7/3/09

Whatcha Craven?: The Hills Have Eyes (1977)


It’s the start of the July the 4th weekend, and many people will be taking this opportunity to travel. So I thought as a service to my readers, I would impart a little travel advice by way of this month’s featured director, Wes Craven. When traveling through an area you’re not familiar with, don’t go off down a dirt road that’s not on the map, and if you’re still thinking you might, and the local gas station attendant tries to warn you off then take his advice. After all, he lives around there and you don’t. He might know things like how the area might be chock full of imbred mutated rednecks with a taste for human flesh.

It’s too bad that Big Bob Carter (Russ Grieve) didn’t heed that kind of advice. Instead he takes his family and their camper into the craggy desert in search of a silver mine given to him and his wife on their silver anniversary. Swerving to avoid a rabbit, he crashes the car and busts the axel, stranding his family. They soon finds themselves in a fight for their life against Jupiter (James Whitworth) and his band of homosapien snacking mutants, and thus begins Wes Craven’s second film, The Hills Have Eyes (1977).

One of the taglines for the movie says, “A nice American family. They didn’t want to kill. But they didn’t want to die.” Wes Craven often brought the average American family into a world of twisted horror in his films such as The Last House on the Left and A Nightmare on Elm Street. One of the running themes in his films is to explore the dark places people can go to when their lives are on the line, and the Carter family (and well, their dog, but more on that later) is no exception. It does take them a while to get there, and that is both a blessing and the curse of The Hills Have Eyes. The first half of the film is quite a slow burn, and I don’t ever feel as if tension is built very effectively. Sure, you know things are going to go badly, or it wouldn’t be much of a film, but until the hill people show up there is little, that is unsettling about their plight.

However, when the baddies start to terrorize the family it does ramp up quite quickly, and much if the credit has to go to the actors who played the cannibal clan. James Whitworth strikes quite the imposing figure as clan patriarch Jupiter, Lance Gordon’s Mars looked a little bit like David Hess’ ugly brother (and that’s saying something), but the most memorable performance comes from Michael Berryman. The unique looking actor had come to the screen first in 1975’s Doc Savage film and followed that up with Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but it was The Hills Have Eyes that set him on a path to become an iconic actor in the horror genre.

Something has to be said for the family though because there are quite a few good performances here as well. Susan Lanier stars as the Carter’s youngest daughter Brenda, and I thought she did quite a good job though sometimes it verged on being too much. Then there is Robert Houston as Bobby Carter. When the other men go for help, Bobby is left in charge to defend the women folk, and Houston effectively makes Bobby quite the misguided jerk. He was such an ass that it made it quite hard to root for him, and if it were not for Ms. Lanier as his sweet and rather freaked out sister then I may not have. Yet compared to the ruthless and terrifying members of the cannibal clan, Bobby being a little bit if a jerk is not that big of a transgression.

The last performance I’d like to talk about is the best in the film, but sadly, it is one of the most limited ones. Doug Wood (Martin Speer) is the Carter’s son in law who is married to their eldest daughter Lynn (Dee Wallace). Once Lynn is killed in a struggle to defend her baby from Mars, Doug reacts as any father would and goes after his kidnapped baby. Speer is featured very little in the film, but I found him to be the most natural of the actors.

While the last half saves the flick, The Hills Have Eyes is not the flawlessly executed film that many have lauded it as being. Personally, I prefer the rawness of Last House to the slow burn build of Hills. I feel like the cinematography is quite jumpy and dark in spots even in the remastered version I watched, and while some of the acting was good, many of the roles were filled with actors clearly not giving the parts their all. It also fails to deliver on much harrowing violence. Sure it brings a couple of fairly gruesome deaths and a rape scene, which like every rape scene, is hard to watch, but the best killing in the film comes by way of the family dog getting a hold of Pluto. This was no doubt my favorite part of the film, and will go on my shortlist of favorite onscreen deaths.

The Hills Have Eyes is an important film because it, like Last House, was important in the development of Wes Craven as a director, but it will never rank among my favorite of his films. To me, the film seems messy and builds too slowly for the ending to have much of an impact beyond the shocking. I know many people hold it in high regard so my opinion of it may well turn out to be unpopular, but while I feel it is worth seeing, I don’t feel like it achieves what is needed for it to become a classic film.

Bugg Rating

3 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. I, for one, would say your rating is pretty dang accurate. I actually like the remake better, if only because there's way more activity. The original certainly has its place, even by video-store nostalgia factor alone, but it's also not something I can see anybody wanting to watch over and over again, either. It's decent, just not particularly "entertaining". Where other horror greats have outrageous moments or awesome gore effects or terrific spooky atmosphere or off-kilter humor or whatever, the original "HILLS..." just skims lightly over all those notions and never firmly roots itself in any one area of distinction. I still love Michael Berryman, though.

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  3. the sneering (homo-phobic) snobJuly 4, 2009 at 4:34 AM

    my favorite thing about this film has always been the title "THE HILLS HAVE EYES" that has got to be one of the most sinister sounding titles of all time.

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