Review by Leslie Byron [email protected]
When we consider early Wes Craven films, it is Last House on the Left (1972) which often grabs the plaudits for the way it helped redefine the horror genre with its grimness. While this is true, in terms of craft, The Hills Have Eyes is far more accomplished in executing the same ideas. Last House’s grimness made it stand out, but The Hills Have Eyes’ central conflict is realised with far more confidence. Now with inequality reaching a peak and the recent passing of the film’s director, it seems like it’s The Hills have Eyes time to shine with Arrow’s new print of the film.
While travelling to California (for “movie stars and fancy cars!”), The Carter family takes a detour in the desert to visit some silver mines (arrogantly ignoring warnings not to). The Carter’s have the misfortune of being tracked by a pack of vicious cannibals (including the ominous visage of Michael Berryman), who have designs on raiding the family for everything they have including their lives. What occurs next is a battle of wills as the Carter family do what they can to try and survive the onslaught.
The battle between the primal and the privilege was always vital in Cravens best works. Everyone talks about the post-modernism of Scream (1996) but few ever seem to mention the dichotomy between the virginal Sidney and the rough, been around the block edge held by her boyfriend; Billy. The crux of Scream hinges on the privilege of Sidney’s family in the then present while the sordid acts of her mother set in motion the savage killings in suburbia. Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) had the middle-class families of Elm Street take the law into their own hands to stop the base child murderer Freddy Krueger. Last House on the Left was a repurposing of Bergman’s The Virgin Springs (1960) in which a prosperous Christian father mercilessly resorts to violence after the rape and murder of his daughter by goat herders. The Hills Have Eyes was Craven revisiting this theme the first time around with a less explicit, more polished battle between the haves and the have-nots that inhabited the likes of Last House. Whereas Kurg and his hoodlums were a bunch of sadist chancers, the cannibalistic family in Hills are outlanders with structure. They plan, track and dismantle those who stray too close to their vicinity, and they’ve been doing it for years.
In contrast, The Carters are just the right type of “perfect” middle-class Americana to reside in a Craven feature. A family who believe they’re whiter than white, yet are no less as vicious as their aggressors. Be it little things like Big Bob Carter’s ranting about the “n****rs he had altercations with as a cop, to the Carter family’s final corpse baiting plan to put the violence to an end. It’s no surprise that the final image is what it is. It is one of exhaustion, resignation and near acceptance of what certain characters have become. Or perhaps what they always were.
Craven wraps this potent mix of rage and class conflict into a crude yet still disturbing package. The film’s violence may pale in comparison to the film’s 2006 remake, in which director Alexander Aja ups the ante in explicit viscera. However, the original Hills still hold sequences which unsettle. Prime examples include the short but unnerving campfire gathering around a burnt corpse, while the main raid on the Carters trailer is still something that disconcerts. Craven’s use of form is also worth noting. Coming three years after The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Hills is another film which plays with the idea that vast, barren spaces can be equally as creepy as areas which are dark and enclosed. The film’s wide shots are only quick to remind us that help is a long way away.
It would be easy to see modern audiences gravitate more towards the film’s effective remake, which to some ramps up the savageness to even more extreme levels. But it’s important to see how the ongoing socio-political themes of Craven’s work start to take hold. The awkward family performances are overcome by the brittle family dynamic that occurs within both clans. Aja’s remake includes more nuclear testing talk and mutation but doesn’t take advantage of the political surroundings of the time. Hills ‘77 along with the aforementioned Texas Chainsaw Massacre were far more plugged into America’s anxieties over Vietnam as well of the class tensions occurring nearer to home. Such connectivity became Craven’s bread and butter. He may have had larger hits later in his career, yet it was here in films like this, which despite the sometimes cumbersome execution of the craft, was where a director utilised primal fears to terrorise a nation for decades.
Extras: As with most Arrow features, this comes abound with features. We’re given some fresh new interviews with cast members alongside items which appeared in older DVD releases of the film. A highlight includes the rightly exercised alternative ending, which undoes the film’s true message, simply due to its optimism. One can watch the film with this ending, yet it negates the nihilism which lived, breathed and frightened folk through the 70’s.
The Hills Have Eyes is our on DVD and Blu-Ray on 3rd October.