Believe it or not, there was a time when the name “Wes Craven” wasn’t immediately associated in the public mind with either Freddy Krueger or Neve Campbell. Throughout the ‘70’s and early ‘80’s Craven was both a revered and reviled figure in horror entertainment with a reputation for going “too far” with his graphic and unflinchingly realistic, unglamourous treatment of onscreen violence. His first film, 1972’s The Last House on the Left, an admittedly free adaptation of famed Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman’s medieval morality tale, The Virgin Spring, set the tone for the director’s early career. Brutal, ugly, brilliant and above all, ingeniously subversive, Last House excised the fantasy trappings of horror and replaced them with a cold sadism that would be unparalleled until Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre just two years later. If George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead murdered the “peace and love” generation, Last House violated its still twitching corpse.
To many fans of the genre (and perhaps even to Craven himself) Last House may have seemed like a false start to potentially promising career as the filmmaker would languish in the harsh light of that film’s infamy for nearly five years before his next project would materialize. That project, 1977’s The Hills Have Eyes would cement Craven’s reputation as one of indie horror’s supreme auteurs as well as marking the beginning an evolution in the director’s style that would eventually lead, for better or worse, to more high concept films like A Nightmare on Elm Street and the Scream franchise.
In 1975, at the behest of friend and producer, Peter Locke, Craven reluctantly re-entered the genre that had made him infamous. With finances wearing thin, a resistant Craven — still stinging from the critical response to the controversial Last House on the Left — was informally commissioned by Locke to write another scary movie and specifically “something for the desert.” Somewhat daunted by the idea of writing another horror film, Craven, an academic at heart, turned to the New York Public Library for inspiration. There, he stumbled upon the real-life exploits of the Sawney Beane family — a clan of cannibals living in sixteenth century Scotland who preyed on wayward travelers. Fascinated by the grotesque adventures of the Sawney Beane family and their equally hideous treatment at the hands of British authorities upon their eventual capture, the filmmaker found both the exploitative elements he needed to make an effective horror film and the thematic elements to satisfy his own intellectual leanings and obsession with the nature of “civilization”. Or, as Craven himself states in the excellent production documentary that accompanies Anchor Bay’s two-disc DVD special edition of the film, Looking Back At The Hills Have Eyes:
“I was struck by how, on the one hand you have this feral family that’s killing people and eating them. But, if you look at it, what they were doing wasn’t anything much worse than what civilization did to them when they caught them . . . I just thought, what a great A/B of culture . . . how the most civilized can be the most savage and how the most savage can be the most civilized.”
Armed with this obscure tale of true-life mayhem, Craven would be able to revisit the core material of Last House in a grander, more mythic and (for most audiences) more palatable way.
The Hills Have Eyes relates the story of the Carters, a prototypical Midwestern family traveling, camper and two German Shepherds in tow, through the desert on their way to California. A decision to leave the main highway to search for a silver mine that has been given to the father and mother as a 25th anniversary gift proves disastrous. Ignoring the advice of a decrepit old coot who runs the only service station for miles, the Carters inadvertently drive into a virtually untraveled section of desert used as a military gunnery range and into the hands of a family of planetarily-named cannibals headed by a sadistic monster of a man known as Jupiter (James Whitmore). With their station wagon rendered inoperative by a chance accident, the Carters are stranded to face these human monsters alone. Bit by bit, the trappings of society are stripped from them as they must face unimaginable horrors with nothing but their wits. In the end, they discover that their very survival hinges on becoming just as savage and bloodthirsty as their attackers.
Craven does an excellent job of stripping the Carters to their primordial core. Systematically, all the conveniences of modern life and the security of the structured “nuclear family” are stripped away in a mind-rending parade of tragedies. First, one of the family’s beloved dogs is killed and eaten. Then, “Big Bob” Carter (Russ Grieve) the family’s patriarch — a street toughened retired Cleveland cop– is first hunted, then crucified, set ablaze and eaten by Jupiter. Daughter Brenda (Susan Lanier) is raped at knife point by Pluto (Michael Berryman). Mother Ethel (Virginia Vincent) and elder daughter Lynne (Dee Wallace) are shot and killed by Mars (Lance Gordon) in a failed attempt to save Lynne’s baby from being kidnaped by Jupiter’s sons. The action and the tone of the film are brutal and relentless. Craven expertly circumvents the audience’s expectations by constantly breaking one cinematic taboo after another be it killing a dog or threatening to kill a baby (and in movie terms, if a dog is killed what chance does a baby have?).
Craven’s script is deceptively simple in its construction but undeniably brilliant in its execution. Relying on what has since become a genre cliche (protagonists stranded in a harsh environment facing a horrible outside force), The Hills Have Eyes has often unfairly been called a rip-off of the 1970’s other weird cannibal family opus, Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Although Hooper’s film touched subtly on issues of class distinction and civilization, Craven’s Hills is treatise on society with every scene and character serving to drive his point of savagery as civilization home (even the Carter family’s dogs named “Beauty” and “Beast” serve as symbols of Craven’s world view made literal — when Beauty is killed, the Beast takes over). Where the cannibals in Saw sought to exist within society and exploit it to their own muderous ends, Jupiter and company have abandoned the mainstream in total to set up their own culture. Keeping the social climate of the late 1970’s in mind, it’s of little surprise that most fans of the film (both then and now) tend to root for Jupiter and his bizarre family of killers. With a post-Vietnam, post-flower power America having lost faith in both institutions and ideals and turning more and more to an isolationist and often materialistic sense of self with “self” and materialism at it’s center (“Disco ethics,” if you will), the idea that a culture that had become toxic could be scrapped in favor of something entirely different was (and is) no doubt incredibly attractive to a disenfranchised, nihilistically-bent and ever-growing segment of the population. When viewed in this way, Hills is every bit the “issue” horror film that Romero’s anti-consumerist parable Dawn of the Dead is universally heralded as minus the comic book feel. At its essence, Craven’s film is the ultimate “punk rock” horror movie drawing on the same pool of societal rage and apathy that fueled bands like X and Black Flag to counter a musical scene that had become as stagnant and self-important as American life itself had become.
Although it was only Craven’s second film, The Hills Have Eyes marks a definite transition and departure in the filmmaker’s relationship with the genre. Beginning with Hills, Craven improved drastically as a cinematic storyteller, but never again would his work be as thematically textured or as perfectly balanced. Indeed, even Craven’s much-celebrated brutally realistic approach to violence would transform into the dreamscape fantasy-world of Freddy Krueger and A Nightmare on Elm Street. In the ultimate irony, Craven, the man who brought us Krug, Papa Jup and the Springwood Slasher would go on to to create a post-post modern conception of the horror genre with the original Scream nearly twenty years after The Hills Have Eyes. Yet, perhaps it’s not really an irony at all. Only a filmmaker as acutely aware of the genre’s power could effectively transmit the idea that when the genre will not or cannot reflect its times and rise above its conventions, it has no choice but to devour itself.
The Hills Have Eyes is a brilliant film from an often brilliant filmmaker. Frenetic, violent and unnerving, it is one of the films that made the 1970’s a second golden age for horror film by taking terror out of the mouldy crypt and the reainswept castle and depositing it in middleclass suburbia with an appetite and knife. Craven would make films of better overall quality. He would even create characters more resonant in the genre’s history, but never again would his work strike so close to the heart of the American nightmare.