Writer: Wes Craven
Cast: Martin Speer, Robert Houston, Janus Blythe, Susan Lanier, Virginia Vincent, Russ Grieve, James Whitworth, Michael Berryman, Lance Cordon
Running time: 89mins
What’s the story: A white-collar suburban family, stranded in the California desert, are targeted by a cannibal clan, igniting a desperate fight for survival.
What’s the verdict: On the accompanying audio commentary (recorded in 2003 for an Anchor Bay release of The Hills Have Eyes) the sadly departed Wes Craven refers to this 1977 mini-classic as his second movie, omitting his 1975 porn film The Fireworks Woman, made under the pseudonym Abe Snake.
Fitting however for the Craven canon that The Hills Have Eyes is the official second movie as it sees the themes and preoccupations unleashed in his 1972 debut film The Last House on the Left shifting closer to the mainstream.
Middle-class America confronted with its grimier mirror image? Check. Gruelling mid-section depicting sexual assault and murder? Check. “Civilised” characters discovering their inner savage? Check again.
But, while fitting squarely in the horror bracket, The Hills Have Eyes is also part-Western, part-action movie, vigilante thriller and an undervalued commentary on America at the fag end of a turbulent decade.
Craven drew inspiration from Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre for this “countryside bites back” tale, even recruiting Texas Chain Saw’s art director Robert A. Burns to provide a similarly bone and carcass strewn feel to the cannibals’ dwelling.
But, The Hills Have Eyes is broader satire, more EC Comics than crime-scene photography. Which is presumably why it avoided being banned in the UK, unlike its cousins The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Last House on the Left. Keeping with the comic book tone, here there’s even a plump baby ripe for the cooking pot. Heh-heh… And the distinctive looking Michael Berryman, who plays lowly cannibal foot soldier Pluto, so sums up the film’s comic book roots he became its poster boy.
The rest of the cast were also unfamiliar faces, largely pulled from TV, with Dee Wallace making an early appearance, and Virginia Vincent as Wallace’s mother the closest actor to old school Hollywood. A minor scream-queen of sorts was also created in Janus Blythe as Ruby, reluctant member of the cannibal clan.
Craven’s basic premise is standard Western fodder. A family of homesteaders travelling to California make a detour to look in on a silver mine to which they have a claim. The family travel by station wagon and trailer (i.e. caravan), the modern day equivalent of the horse and wagon. They’re led by “Big Bob” Carter, a retired detective, essentially making him a lawman and prospector.
The three kids of various ages and son-in-law are blond-haired, preppy or both and totally unaware of what the natives have planned for them.
What lies in wait is a gang of cannibal cutthroats, pulled from the British legend of Sawney Bean, a Scottish cannibal highwayman who dwelled in the caves of a coastal town with his extended family and fed off hapless passers-by.
Craven’s cannibal ne’er-do-wells also draw heavily from the Manson Family, still casting a long shadow over late 70s America. With male members named after the planets to suggest their standing in the family’s firmament, they are weird, murderous, fueled by sexual lust and contemptuous of modern society.
They also embody the fear of an underclass forgotten by society and a reminder of what people can become when that society disintegrates. Not for nothing does the family’s leader Jupiter, played with scene-and-flesh-chewing relish by James Whitworth, literally bark into camera, “You come out here and stick your life in my face!”
Proving there is a brains behind the guignol, Craven is all about doubling and opposites. The cannibal family are an inverse of the Carters, they are about equal in number, the Carters’ two dogs are named Beauty and Beast, and when Beauty dies Beast literally is unleashed.
Forty years has done little to dilute the power of the talking point set-piece when the clan attacks the family’s caravan. Perfectly placed after a steady escalation of suspense and immediately following the film’s first big shock, it blends sexual violence, brutal off-hand murder and baby abduction in roughly five breathless minutes. Compare this to the dispiriting fifteen minute onslaught in the turgid 2006 remake and you see why Craven was a master horror filmmaker.
When the family fight back, the director stages their revenge as action cinema, complete with booby-traps, explosions, gunfire, animal attacks and good old-fashioned fisticuffs.
Plot-holes, budget limitations and TV style acting stop this just short of five star classic status. Plus, it must be said, censor cuts imposed at the time. We have it pretty much on hearsay that this is a cannibal family, the people-munching cut to the bone to avoid an X-rating.
Yet, it still resonates as a powerful, relevant movie, holding its own against modern horror cinema.
Craven himself would be drawn back for payday sequel The Hills Have Eyes Part 2, a film so beset by production and budget issues it pads out the running time with copious footage pulled from this movie.
That sequel was finally completed in 1984, after Craven revitalised the horror genre again with a little movie called A Nightmare on Elm Street.
Picture: Another fine Blu-ray transfer from the good folk at Arrow. Sympathetic to the original 16mm negative, it brings out clarity and detail without exposing the budget limitations of the production. Only some grain and noise in certain night shots are emphasized by the HD treatment.
Extras: As you would expect from Arrow, this cult classic receives comprehensive treatment. Certain extras (the Wes Craven and producer Peter Locke commentary, the hour long documentary Family Business, renamed here Looking Back on The Hills Have Eyes, an alternate ending) are worthy inclusions ported over from Anchor Bay’s excellent 2003 release. The alternate ending here has its HD premiere.
There is also the option to watch the film with the alternate ending and it does soften the impact compared to the original’s stunning freeze-frame climax; Wes made the right choice. Interestingly, the alternate ending corrects the order in which the bad guys are confronted, so the big-bad Jupiter is saved for last. But again this makes the film seem more ordinary.
The all new cast commentary features Michael Berryman, Janus Blythe, Susan Lanier and Martin Speer and is a lively discussion recalling how they got the gig, the difficulties of shooting and working with Craven.
Film academic Mikel J. Koven dives into the film’s themes and devotes his commentary to a lengthy discussion and comparison with the Sawney Bean legend. While engrossing, this would have worked better as a video essay as it rarely corresponds to the onscreen action.
Substantial new interviews with Martin Speer and composer Don Peake add more to the production background and circumstances in which the film was made.
Perhaps most valuable to Hills-head is around 25 minutes of on-set and on-location footage, including the desert night shoots. Silent, but essential for watching cast and crew busily working on something that was to become a horror landmark.
A good gallery of posters and lobby cards from around the world reveals how much Michael Berryman became the film’s central image, while trailers and TV spots show how the film was marketed. Killer trailer line: “The lucky ones died first…”
Not available with the review disc were 6 postcards and a limited edition booklet with contribution from Brad Stevens.
Worth the upgrade if you already have this on your shelf. But, if you don’t currently own The Hills Have Eyes, this release is one to sink your teeth into and quick.
To purchase directly from Arrow Films click here.
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