Available on Blu-ray from Arrow Films and also streaming on Tubi!
THE HILLS HAVE EYES (1977)
Directed and written by Wes Craven.
Starring Russ Grieve, Virginia Vincent, Susan Lanier, Dee Wallace, Janus Blythe, Robert Houston, Martin Speer, James Whitworth, Michael Berryman
What more can be said about the original THE HILLS HAVE EYES? It is simply a classic tale of terror about a battle for survival as two families (one your typical mid-western unit, the other a clan of savage feral people) smack into one another with the body count heavy on both sides. Much has been written about how both families functioned on screen; how each had complex relationships and histories, and how each react in times of stress and turmoil. In essence, like most classics, THE HILLS HAVE EYES is much more than the horror film is claimed to be.
Done when writer/director Wes Craven was on top of his game, the film has moments that would resurface in his later films (such as the fighting back sequence involving intricate mechanisms seen in both this film and in the climax of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET and the attention to a family’s complex reaction to stress which is also prevalent in THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT), but here there’s a guttural and gritty quality to both the family systems at play in the Carter Family and the Jupiter Clan and the defenses and war plans each take in order to survive. And believe me, this is an all-out war between the two sides with the Carter Clan slowly turning more like the savages that have chosen them as prey.
One of the things I can’t help but mention is the scene where Bob Carter (played by Russ Grieve) is burned in a fire. This occurs early on and sets the stage for the brutal acts to follow. But the reaction from Virginia Vincent (who plays his wife Ethel) to this scene when she sees his body is one of those horrific moments in film history that with no doubt stick with you forever. Ethel’s screams of “That’s not my Bob!” is both shocking and heartbreaking at once. And as the family scatters like an overturned ant farm with their patriarch gone, Craven has never filmed a scene more dire and gut-wrenching.
The cast of this film is fantastic as well. Everyone is swinging for the cheap seats in this one, especially the Carter family which includes a young Dee Wallace Stone. This also marks the debut of the quintessential weirdo Michael Berryman as Pluto (though in real life, he’s got a heart of gold). The thing is, rewatching this film actually made me kind of angry. Say what you will about his early work, but Craven became defanged and even downright dismissive of the horror genre in his later years. I always felt he looked down on horror and simply used it to get into film and then became angry with the genre when that is all anyone wanted him for. THE HILLS HAVE EYES is a brutal film that pulls no punches, takes no prisoners, and gives everything from family values to Hollywood convention the middle finger and a curb stomp. There was a time when the name Wes Craven on a film meant something horrifyingly raw, yet bitingly intelligent. I’ll rewatch THE HILLS HAVE EYES over a SCREAM sequel any old day.