The Hills Have Eyes

Release date: July 22, 1977

Director: Wes Craven

Cast: Susan Lanier, Robert Houston, Martin Speer, Dee Wallace, Russ Grieve, John Steadman, James Whitworth and Virginia Vincent

In The Hills Have Eyes during a cross country trip a family from Middle America takes a "short cut" through the Western desert in the hopes of finding a silver mine that the mother and father of the family (the family includes – mother, father, two daughters, one son, a son-in-law, and a baby) had inherited many years ago. Against the advice of an old man that owns a run-down gas station the family heads down a deserted dirt road searching for their mine but, when buzzed by an Air Force jet, the father drives off the road, breaking an axle on the car which in turn leaves the family in the middle of nowhere. But while they are far away from any civilization, they are also not alone. A feral family, which is like a stone-age mirror image of these Mid-Westerners, is watching these interlopers from the surrounding rock falls and crags and are making their plan of attack.

The family splits up, the father heading in one direction for help while the son-in-law heads in the other direction, both hoping to find some kind of help. As night falls and the men are still not back, the crazies of the desert are moving closer. Their true nature is revealed when one of the twin German Shepards the family own runs into the desert and is killed by one of the members of the feral family. And as the night grows and the cannibalistic family makes its move the American family are shattered as they lose three of their own in a brutal attack that ends with the their baby being stolen, and now, faced with the sorrow of their losses and an escalading fear, the family must become like their hunters in order to survive. The movie then becomes a war between the American family and the mutant cousins as the desert sun climbs to its height to watch the drama unfold.

The draw of The Hills Have Eyes is two-pronged it is of course a very gruesome horror film, which will always gain you some kind of audience this genre, but is more than just that, it is also a social commentary on how very shaky the ground society stands on is. When pushed into a corner, when we, or our family are threatened, we are more than willing to become monsters if it means we will survive. Which is the beauty of this, and many of Craven’s films – he actually has something to say. Unfortunately Craven’s ideas over-reach his skill. The film is ably and believably acted by the American Family, and features some very good performances from actors just finding their first work. But the weak link lies with the cannibal family, who come off not threatening, but kind of as cartoons, their dialogue and its delivery becoming funnier than it is threatening. And I feel the same with the casting of the feral family. Aside from the woman that plays Ruby, the member of the ferals that wants to escape them and that helps the American family the rest are just caricatures of what we imagine these people would be. Dirty, stupid, selfish, and not even seeming as much a family as a tribe, which I think is a problem for the movie. What would have ideally happened is that the deeper into the film you got, the more you’d see that both families are the same and both are merely trying to survive.

You should empathize with the monsters and the heroes so that at the end, both families are the same. But we never get that sense. We see a young family driving into an area of the desert they should not have, but they never harm nor impinge on the feral family. They are victims through and through. And if that wasn’t clear enough, you have the daughter (who is about eighteen in the film I would guess) being raped by two of the ferals and the other daughter’s child being stolen. The film is slanted far too much for the American family. I appreciate what director Craven was trying to do, and as it is, it is an effective, if predictable, horror film, but it could have been so much more. And the hell of it is he meant it to be more. You can see that at the very end, with the final shots of the film, and hear it when he speaks about the film, but he never achieves his goal. The same can be said, to a degree, about Last House, where you never ever feel for the villains in the film and are happy to see them all killed. It’s more powerful and shocking if the audience begins to side with the ‘bad-guys’ and has to re-examine the way the were viewing the film.

But I don’t want to put people off from seeing this. Flawed as it is, this is still a very well made, and very horror film. The desert makes an eerie, surreal location, and the tension builds and builds as the two families strategize their attacks in the hopes of destroying their foes. The heart of the movie though lies with the young father who, having lost his wife, and both in-laws, must become the monsters he hunts wholly in order to rescue his stolen child. The actor goes all out in this role and really brings depth and heart to what could have been a very false secondary plot. It is obvious in The Hills Have Eyes that Craven was becoming the director that would make A Nightmare on Elm Street and his eye for pacing and tension are obvious. There is a lot to like in Hills, the interplay between the American family especially, but the weak link always has been, and remains the ferals and their portrayal and the way they were written. This is a good movie, but could have been a great one.

This is a very effective, very grim look at what the All American Family could become, if put in the right circumstances. But this is an interesting and intriguing movie and shows a director just hitting his stride. Not as classic as a lot of people seem to think, but a very strong horror film that deserves a second look.

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