The Hills Have Eyes

Writer and director Wes Craven has the esteemed position in cinematic history as having set the bar for American horror films for three decades. The "Nightmare on Elm Street" series defined supernatural horror for the eighties and a runaway box-office success. In the nineties, Craven's "Scream" trilogy took a post-modern, winking look at the glut of slasher films of the eighties (for which he was partially responsible). Despite his financial and critical successes, it was Craven's 1970's films that are his most challenging and arguably his greatest contributions to cinema.

In 1972, Craven and future "Friday the 13th" director Sean S. Cunningham collaborated on "The Last House on the Left." An update of "The Virgin Spring," the film's violence coupled with its technical brilliance made it possibly the most infamous and influential grindhouse film of the decade. Craven was absent from the world of horror for the five years following, only briefly returning to his roots as a porn director for "Angela, the Fireworks Woman" in '75.

Craven's return to the horror genre in 1977 would make as lasting a mark as his first foray. "The Hills Have Eyes" is a compelling and atmospheric horror film. The Carter family is blissfully traveling cross-country in their mobile home. Straying from the main road, they damage their RV too much to continue. As the men in family split up to search for help and supplies, it becomes evident they are not alone in the desert. A clan of violent hill people soon begins to prey on the family. They attempt to destroy the serene perfect of the family's life, ultimately leading the Carter's to make a stand to defend themselves, even if it means murder.

Craven's masterful ability to tap into the social unconsciousness and bring forth what truly frightens people is clearly evident here. "The Hills Have Eyes" has an inexplicable familiarity to the viewer even at first viewing. It is due to the fact that the film follows closely the templates of the fairy tales that we hear in our youth. The Carters (the innocents) are on a journey to a far off place. Despite earlier warning not to, they stray from the path, a common element in many fairy tales. Once lost, they are easy prey for the hill people, the "big bad wolf" element of the story. The film is able to skillfully weave this imagery subtly; the clues are there but not overwhelming. The best clue can be found in the names of the family pets: Beauty & Beast.

The other primary symbolism in the film is the dichotomy between the Carters and the hill family. The Carters represent goodness and wholesomeness. In direct contrast is Jupiter's brood. The image of odd featured character actor Michael Berryman as Pluto is striking. He appears less than human. Father Jupiter himself is a sort of mythical monster. The uniqueness and horror of the tale of his birth serves to plant the seed in the viewer's mind that these people truly are monsters. The fairy tale/morality play image is reinforced by this assertion that these "monsters" live just on the outskirts of human society, waiting to pick off those who stray from the fold.

Though less graphic than "The Last House on the Left", "The Hills Have Eyes" is easily one of the scariest horror films of all time. Craven's film rivals "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" as one of the most frightening and original films of the decade. Interesting to note, like "Chainsaw.." "The Hills Have Eyes" has some basis in fact. Jupiter's clan shares many similarities with the Sawney Beane family from early 1400's Scotland. They too roamed the hills, attacking and eating any that entered into their domain. If you are a fan of any of Craven's later works, you need to see this film. You'll probably find it vastly superior to some of his more popular work.

The Hills Have Eyes (1977)
Written & Directed by Wes Craven
Review by David Carter

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