The Hills Have Eyes (1977)

A xenophobic, provocative animadversion on the primal/ugly side of human nature with a potential-rife premise, storytelling, & perfect canyon setting – but a litany of_script/executional_flaws,_laughable_antagonists, &_mess_of_an_ending._4.2/10.

Plot Synopsis: Wes Craven’s cult classic about cannibalistic mountain folk, including the Carter family, who are on the trail of stranded vacationers in the arid Southwest Californian desert.

*Possible Spoilers Ahead*

Review

A Nightmare On Elm Street, Scream, Swamp Thing, The Last House On The Left

Wes Craven Certainly Knows How To Make A Horror Movie; But Did He Always?

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Scream, A Nightmare On Elm Street, Swamp Thing, The Last House On The Left, The People Under The Stairs: Wes Craven’s body of work in the horror genre is truly one-of-a-kind. Arguably the face of cinematic horror direction along with John Carpenter, Craven’s auterist mix of humor, satire, and slashers helped pioneer and shape the genre from ashes – visible in even his earliest works. Amongst these is a quirky desert canyon-set cannibalistic thriller called The Hills Have Eyes, a lesser-known franchise-starter than many of his other works. The pitch is absolutely brilliant and packed with potential for a Scream or Elm Street-level classic: a family is stranded in the New Mexico desert where a pack of nomadic people stalk them from the canyons above. Unfortunately, that’s not what we got here: A xenophobic, provocative animadversion on the primal/ugly side of human nature with a potential-rife premise, storytelling, & perfect canyon setting – but a litany of script/executional flaws, lack of clear direction, laughable antagonists, and mess of an ending.

A Perfect Backdrop

A Majestic Canvas Of Horror Aestheticism, Ostensible-Creepiness, Visual Isolationism, & The Perfect Place For A Killer To Call Home

Photo Courtesy Of: Vanguard Pictures

The Hills Have Eyes does visually stimulate and give its horror the perfect backdrop. Through majestic horror aestheticism, Craven creates an atmospheric dread and creepiness from the first opening flickers of New Mexico ghost towns where junkyard sheds and graffiti are the only signs of civilization for miles. The cinematography’s use of constant long-shots and extreme long-shots aides this fostered sense of visual isolationism – tying in with its premise’s naturalistic mystery and primal intrigue: what lurks out there in the many hiding spots nature provides its predators to stalk prey in the never-ending existential cycle. The canyon location setting is absolutely perfect for its premise: the ultimate hiding place and slasher-den with such a disorientating number of jagged rocks and eye-busy distractions, it’s damn-near impossible to see a killer lurking behind and navigate them unless you’re an expert of the terrain like the killers would be. The setting and cinematographical canvas of THHE is about as good as it could possibly be: a masterful backdrop for its (intermittently)-effective scares that pack some punch, but could’ve gone farther.

The Horror

A Collection Of (Intermittently)-Effective Scares That Lean On THHE’s Brilliant Premise – With Storytelling, Characterization, & Symbolism

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The horror of THHE is mostly in the unseen. Anyone who’s ever been hiking in vast expanses of nature understands the feeling that someone’s proverbially watching you at times, especially when the sun goes down. Craven personifies that idea with some crude imagistic terror brilliantly: an unknown force that stalks from the hills, divides, and picks anyone foolish enough to venture into their territory off one-by-one. These people are compositionally bizarre, sadistic in doing things like taunting a father with a bad heart to run back to his family on the promise that he’s going to kill them and impersonating someone’s wounded dog to lure them away from the pack, and animalistic: eating raw beef straight out the freezer package, crushing a bird in-hand and drinking its blood, and overcome by primal id urges without bare humanity-signs. The idea – hinted intermittently and much more often in its far-superior first-half in actual materialized scares – is spectacular, made even more delectable by some real characterization of a family that cleverly reflects American stereotypes and shares interesting similarities with its opposite slasher-family, storytelling, social-commentary, and symbolism often focusing on the eyes and drawing graphic matches between animal’s and human’s to showcase the primal/ugly/animalistic side of our nature and roots.

