Movie Review: The Hills Have Eyes

The Hills Have Eyes…

Wes Craven’s second feature film The Hills Have Eyes, is a continuation of the themes explored in The Last House on The Left. In particular, what you are willing to do to survive.

The quick plot set up is that a family is on their way to California by way of a trip through the desert. Despite the warning from the traditional horror trope of the slightly strange, gas station attendant guy, the family goes off road and due to some military jets and some poor driving, end up crashed and stranded in the middle of nowhere… but they are not alone out there. The film is based on the exploits of Alexander ‘Sawney’ Bean, the head of a murderous band of cannibals in Scotland in the 15th or 16th century.

The audience is quickly shoved head long into a nightmare scenario. When the first attack and massacre happens it is one of the most brutal and merciless scenes in film. A chorus of screams and a rising musical swell brings the scene to the point of being unbearable to watch and the scene is only brought to an end by a gun that is out of bullets. The aftermath is just as horrible – when Doug (Martin Speer) has to explain to the families dying mother Ethel (Virginia Vincent) that everything and everyone is ok, the juxtaposition of the words and the pictures that show the anguish inside the trailer make it a very effective moment. Adding to the already fraught situation is that the baby has been taken. After what the audience has seen take place and the inference that the baby will be eaten, all bets are off. As the film has now gone from a far out exploitation film to something that everyone can relate to – caring for their young. The terror of this situation is summed up in one line from one of the cannibals – “Baby’s fat. You fat…fat and juicy”.

Craven plays with the notion of family, both civilised and feral. The ‘civilised’ family is ruled by their father – Big Bob (Russ Grieve), his word is gospel and what he says goes. Craven creates almost a mirror image of the family structure with the inbred cannibals with the unquestioned ruler being Papa Jupiter (James Whitworth). It is from this dichotomy that Craven begins the deconstruction of the family unit, putting the normal family in a position of us or them, of kill or be killed. Forcing the families to become more like one another, seemingly saying that these two families on base level aren’t that different now. Stripping away the civilised Carter’s material assets, whittling them down to a point of no return, causing them to fight for their very lives brings out the same savagery that they all had been so appalled at earlier.

Craven controls the camera expertly, capturing the feeling of isolation within the landscape, whilst staying tight on the family, giving the viewer the sense that there is no easy escape. You can’t run and can’t hide, so you’ll have to fight. Craven uses the set pieces to perfection. The aforementioned trailer home invasion captures the madness of the situation whilst keeping the tension turned all the way up. The scene involving the cannibals dinner is also a highlight, keeping the framing tight but still leaving the audience in doubt as to what is going on.

The acting in the film is, as expected, a little uneven. The family dynamic is well done and believable with the personalities being sorted out early into the film, with all the actors playing their parts well. When the madness begins, there is a little bit of over-acting which you would expect in this kind of film. That is not to say that there aren’t some truly great pieces of acting, with the Martin Speers scene in the aftermath of the trailer massacre a real highlight, displaying the emotional spike of the situation. All of the cannibal family give good performances, Papa Jupiter is every bit a leader, his speech to the charred, dead and partially eaten Big Bob is amazing, fully of menace and anger.

The Hills Have Eyes is a very intense film, it has the ability to scare and repulse. A confronting film (more so at the time of release), basically showing the American dream (big family, holiday, kids and grandkids) under attack. The film is probably not given its due and should be counted amongst one of the all-time best exploitation films.

Ryan Morrissey-Smith

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @TigersMS78

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