|The Hills Have Eyes
1977 - R - 89 Mins.
|Director: Wes Craven
|Producer: Peter Locke
|Written By: Wes Craven
|Starring: Susan Lanier, Robert Houston, Martin Speer, Dee Wallace-Stone and Russ Grieve
|Review by: Bill King
Wes Craven had one film under his belt (1972's "Last House on the Left") before setting out to make "The Hills Have Eyes" (1977). With better actors, a bigger budget and a good script, Craven's second effort comes across as a much more impressive product than his earlier, embarrassing debut. It's suspenseful, sometimes bordering on sick, but this is a slick, well-made picture. It was the start of the most prolific horror film director in Hollywood today, who now surpasses John Carpenter in terms of quality and box office success.
In the middle of nowhere, a family passes through on its way to California. The Air Force has a base somewhere in the area, but it never really figures into the story. A jet flies by the car, causing it to run off the road. Big Bob Carter (Russ Grieve), a retired cop with the Cleveland police, takes charge and decides to go back to the gas station they stopped at earlier in the movie. Doug (Martin Speer), Bob's son-in-law, heads off in another direction. This leaves the rest of the family behind with the car and camper.
The dogs that the family brought along, Beauty and Beast, sense something is not quite right about this place. There are people hiding in the mountains, and after one of the dogs is gutted, Bobby (Robert Houston) realizes they are all in danger. He doesn't tell the women at first, for fear of scaring them. His option at that point is to wait for the men to return.
After everyone gets back together, they are immediately thrown into a nightmarish scenario. Cannibals that lurk in the hills prey on the family, using their knowledge of the area to hide. The cannibals are a family of their own, led by Jupiter (James Whitworth). His cronies include sons Mars (Lance Gordon) and Pluto (Michael Berryman). After they kidnap Doug's baby, a battle to the death ensues between the two families.
Wes Craven recycles some of the elements he used in "Last House on the Left." In that film, ordinary people found themselves in a horrific situation, and only through abandoning any sense of morals were they able to get revenge. However, the film was little more than shock cinema. In "The Hills Have Eyes," Bobby, Doug and Brenda (Susan Lanier) act out in self-defense, and their actions aren't so extreme. One plan that Brenda comes up with is pretty clever. These characters do follow Craven's formula, but they're not necessarily reducing themselves to the animalistic mentality of their stalkers.
Craven does provide a back-story to Jupiter. I'm not sure why he threw it in there, because the movie doesn't delve into the concept deeply enough. What he does do well here is raise the tension to a high degree. The barren landscape and the brutality of the cannibals add to the effect. The plot is also fairly simple to follow.
For a low budget effort, a few careers did get started here. Not only did Wes Craven go on to bigger success, but Dee Wallace-Stone got her start in the genre. A familiar face in the early '80s, she would go on to films such as "The Howling," "E.T.," "Cujo" and "Critters." Michael Berryman appears here in an early role, and he still pops up occasionally.
"The Hills Have Eyes" is one of the better exploitation flicks. It's a raw, sometimes ugly entry into the archives of horror, but it's also effective, slick and suspenseful. It's certainly better than the overrated "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and the aforementioned "Last House on the Left," both of which belong in the same category. Craven's sophomore effort is a movie worth keeping an eye out for.