Arrow Video’s superb Blu-ray release of Wes Craven’s second feature film The Hills Have Eyes is an awesome presentation of this seminal “video nasty”. Dan Stephens reveals why the film has lost none of its potency…
One of Wes Craven’s great strengths as a filmmaker is bringing horror into everyday life. He makes it believable, tangible, recognisable. From his earliest feature where escaped criminals torture and kill two innocent girls in The Last House On The Left to the more fantastical but nonetheless similarly close-to-home A Nightmare on Elm Street where our dreams are infested by the monster, Craven is adept at turning innocuous routine into terrifying panic. Whether characters are willingly leaving their domestic safe haven (teenagers dismissing their parents’ concern to see a band in concert) or relying on its existence (kids sleeping in their suburban homes), the director fetishises the removal of our prescribed safety nets in order to reveal humanity’s dark underbelly.
In The Hills Have Eyes, his 1977 film, he takes a family’s cross country trip and turns it into a nightmare. The domesticity he wallows in destroying is even more explicit than the phone calls invading victims’ homes in Scream as the family literally take their “home-from-home” with them in the form of a trailer boasting a fully-fitted kitchen, bathroom and bedroom. At one point, a member of the clan attacking the family raids their fridge for food – it’s a sort of domestic molestation given the appliance’s omnipresence in civilised society worldwide. Not only will these feral men maim, torture and rape, they’ll steal your weekly shop.
There’s some debate about whether this or A Nightmare on Elm Street is Craven’s best film. The latter is flashier with an iconic villain, the former is more subtle, raw and moving. The destruction of a family, which is literally cut in half, sees the domesticated tackle the undomesticated. It’s a tale that holds a mirror to the audience that suggests this isn’t what you become, it’s what you are. The villains may be driven by horrifying acts of violence but their motivation is no less credible than the victims who fight back. Both are ultimately seeking survival.
There’s a twisted logic to that, fitting of the Craven brand. But it means The Hills Have Eyes is one of his most fascinating films. Amidst the carnage there are some classic moments: the story recalled by the gas station owner of the 20-pound baby who comes out sideways and grows up to be a monstrous, hairy man-child sways towards camp but boasts a wonderful punchline involving a memorable jump-out-your-seat moment. The aforementioned attack on the family’s trailer in which their fridge is raided is also a devastatingly effective piece of horror, its soundtrack made up predominantly of the screams of Susan Lanier’s Brenda Carter, its backdrop chilled by the realisation that a defenceless baby sits innocently awaiting something terrible.
Of course, The Hills Have Eyes isn’t perfect. The acting is perfunctory, the make-up and special effects are underwhelming, and the cannibals’ costumes are better suited to pantomime. But it remains a highlight of Wes Craven’s up and down career. Its reputation in the UK as a “video nasty” gives it an allure it probably doesn’t merit at face value; what’s acceptable from today’s mainstream torture porn makes Craven’s violence in 1977 look fairly tame. And yet it was still butchered by the censors meaning some of the film’s deleted scenes are lost forever. The writer-director’s talent mitigates much of the film’s low budget constraints and the censor’s scissors through the subtext he so gleefully emits. He’s also aided by the isolation of the desert location. The severing of ties to civilisation.
Most unnervingly, Craven destroys the matriarchs of the family unit; a subliminal extraction of another safe haven we rely upon from our earliest days as children. That’s not to say the mothers featured in The Hills Have Eyes have many redeeming qualities. Virginia Vincent’s Ethel Carter is more nagging wife than head of the family, while Dee Wallace’s young mother is preoccupied with late-night rumbles with her husband in the back of the car while her sister watches her baby. Equally, the feral family’s mother is displayed as a fattened slob, more outwardly dictatorial but no less ill-equipped to deal with the consequences of the fight. I’m reminded of Craven’s use of a family prayer prior to the carnage beginning. The appeal for wellbeing and safety falls on celestial deaf ears. Evidently, Mum is not here. Neither is God.
Written by Dan Stephens
Top 10 Films reviewed The Hills Have Eyes on Blu-ray courtesy of Arrow Films which released the film on Blu-ray October 3, 2016. The new Blu-ray features a new 4K restoration of the film, supervised by producer Peter Locke and viewable with both original and alternate endings. The release also features brand new audio commentaries with actors Michael Berryman, Janus Blythe, Susan Lanier and Martin Speer as well as one with academic Mikel J. Koven. There’s also an excellent making-of.
Directed by: Wes Craven
Written by: Wes Craven
Starring: Martin Speer, Virginia Vincent, Dee Wallace, Susan Lanier, Robert Houston, Lance Gordon
Discover More: Top 10 Films Of Wes Craven
Wes Craven’s films on Top 10 Films:
Top 10 Slasher Films – The Last House On The Left & A Nightmare on Elm Street
Scariest Films Ever Made – The Last House On The Left & A Nightmare on Elm Street
Top 10 Horror Film Sequels – Scream 2 & Wes Craven’s New Nightmare
Top 10 Horror Films For Adults That Star Children In Lead Roles – The People Under The Stairs
Top 10 Horror Film Beginnings – Scream
Top 30 Horror Films – 1967 to 1979 – The Hills Have Eyes & The Last House On The Left
Top 10 Films To Have Driven People To Murder – Scream and A Nightmare on Elm Street.