|Hills Have Eyes, The|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 23 September 2003|
Wes Craven originally intended to be a college professor, and did work as a college-level instructor for several years. He's a quiet, intelligent, good-humored man, hardly the type that stereotyping would insist should be the director of a string of horror movies. But it's precisely their intelligence that sets his best films not just above but apart from their rivals. He may make films with teenagers getting killed one by one, just like a lot of other slasher movies, but his are also about more than what's on the surface.
His first movie was "The Last House on the Left;" Craven drew its plot from Ingmar Bergman's "The Virgin Spring," not exactly the kind of source you'd expect for a grisly, suspenseful and disturbing low-budget, grindhouse offering. It was successful, but it didn't immediately lead to other work -- and no one was interested in hiring him for anything other than horror movies.
So he shrugged, accepted that he was a horror movie director, and made "The Hills Have Eyes," his second feature, and one of his best. He drew on the Scottish legends of Sawney Beane and his family, an incestuous tribe of cannibals who preyed on travelers from Edinburgh to London back in the 17th century. (If they existed at all; there are some doubts.) But it also seems likely that he was at least partly inspired by "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre," which had a roughly similar plot -- and the same art director, Robert Burns. (Who arrived with bones and other leftovers from TCM.)
Partnered with producer Peter Locke, Craven and his small crew plunked themselves down in the Mojave Desert thirty miles from Barstow, and shot during a late summer of grueling daylight heat and near-freezing nights.
It's a family story, but not a story for families -- it's vivid, brutal and suspenseful, and at the utter end, leaves the audience somewhat hanging; there isn't a sense of completion. (Although such a scene was filmed, as included among the extras on this DVD set.) There's the family from Cleveland, Ohio, traveling across the country in a station wagon, hauling a house trailer. Bather Bob Carter (Russ Grieve) is a domineering ex-cop; we never see him be unkind to the others, but there's no doubt that he's an unforgiving boss. His wife Ethel (Virginia Vincent) is happy with her husband and three children. The eldest, Lynne (Dee Wallace), is married to Doug Wood (Martin Speer), who's traveling with them. The next is Bobby (Robert Houston), and the youngest is Brenda (Susan Lanier). They all get along, and there's no sense of an armed truce -- but the pecking order is clear.
Looking for a silver mine he's inherited, big Bob stops at a rundown gas station out in the desert. Old desert rat Fred (John Steadman, who's very good) urges them to go on straight to California, and don't get off the main road. But they do, of course; otherwise, there wouldn't be a movie. They wind up stalled miles from the main road with a broken axle; their CB doesn't seem to reach anyone.
But we've already seen ragged, fur-clad young Ruby (Janus Blythe) begging for help from Fred, and a shadowy figure in feathers ducking around in the background. Soon, the Carter family and Doug decide to split up to seek help: Big Bob heads back to Fred's gas station, Doug sets off in search of an old military base. (The story's one narrative slip is to heavily establish that the family is stranded in the middle of an Air Force bombing range -- we see planes occasionally -- and then to do nothing with this.)
Beauty and the Beast, the family's two German Shepherds, are let out; Beast is tied up, but Beauty dashes off into the rocks ringing the flats where the car is stalled. And she's promptly killed by the feather-clad watcher, whom we learn is Mercury (producer Locke acting under the name Arthur King). The family is being watched by another family -- Mercury and Ruby are the two youngest, but there's also hairy brother Mars (Lance Gordon), bald brother Pluto (the always-interesting Michael Berryman) and brutal, scarred father Jupiter (James Whitworth). They're feral, living in the desert, clad in rags and furs, decorated in bones and shells -- and they're cannibals, hunting down passersby.
There hasn't been anyone passing by in quite a while, so they're very interested in the Carter family....
There's no point in synopsizing further; the story develops in a logical way, at an involving tempo and with plenty of suspenseful scenes and surprises. As the members of the family from Cleveland begin to be killed, the survivors realize they're going to have to become as vicious as those hunting them, if they're to survive at all.
It's a simple situation, clearly developed and involving. The characters are well-drawn and quite well played by faces then unfamiliar. Dee Wallace went on to "The Howling" and "E.T.," of course, and Michael Berryman, with his forceps-baby head and lack of hair and fingernails, is still out there (and in the supplements on this disc.) Most of the other actors hung on a while, then drifted away; Robert Houston eventually became a busy TV director, but his performance here is professional and convincing. (And he can do back flips.)
This is one of the small group of horror films that made an overwhelming impact -- not so much when it was first released, but in later years. "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" was a major independent hit, and "Halloween," "Friday the 13th," "The Evil Dead" and "A Nightmare on Elm Street" all generated sequels. "The Hills Have Eyes" also generated a sequel, "The Hills Have Eyes II," with Craven and some of the same cast, but it's a mere piffle compared to the original. (Although, as Craven himself points out in the commentary track, it does feature a flashback from the point of view of a dog.)
"The Hills Have Eyes" is a good movie, but more conventional than, say, "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre," and that's as it should be, because of the conflict of and within the families. Jupiter and his children (and briefly-glimpsed mate) seem to love and respect each other more than those associated with Big Bob, but Big Bob and his family are not rapacious hunters. They're capable of violence, but they don't seek it; the moral divide has some cracks in it, but it's clearly drawn. I mean, Jupiter stares at one of his victims while chewing on the dead man's arm. Big Bob would probably not have done that. (After Jupiter finishes his, uh, robust speech to the corpse -- "I'm gonna suck the brains of your children's children!" -- Pluto, Mars and the others politely applaud.)
Anchor Bay has given "The Hills Have Eyes" excellent treatment; the film has been restored, although it isn't clear (from a comparison featurette) that it really needed it all that much. There's a funny, lively commentary track by Craven and Locke, rich with anecdotes and a kind of, what else, familial warmth. One of the two featurettes, "Looking Back at the Hills Have Eyes," was apparently made for this DVD (perhaps for an earlier laserdisc); it features Craven, Locke, Houston, Wallace, Lanier (who loves horror movies), Blythe (who won a footrace to land the part), cinematographer Eric Saarinen and Michael Berryman. Saarinen wisely points out that with low-budget, quickly-made films like this, you are working with a triangle: Fast, Cheap, Good. You can usually get two of those, but rarely all three. But "The Hills Have Eyes" scores with all three.
The other featurette was evidently made for the American Film Institute, and is a well-produced, very professional documentary look at Wes Craven's entire career. Each film is at least mentioned, and most have an actor in it commenting on the film. Bill Pullman talks about "The Serpent and the Rainbow," Adrienne Barbeau and Ray Wise about "Swamp Thing," Robert Englund about "A Nightmare on Elm Street," Mitch Pileggi about "Shocker," and on through the others, especially highlighting "Wes Craven's New Nightmare" (with Heather Langenkamp speaking), the "Scream" trilogy (with Neve Campbell and Courteney Cox), and Craven's only non-horror outing, "Music of the Heart," with a thoughtful Meryl Streep. It's an excellent addition.
Other extras include the alternate ending, stills, some DVD ROM features (the script and access to screen savers), and a text biography of Craven.
In the featurettes and on the commentary track, Craven is clearly revealed as a thoughtful, intelligent man, ingratiating, kind and funny. He's so interesting and likable that you finish the disc considering hunting down all his other movies.