A Joke Of An Antagonist

A Suburban-Looking Family With A Bad Hair Day Or Caveman-Fetish That Speaks Perfect English & Can’t Even Manage To Take Down Two Teenage Kids In Their Desert Home?

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These, in addition to its temporal presence amongst the early flickers of the slasher genre, might be enough to win over some people into thinking its actually a good movie – but it’s not. Flaws in THHE are in what should’ve been its easiest home-run: the slashers. For a supposedly-nomadic group of nuclear-mutated animalistic cannibals living for generations in the barren desert hills of a canyon, they look like a suburban family who just had a bad hair day or caveman-fetish – a complete betrayal and sacrilegious waste of its premise’s potential. Besides Michael Berryman’s cast-leading Pluto, the rest of the performances are weak and characters not nearly-weird/deformed/bizarre enough; they speak perfect Queen’s English like merit-scholars out of Oxford or Cambridge, perform shameless jump scares half-the-time that aren’t even all that effective in results, and the leader of the clan Papa Jupe looks like freaking Bradley Cooper or a movie-star instead of the hill-boogeyman.

A Direction-Less Collection Of Eye-Rollable Jump Scares With No Excuse In The ’70’s – That Takes ~All Its Cues From A Far Better Cannibal-Horror Film: Texas Chainsaw Massacre

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The film makes absolutely no mention or utilization of the nuclear angle, packs some unforgivably eye-rollable jump scares a ’70’s slasher flick has no excuse to be out of imagination to invoke, has perhaps the most laughable and closure-less with people surviving gasket explosions and not even revealing what happened to half its characters, and fundamentally-lacks any sense of direction in its killers’ motivations – are they out for sport/fun, revenge, or hunting for a meal? if they’re cannibals, why only take the baby instead of grown adults packing exponentially-more? why are they so ostensibly-normal in the most barbarous/savage of living and sustenance conditions? how can they not manage to take down resource-less city-folk and sitting-ducks in their own territory they’ve lived in for decades and should know every remote feature of. The film also takes most of its cues, cannibalistic macabre, and even character archetypes all the way to the gas-station attendant from a far-better film: Tobe Hooper’s 1974 masterpiece: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Conclusion

One Of The Most Disappointing Craven Films

A Film That Beguiles On Premise With Some Glimpses Of Its Realization, But Ends Up An Unwatchable & Ill-Scripted Mess; Look Away

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Overall, The Hills Have Eyes (1977) is one of the most disappointing products I’ve ever witnessed from Wes Craven – made even more unforgivable and painful by how brilliant its (wasted) premise is. The action and horror could not have possibly had a better canyon backdrop, the film is intermittently-effective and atmospherically-paranoiac in personifying the existential someone’s-watching-me feeling of being out of our element in nature, and the storytelling is often clever in analogizing and symbolizing and satirically-commenting on American and human nature themes. However, the film manages to nearly-waste its premise entirely by one of the most laughable and hard-to-take-seriously slasher representations, a breathtakingly-illogical betrayal of what THHE’s idea would entail for such nomadic and nuclear-mutated outcasts, caveman-fetish costume design, and one of the worst and most closure-less endings I’ve ever witnessed in horror. Just because it was one of the early slasher movies – and Craven certainly redeemed himself 10x-over with later masterpieces like Elm Street and Scream – does not make this a good movie: A xenophobic, provocative animadversion on the primal/ugly side of human nature with a potential-rife premise, storytelling, & perfect canyon setting – but a litany of script/executional flaws, lack of clear direction, laughable antagonists, and mess of an ending. If you want the real version of The Hills Have Eyes, go watch the faithful-yet-superior 2006 remake. Please.

Official CLC Score: 4.2/10