Every once in a while in the horror genre, a movie will find a way to transcend into the lofty heights of greatness. Sometimes the films that make it to these heights really are fantastic. Other times, it comes to question, does this one really deserve it? Somehow the film The Hills Have Eyes (1977) made into this sacred category and for one, Malevolent Dark wonders if the film deserves this distinction. This article will delve into the mystique of Wes Craven’s “masterpiece” and breakdown exactly where it falls short.
Wes Craven, a Director Deserving of Praise
The horror community deservedly speaks Wes Craven’s name with reverence. He would eventually go on to create two of the most recognizable horror icons in the industry: Freddy Kruger and Ghostface. He started his reign of terror with the one of the more notorious exploitation films of the 1970s, The Last House on the Left (1972). Wes Craven shocked the movie-going community with one of the more realistic depictions of criminal depravity. It dives headlong into rape, misogyny and murder. It stands as a testament to all-too-realistic ultra-violence.
Even the likes of I Spit of Your Grave (1978) struggled to punch through the shroud of darkness created by Last House on the Left. As our societies de-sensitization to torture porn grows, the 2009 remake of The Last House on the Left fails to replicate the stark and unforgiving reality of the original. In this, Wes Craven cemented himself into the annals of horror greatness. With The Hills Have Eyes, Wes Craven attempts to double down on that formula and capture lightning in a bottle a second time.
He didn’t. Skipping right to the money-shot, The Hills Have Eyes struggles to replicate the profound despair created by his previous work. Additionally, he drapes it in the most ridiculous trappings and costumes that ultimately make the film patently absurd. The acting is completely flat and uninteresting. The special effects are mundane and only marginally effective. The bad guys look like costume department rejects from Dances With Wolves (1990). Altogether, this film fails to hold up well and feels like a waste of time 40+ years later.
None of this suggests that there is nothing to see here. The intention is not to convey that because we think this movie sucks, that you should not like too. Clearly decent reasons exist for liking this film:
- Ever since seeing Michael Berryman’s earth shattering performance in Weird Science, you felt an un quenchable thirst for all Michael Berryman movies
- Wes Craven’s films are the best and he is the most wonderful director in the world and you are both an apologist and a catalog completist
- You have an undying love for bad, grainy and ridiculous 70s pulp movies
Please don’t consider our dislike of this film a referendum on your tastes and sensibilities.
Snooze Inducing Performances
The film begins with a similar trope to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). The Carter family embarks on a cross-country trip makes their way across the wide open back-country. In their travels, they meet a socially maligned group of cannibals hiding in the hills of Nevada. In this particular case, the family get stranded after a bit of bad luck results in a car accident that leaves them in the Mojave desert.
The family consists of a former police office and his wife, their son and daughter, plus their significant others. We should add that their daughter Lynne (Dee Wallace) brought a delicious baby along for the ride. The Carter’s also brought along a pair of German Shepherds named Beauty and Beast. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Wes Craven uses a rather direct setup to the story. It feels a bit rushed, which doesn’t allow for any significant character development.
To put It In context, In Texas Chainsaw, Tobe Hooper managed to do a very good job developing the good guys, as well as some of the baddies as well.
This proves to be really important when Wes Craven also fails to evoke interesting performances from his under-developed characters. Eventually, Dee Wallace would develop into a proper scream queen, but this performance leaves much to be desired. This lackluster acting extends into the cannibal family as well. When the are finally introduced, they look absolutely ridiculous with their headbands and necklaces made out of bone. Instead of looking menacing, they look like a caricature of people that are trying to look menacing in a comic book.
In stark contrast to The Last House on the Left, the audience has little emotional capital in the Carter family. In that, the violence enacted against them could just as easily been done against cardboard cutouts.
Dark, Grainy and Lacking Depth
Filmed in the Mojave desert, the Carter family finds themselves in an endless expanse of rock and dry sediment. Yet, Wes Craven and cinematographer Eric Saarinen spend much of their time constraining the action to the cinematic equivalent of a fishbowl. Much of the action takes place in the dark, and their technical approach to night shooting leaves nothing but a back drop of blackness. Certainly, their low-budget could have interfered with their cinematic execution. Still, while their constraints are understandable, this all results in a film that is hard to enjoy.
Using Texas Chainsaw as a measuring stick, the simple strategic use of a flashlight can make a dark scene incredible. Furthermore, its later brethren Leatherface, TCM III, actually creates beautiful blue-lit backdrops for much of the night action. Since many consider The Hills Have Eyes a “classic”, this cinematic criticism is very relevant to our argument. Even the scenes in full sunlight that suggest all seeing eyes hiding in the vast hills of the desert feel indiscernible from stock footage from PBS special on rattlesnakes. Considering the setting, the film suffers from an incredible lack of depth.
Retreading the Absurd
One of the supposedly profound developments in The Last House on the Left involves the progression of the Collingwood’s from a an all-American family into a seething tribe hell-bent on violent revenge. In doing this, the Collingwood’s go on the offense to trick the criminals as well as create booby-traps. It all culminates into a final ultra-violent ending. Wes Craven attempts to take this same path in his follow-up. He intends to paint a picture that the Carter’s, given proper circumstances, could regress to the level of the mountainous cannibals. Quite frankly, this doesn’t really work as intended.
Anyone could justify the actions take by the family given the circumstances. It seems to be a dangerous intellectual leap to suggest that returning violence in self-defense is equivalent to unsolicited violence. The Carter’s, or what’s left of them, use a comical trap to capture the cannibal boss at the end. The results are laughable. Eyes will roll.
Robert Burns and the Importance of Context
Super horror fans will recognize the name of Robert Burns as the mastermind that created the carnival of the macabre in Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). In Chainsaw, the set pieces make for some of the most incredible horror sets in all of film. The realistic psychopathy of Burns sculptures create an impending feeling of doom and despair. Wes Craven enlisted the help of Burns on The Hills Have Eyes. Using the very same props from Chainsaw, the results are far less effective. It shows that context matters. Likewise, the very same props look absurd in an absurd context.
We’re Sorry that it Sucks
We understand that many people love this film. It continues to be referenced in lists of great 1970s horror films, despite the fact that it really is not a good movie. With so many fantastic films coming from this era, it simply defies reason that this particular one should be so highly regarded. However, in the end it might be good luck that it did. Wes Craven would go on to cement his legacy as a great horror director. He would even go on to create an even worse sequel to this debacle.
The Hills Have Eyes offers one of those rare instances where the reboots improve upon the source material considerably.