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STUDIO: Image Entertainment
RATED: Not Rated
RUNNING TIME: 89 minutes
The second film from some guy named Wes Craven relocates his Last House on the Left penchant for suburban nightmares to the desert.
If you can call them that. Craven splits time between a feral family named after the planets and an All American family on a road trip to California. Papa Jupiter (James Whitworth) and his two boys Pluto and Mars (Michael Berryman and Lance Gordon) descend on the Carter family, headed by the Luke Skywalker-esque Bobby Carter (Robert Huston) and Dee Wallace in her first profession role! Dee Wallace!
Not that it’s that impressive, but The Hills Have Eyes is infinitely more likable and enjoyable than Craven’s first feature The Last House on the Left. With the young director’s script and characters in place, he’s able to work wonders with his inexperienced but capable cast and cinematographer, the Roger Corman vet Eric Saarinen, who makes the remote desert feel incredibly claustrophobic, making for a scary but flawed feature.
The Hills Have Eyes is Wes Craven’s second feature film, and for it, the man who would give the world the most iconic movie monster since Frankenstein’s monster once again explores what “normal” people do out of desperation, albeit on a moderately larger scale. The Hills Have Eyes is a film rich in visual horrors, frantic camera work, convincing and energetic performances, as well as a rich sense of mythology. However, while the film offers many of Craven’s strengths, it is also home to many of his more alienating tendencies.
After inheriting a silver mine, the Carter family takes a detour on their trip to California to check it out. Along the way, they get into a minor car accident, leaving them stranded in the middle of the desert. Unfortunately for them, the worst is still to come, because a family of cannibalistic mutants terrorize the same stretch of highway, because of course they do.
Make no mistake this isn’t your fun loving, beach blanket, mutant in the desert fare; rather, The Hills Have Eyes is an intensely dark film in tone and spirit. It avoids social and generic convention both in its characters (diverging families, rather than a singular menace) and their attitudes (neither side have any redeeming qualities). At its smartest, the film examines how civilized people can be reduced to their most primal states and how that realization affects them. Normal, all-American kids like Bobby can shoot, hunt, and kill when their lives are on the line.
At its ugliest, most primitive, and best, The Hills Have Eyes is a gritty exploitation masterpiece, one that pits its would-be victims against the darkest corner of society’s outskirts, leaves them stranded there, and expresses in a hateful and sadistic way. The film’s characters may be tools for Craven’s sociological study of primitivism, but they are also a steady diet of prey for some fantastic movie mutants, and as played by the film’s fantastic cast of more than competent screamers, they are incredibly effective host of victims.
Outside of the script, which tends to be a bit clunky, Craven and Saarinen shoot with fervor, working both in extreme close-up and long shot, making the film feel incredibly closed and hopelessly open. Craven, who also acted as editor, cuts quick to heighten the tension and nauseate the viewer. The film’s violence, like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which Hills obviously owes quite a bit to, is mostly implied. Rather than showing the viewer right away, Craven disorients them, tiptoeing around the attack, before centering on a charred body or exposed Achilles tendon. Craven makes sure that no one becomes desensitized to the violence and carefully sets up his bloody punctuations.
All of this seemingly comes at a price. The tight cast and crew, as well as some cracker jack directing on the part of Craven, leaves the script a bit undercooked. Neither family seems to make a connection to each other, the viewer, or the overall story, a common problem in horror. Since the scary story requires its victims to merely survive and the hunters to hunt, protagonists often become the antagonist, slowing down the plot of the killer’s quest for plot. And since they have nothing to do other than sit and wait, the stagnation in the plot causes the film to drag. Obviously, a film as ugly as this one needs to be alienating, but this stagnation keeps the film from being entertaining. From a plotting perspective, the film’s first act slow burn continues throughout, and neither picks up speed nor earns an emotional climax.
A true learning experience for everyone involved, The Hills Have Eyes is a tough movie for everyone. It’s ugly, visceral, and painfully slow. As an exercise in torture, the film achieves its aim by being genuinely frightening and frequently nauseating. The Hills Have Eyes isn’t perfect, but as far as pre-Nightmare Craven goes, it’s easily the director’s most accomplished work.
Despite being presented in high definition blu-ray, Anchor Bay thankfully doesn’t clean up or update the film’s look. As grainy as the day it premiered, The Hills Have Eyes retains its shrillest noises and distorted colors. They even included classic trailers for Hellraiser, Hellbound: Hellraiser 2, and Children of the Corn before the film disc–a great touch. As for special feature, aside from the commentary there are a couple great documentaries on the disc. The first, a look back at Hills offers some very interesting insight to the production and reception of the film. The second, a 1999 documentary on Wes Craven, which offers on background on the director. A definite good time, if you’re into spending your free time in the world of The Hills Have Eyes–in which case, you might want to consider spending some more time in therapy.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars