Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes Turns 40

Published on June 30th, 2017 in: Blu-Ray, DVD/Blu-Ray Reviews, Horror, Movie Reviews, Movies, Reissues, Retrovirus, Reviews |

By Tim Murr

This July marks the 40th anniversary of Wes Craven’s landmark horror classic The Hills Have Eyes. It’s a story about an east coast American family taking a trip through the desert when they are besieged by a family of cannibals. The cannibals are loosely based on the real life Sawney Bean clan from the UK, known for attacking and eating travelers. Eventually, the Bean family was arrested and brutally put to death.

The cannibals in the film—named after the planets, Jupiter, Mars, and Pluto—and their unforgiving desert home call to mind the Manson family, who had committed the Tate/LaBiancha murders in 1969. In 1971, Charles Manson and four followers were found guilty of murder, so 1977 wasn’t so far removed from that real-life horror show

Released five years after his seminal debut Last House On The Left, The Hills Have Eyes also continued Craven’s terrifying and brutal aesthetic, revealing him to be a complicated storyteller who worked layers of literary references (such as classic Greek literature) into grindhouse narratives. Craven had undergraduate degrees in both English and Psychology as well as Master’s degrees in Philosophy and Writing. He also taught English at Westminster College.

Porn and grindhouse films seem like an odd choice for such a man to make, but that’s where he went, teaming up with future Friday The 13th director Sean Cunningham to make Last House On The Left. That film, which was partly inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, threw down the gauntlet for portrayals of violence and sexual violence and is as much a watershed film for horror as 1973’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Despite Craven being a quiet, shy, intelligent, and gentle man, Last House is a film that’s emotionally scarring to watch. I’ve seen it once, finished it in disgust, and never watched it again, but can’t get it out of my mind. The main thing that elevates Hills (and Chainsaw) above the parade of 1970s grindhouse fare, is Craven’s heart and intelligence, two traits that he skillfully wields along with the dark part of his imagination.

The Hills Have Eyes stars Suze Lanier-Bramlett, Robert Houston, Michael Berryman, John Steadman, and Dee Wallace. It exudes its hot (reportedly it got up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit on the set) and isolated (it was filmed out in the middle of nowhere) set. The Hills Have Eyes feels dangerous and the actors look like they’re in real peril, as much from the foreboding, prehistoric Rocky Mountains as from the man-eating wild clan.

The cast endured a lot of hardships during the shoot. In addition to the heat, there were also freezing cold nights, cuts and bruises, a lack of amenities, and even a poisonous rattlesnake that had gotten loose on set, which actress Janus Blythe (Ruby) had to pick up on camera. It all comes through in the film, and while some of the dialogue may not be delivered by seasoned thespians, the strength of Craven’s direction brings those dire conditions into the safety of the theater and/or your home, much like he did with Last House. The Hills Have Eyes is only slightly less brutal than that film, but is significantly more accessible, at least as far as something like Texas Chainsaw Massacre is accessible.

Still, the list of on-screen atrocities, scares, and white-knuckle moments of tension isn’t short. One of the most disturbing moments occurs in the tight confines of the family’s camper when Pluto (Berryman) attempts to rape Brenda (Lanier) which results in a multi-person fight with a baby on the floor during the melee. The first time I watched it, I was on the edge of my seat yelling “Holy Shit!” It was hardly less nerve-wracking when watching last year’s Arrow Blu-ray.

Hills isn’t as accomplished a film as Craven’s later hits and masterpieces like A Nightmare On Elm Street, The Serpent And The Rainbow, and Scream. It’s still an important piece of Craven’s filmography and a pretty stunning second feature, though. Arrow’s Blu-ray is, as per usual with Arrow, beautiful. The transfer is a fantastic high def (1080p) presentation and comes with six cards, reversible artwork, and several extras, including audio commentary and a behind the scenes feature. There’s also an illustrated 40-page booklet.

The Hills Have Eyes is as perfect a summer horror film as Sleepaway Camp or Friday The 13th and makes a devilish double feature with Texas Chainsaw Massacre for movie night with friends.

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