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The Hills Have Eyes (1977)

Rating: *** out of 4

Cast: Susan Lanier, Robert Houston, Martin Speer, Dee Wallace, and Russ Grieve.

Writer: Wes Craven

Director: Wes Craven

In the wake of The Last House on the Left a slew of horror gems were released, each trying to one up the other. The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Jaws will all go down in history (alongside Last House) as being monumental, genre defying scare-fests that would influence filmmakers for decades to come. In 1977, just five years after his directorial debut, Wes Craven would add another title to that list; The Hills Have Eyes.

The film follows a family on a road trip through the desert that gets preyed upon by feral men from the hills, who have a taste for human flesh. The premise sounds lackluster by today’s standards, but for the time it was a grotesquely unique and terrifying ride. Borrowing the folk legend of Sawney Bean, and mashing it up with the formula provided by Tobe Hooper’s masterwork, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Craven makes a violent thriller that defied genre conventions of the era. A formula that has sadly been utilized so often that it now lacks the punch it once did. Still, the film manages to yield a few surprises that make it a worthwhile venture.

The thing I found most interesting about the film (and Craven’s previous two films, come to think of it) is the examination, albeit subtle, on the nature of right and wrong/good and bad. We are delving into spoiler-y territory, so be warned. The film starts with two families. A relatable civilized family and a feral family that the film’s Harbinger of Doom character calls a family of coyote people. One by one, each of the things that tether the regular family to the civilized world get stripped from them. Gone is their RV, their radios, their guns and weapons, and their typical nuclear family unit. By the film’s climax, you are left with only one family…a feral one made up of the lone survivors of the civilized family who have slaughtered the coyote people. The civilized family resorts to the same brutality (sans the cannibalism) as the feral one, ending with a brutal freeze-frame shot on a close-up of the face on the survivor in his moment of frenzied bloody victory. This shot, like the last shot in The Last House on the Left tests the audience. It leaves them with a perplexing feeling of “Thank God it’s over…I survived, but at what cost?” In both cases, the survivors have exacted bloody vengeance and lost all traces of conventional humanity leaving us to wonder; who are we really meant to root for? Doth spoilers endith!

I like that Craven tests us. It’s not often done. Of the three masterpieces of horror cinema of the era that I mentioned in the beginning, not a one of them asks us to examine the real world implication of what we as an audience have just viewed. That is not to say those films are lesser in any way, but it elevates Craven’s works into being a touch more cerebral. Craven has a statement he wants to make about the civilized world that we often try to hush up or fail to acknowledge and he chose the legend of Sawney Bean to justify it.

For those not in the know, Sawney Bean is a Scottish folk legend from the 16th century wherein he and his family were a feral family that lived in the caves of the Scottish Highlands that would pick off anybody that happened by and brutalize and consume them. The Bean family supposedly killed thousands before the King had his knight’s hunt down the family and execute them without trial. Bad enough as that is, they tortured the cannibalistic family, raped and savaged the women and kept them alive for days before actually performing the executions. The Bean family was executed on the basis of their feral nature, but the civilized royals allowed the same barbarism to befall the family in the name of justice. Craven expertly utilized this story (which is likely mere legend) to have the audience examine the nature of justice. It’s also important to note that this may have been important to him as this was the Vietnam era and the acts of violence shown on television in the name of peace had to have influence as it is so blatantly reflective in his first two major cinematic works.

Like I said before, the film does suffer in recent years from the whole “I’ve seen it all before” vibe, but one has to remember that it feels redundant because it influenced so many to steal from its own formula. The acting gets a little over the top at times, and the dialogue often walks the line of being silly. Still, it is an incredibly effective thrill ride that relents only long enough for you to catch your breath. Fans of Craven’s other works will be excited to see how he uses some clever booby-traps on the coyote people, and further see the mucked up relationship of the distant or monstrous fathers that is so prevalent a theme in his films.

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- October, 2015

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