After making the cinema going public of 1972 collectively want to scrub themselves with bleach after the release of The Last House On The Left, it’s easy to imagine horror legend Wes Craven taking a step back to examine his amateurish voyage into the genuinely upsetting corners of the rape/revenge exploitation film and muse to himself: ” Meh, I could go further…”.
We’ll, if that imaginary scenario was ever even remotely true, consider 1977’s The Hills Have Eyes as a big fat example of “mission accomplished” as his desert-set act of cinematic endurance is remarkably brutal, even by the famously dodgy standards of 70’s exploitation, but Craven’s gift for enfusing the most nastiest scenarios with articulate and intelligent themes that skewer (often literally) the natural hierarchy of family structures
manages to elevate the material beyond your usual grunge-fest to make it almost as vital to horror of that particular period as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
The Carters are a typical, suburban family who have packed up their two dogs and their trailer and headed off into the desolate wastelands of the Nevada desert in order to tale a brief time out from their vacation in order to explore a silver mine that they apparently own. Spearheaded by the booming voice of ex-cop patriarch “Big” Bob and his gentle, bible thumping wife Ethel, the group also includes teenagers Bobby and Brenda? eldest daughter Lynne, her weak chinned husband Doug and their baby and despite getting some so ering warning from crusty gas station owner Fred, forge onwards into the middle of nowhere.
It seems Old Fred might have been onto something, as unbeknownst to the Carters, a family of inbred mutant cannibals roam the desert not far from a nearby Air Force range and survive by scavenging off families just like them and matters are made worse when a military flyby startles Bob into crashing the car, stranding them miles from anyone who could help them.
The family, at first, all seem oddly optimistic except for Bobby, who neglects to tell the others that one of their two alsatians has been gutted by persons unknown, but after night falls, the cannibals, led by the fearsome, split-faced, Papa Jupiter and his two boys Mars and Pluto launch a horrifying assault on the family that ends in rape, murder and the kidnapping of Lynne and Doug’s family.
Desperately trying to regroup in the aftermath of such depraved violence, the surviving members of the Carter clan try to get organised to a) protect themselves from a second assault and b) they and get the baby back before the cannibal clan devour her like a plump Thanksgiving turkey – but as the poster ominously states: The Lucky Ones Died First…
While a lot of people gather around Scream for revitalizing the flagging horror genre in the 90’s or sing the praises of the surreal, Jungian terrors of A Nightmare On Elm Street (and rightfully so), it often frustrates me that The Hills Have Eyes isn’t routinely given the same treatment as it’s also incredibly rich with shocking violence that’s supported by the kind of themes that are deeper than the Mariana Trench and not usually found in other, equally sleazy, exploitation fare.
The main thrust of the movie is essentially two classes of family at war, with a cozy, self righteous nuclear unit blindly and arrogantly wandering into territory of another clan who live a couple of notches below lower class (try animals) and subsequently getting a vicious life lesson of what existence is like once you casually stroll into places where you simply don’t belong. Here Craven picks up the themes he previously touched upon in Last House by having the supposed “civilised folk” having to stop to the inhuman levels of their attackers if they’re going to gave any chance of surviving and never is this more apparent that in the character of Doug, the doughy-souled, mild mannered son-in-law who looks remarkably like Sonny Bono. Tasked with putting all rational emotions on hold of he wants any chance of getting his baby back undigested, he’ll somehow have to out-brutal the brutish Mars in a battle that ends the film with it’s most indelible image. To drive the cruelty of Craven’s point home, we aren’t even given the cathartic sight of the surving Carters embracing (even though it was shot) and instead freeze on Doug’s traumatized face as it fades to red after he’s stabbed his opponent to death in desperate frenzy – in a genius move, we don’t even see him pick up his baby as Wes denies us the triumph we so desperately want to feel in the face of such “righteous” violence.
Elsewhere, the director exercises those talented, villain-creating muscles that went in to spawn Freddy Krueger by giving us the surprisingly rich group of human mongrels that make up Papa Jupiter’s clan. Animalistic, yet disturbingly relatable, this mangy group of bone gnawers share lots of familial traits in common with their “normal” foes such as the mirroring sibling rivalry between Bobby and Brenda and the social structure of the young males of Jupiter’s brood. Bullied by the the brutish Mars (denied the chance to rape Brenda, Pluto throws a tantrum while Mats keeps the best “toys” to himself) and not as coddled as the oafish Mercury (massively mentally infirmed, he’s more a figure of fun) Michael Berryman’s posterboy Pluto seems to very much be the middle child, while daughter Ruby displays a burgeoning, teenage rebellious streak by standing against her kin and expressing a desire to flee and be like everybody else.
The similarities between the feuding groups is never more plainly stated by the sight of the imposing Papa Jupiter roaring threats at the charred corpse of Big Bob as he lays out the film’s themes of class rather plainly and it turns out to be undoubtedly one of the most underrated scenes of 70’s horror cinema. “You come out here and stick your life in my face?” rants the towering cannibal through a mouthful of longpig as his cowering brood applauds “I’ll see the wind BLOW YOUR DRIED UP SEEDS AWAY!”.
Of course, as memorable as this all is, it all fades into the background when you address the legitimately harrowing first assault which, while still pretty jarring now, must have been utterly devastating back in the day with screaming women getting either sexually assaulted or shot repeatedly point blank while another victim screams as he’s crucified and then imolated as bait. Craven even makes sure animal lovers are equally appalled when Mars, pausing from his atrocities for a quick snack, bites off the head of the family canary and drinks the blood like he’s draining melted juice from an ice pop.
Age has dulled a little of it’s power somewhat, especially in the light of recoil-worthy scenes from such other movies as Irreversible and A Serbian Film; and the sight of Jupiter and Pluto jogging through the desert in full costume while panting audibly admittedly now seems a little silly – but The Hills Have Eyes is still a magnificent, grainy, gritty, gory extravaganza that has the balls to wear it’s brains on it’s torn sleeve – as well as strewn on the dusty ground.