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 dog until Maximus's 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 those existing on the fringe of civilisation basically just want to eat us. 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 bred folks taking on their evil-to-the-core 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?”
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 making you eager to participate in that violence, angering you enough to a primal degree that you wanted retributional blood as badly as the poor Carters. Just like Peckinpah's Straw Dogs 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 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 road, banging up the car, and the camper van towed behind it, in the process and stranding them in the Mojave Desert where the dusty 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 ...”
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 - mom (Virginia Vincent), Doug's wife Lynne (played by ET's own Dee Wallace-Stone), scream-queen daughter Brenda (an equally strong Susan Lanier) and the two dogs, Beauty and Beast. Doug finds an old army PX and brings back enough stuff to open up an 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 Fred. He knows what's lurking out there in the rocky 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, 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 - cut off in the badlands - is all too pervasive. “They're okay,” Big Bob says of his family after hearing the horror story, but Fred knows different. There's a huge shock moment here, too, that still ranks as one of the best movie-jumps in horror's estimable canon. But, it is the awful humiliation and torture that Big Bob, ostensibly our dependable hero, 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.)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. The fumbled rescue attempt is acutely akin to settlers finding the results of an Apache atrocity.
“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 had a gruesome discovery of his own, but been unable to communicate it to the others until it is far too late. 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 the emotion and 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 Maximus, when he 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. 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 are away putting 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. 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 is 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 (the genre-veteran Michael Berryman). Craven's attempts to humanise them - afterall, they are just doing what they must in order to live - 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. 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 adversity, you will inevitably slide into depravity. Hills postulates that you will do it in order to survive. But we know Craven a little better than that. With Last House he ascertained that, if pushed, you'll do it out of revenge, too. And so, with these motivations in mind, the remaining Carters take the battle to their planet-named enemies with suitably grisly aplomb.
“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- 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 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. 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 shout. I love German Shepherds - and I know my own would go on the offensive in just such a cunning and flesh-ripping manner as this particular Beast. Pluto's famous dog-hating speech as he lies in a pool of his own blood is just grist to the mill when the dog comes back for seconds. Check out that little bit of bone dangling from his shredded ankle. A taste of his own medicine. Not since Rin Tin Tin has there been a dog as dependable and resourceful as this. His despatch 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. “What are your defensive capabilities at this time? Over.” OOPS.
“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.”
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 curling wisp of smoke from a dying man's charred lips. The bullets fired into a prone woman's body. 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 feel. It's emotive filmmaking that goes for the throat. Craven has only made one other film that I enjoyed 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 The Evil Dead.
A true celluloid nightmare from the decade of downbeat nihilism.
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