you are, or what your family status may be - this particular abduction will hit you where it hurts. You can almost hear the giggles from Craven and producer Peter Locke as they play their vile trump card. They know they've got us.
“Baby's fat ... you fat ... fat and juicy!”
Another clever manipulation of the audience is that the cannibal clan are just as well-drawn as the good guys. Craven makes sure that we get to know them, although I disagree with the oft-mooted belief that they are held up as a mirror-image of the clean-cut folks. Bobby, Brenda and Doug have no connection with their counterparts other than the will to survive. Yet, they do all share the basic family trait of bickering amongst themselves. Under the fearsome leadership of Papa Jupiter (the intimidating presence of a hulking James Whitworth) we have the toe-eating japester Mercury (actually a cameo from producer Locke), the feral daughter Ruby (an athletic Janus Blythe), the shark-toothed maniac Mars (Lance Gordon) and the film's celebrated poster-boy Pluto (played by the genre-veteran Michael Berryman). Craven's attempts to humanise them – after all, they are just doing what they must in order to live, and Jupiter’s offspring can only look to their ogre of a father for their example - don't really matter that much. After the terrible degradations they commit, we just want them dead. And we want those deaths to be painful too. We want them to suffer. Of course, this is just another trick that the film plays. It doesn't matter who you are - a priest, a policeman or a politician - when faced with such barbaric adversity, you will inevitably slide into vicious depravity, yourself. The Hills Have Eyes postulates that you will do it in order to survive. But we know Craven a little better than that, don’t we? With Last House he ascertained that, if pushed far enough, you'll do it out of revenge, too. Survival means doing what you have to, no matter how vile, just to stay alive … and then getting back to the safety of civilisation. But this becomes a different stimulus once terrible crimes have been committed against you and yours, and you can’t, whoever you are and whatever your former values, then deny that, deep down, you want some ferocious payback. And so, with these dark motivations in mind, the remaining Carters take the battle to their planet-named enemies with suitably grisly aplomb. And we love them for it.
“Give me back my baby ... my Catherine!”
It's surprising, given that Hills was only his second feature, just how accomplished Craven is with this material. His action scenes are exciting and quite gruelling - we have lots of chases and battles amid the dusty, rough scrub-bushes and rock-strewn slopes - and the terrors of the night are eerily disquieting – especially with Mars taunting the Carters with perfect mimics of their missing dogs, and the ghastly visage of Pluto as he siphons off the gas from the car. The two-handed final act is a sure winner, as well. There might be a whiff of A-Team style tactics with Bobby's use of a corpse decoy and his latent Special Forces traps, but we also get Doug's frantic and pulverising duel with fang-faced Mars, the ferocity of which is all the more resonant given that it is actually another rescue attempt and not just a vengeance kick. But, for me, the standout scenes are those that detail Beast's roaring rampage of revenge. With his mate's gutted body providing impetus, his whittling down of the cannibal clan's numbers is the only thing that keeps the good guys in with a fighting chance. I love German Shepherds - and I know my own would have gone on the offensive in just such a cunning and flesh-ripping manner as this particular Beast. Watch how he sits in wait and observes two enemies on the move … and then selects his specific target and moves in for the kill. Pluto's famous dog-hating rant as he lies in a pool of his own blood is just grist to the mill when the animal comes back for seconds. Check out that little bit of bone dangling from his shredded ankle – and just listen to that sobbing, squealing whine of self-pitying pain! Pluto gets a taste of his own medicine and, as one, we all applaud his suffering. Not since Rin Tin Tin had there been a dog as dependable and resourceful as this, although Robert Neville’s devoted post-apocalyptic companion, Sam, in I Am Legend makes for a more modern equivalent. Beast’s despatching of another member of the clan and his retrieval of a walkie-talkie are guaranteed to make you cheer, too. And, speaking of walkie-talkies, listen out for the classic moment when Bobby and Brenda think that they've raised the Air Force on their CB and make a catastrophic misplacement of trust. “What are your defensive capabilities at this time? Over.” Don’t tell them, Bobby! OOPS. That's torn it, mate.
“Were you got that cut on your leg is a blood-pipe as big as your thumb. Good place to cut somebody … but not so good to get cut there, yourself.”
Some sage-like advice from Papa Jupiter!
The violence is probably quite tame by today's standards, but it is the use to which it is put that delivers the shock value. A hand crunching-up as a nail is driven into it. A curling wisp of smoke from a dying man's charred lips. The bullets fired into a prone woman's body. Fingers frantically scrabbling at a dog-ravaged neck. Yet watching it now, the retribution still doesn't feel adequate enough. Hills confronts the issue of a threat to the family and asks you how you would deal with it if you suddenly found yourself, and your nearest and dearest in such a terrible situation. Thus, if you place your own family members in the plot (yeah, it's a grim game, I know) see how deeply embittered you then feel. It's emotive filmmaking that, like Beast, goes for the throat. Craven has only made one other film that I enjoyed anywhere near as much as this and that is A Nightmare On Elm Street but, as confrontational as Hills Have Eyes is, I still find it highly entertaining, as well. The script is surprisingly witty throughout and there are some killer one-liners. Look out for the Jaws poster ripped in half on the wall of the camper - Craven saying that Spielberg's monster was just pop-horror and un-affecting. This kick-started the tit-for-tat run of in-jokes between himself and Sam Raimi, who tore a Hills poster in half for his own rural shocker The Evil Dead, a film that Craven would then show Johnny Depp yawning at and then switching off on his bedroom TV in A Nightmare On Elm Street.
Craven would follow this up with a sequel that was as lame-brained and disappointing as it was illogical and unwanted. The Hills Have Eyes 2 bizarrely found Beast teaming-up with Ruby and the pair of them suffering from flashbacks when a cannibal cousin, called the Reaper, decides to take out a group of ubiquitous teens on a desert motor-cross. Sanitised and juvenile, it has none of the visceral power or raw simplicity of the original, and it even manages to bring back someone who simply couldn’t have survived the first ordeal. Much, much better was Alexandre Aja’s gruesome remake made in 2006, a film that managed to combine the culture-shock twists of the original with properly nasty and explicit results. It even managed to expand quite fabulously upon the concept of this backwards “nuclear family” with some imaginative turns. Yet, as with the original, this then received a cack-handed and risible sequel, as well.
The Hills Have Eyes dips its bloody toes into a variety of genres, and creates something of its own dangerous animal in the process. Very obviously we are in the realm of a modern Western, but we are also flung into the most savage of class-struggles too, and one from which parallels to America's involvement in South East Asia can easily be drawn. Although juxtaposed with the immensity of the desert, the film is also proto-study of the home-invasion trend. We can also wallow in a sort of Drive-In-cum-Grindhouse aesthetic of gritty, unshaven 16mm independent excess which, more so nowadays than even back in its notorious heyday, seems to lend the film a sort of underdog gravitas. As charismatic as Craven has always been, this is bravura reminder of when he was at his most unpredictable, raw and volatile.
A true celluloid nightmare from the decade of downbeat nihilism.
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