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Review: The Hills Have Eyes (1977)

The Hills Have Eyes (1977)

Directed by: Wes Craven

Premise: In Wes Craven’s original film, a suburban family on its way to California gets stuck in the middle of the desert on a deserted back road. The suburban family soon finds that they are being preyed upon by a family of savages living in the surrounding hills. 

What Works: As a piece of cinema, The Hills Have Eyes is a great piece of entertainment that is engaging as a horror film and as a survival film. It is tightly directed by Craven, savage in its violence but also smart in its direction. The film is frightening with plenty of jump scares and an ongoing sense of tension that increases as the film goes on. Despite the far out premise of the story, the film is able to sell it with solid performances all around, but especially by James Whitworth as Papa Jupiter and John Steadman as Grandpa Fred, who gives a speech about the origin of the hills family that rivals Robert Shaw’s Indianapolis speech in Jaws for creepiness and intensity. The original Hills Have Eyes is a great survival story that mixes contemporary storytelling sensibilities with classic frontier myths. The attacks by the savages on the family’s motor home mirror the tradition of stories about Indians attacking White settlers. What Hills does remarkably is to make the film a commentary on these kinds of stories and explore the implications of what it takes to survive and conquer the west. Unlike the 2006 remake, the original Hills Have Eyes explores the family dynamics of the suburban family and the feral family. The result is more frightening because both sides are drawn well and this works towards a climax that undermines a good versus evil binary. In this film, conquering savagery requires that the civilized people become as violent as their attackers, a point punctuated in the climax, and blurs the moral line between the civilized and the savage. In the context of the film’s original release, just after the end of the Vietnam War, the Manson Family murders, and in the wake of the cultural revolution of the 1960s and 70s, The Hills Have Eyes is a look into a culture that was fighting itself and discovering that its sense of moral righteousness was more rickety than it realized. Watching the film today, in the context of the Iraq War, the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, the Columbine massacre, and other events, the film still has social relevance.

What Doesn’t: Some may laugh at the MacGyver-like ending of the film. It is a theme repeated in Craven’s early work like Last House on the Left and A Nightmare on Elm Street and this plays into the frontier myths of ingenuity and resourcefulness. In the end, however, cleverness ultimately gives way to barbaric hand-to-hand combat.

DVD extras: Anchor Bay has put together an impressive 2-disc DVD set that includes a documentary on the making of the film, commentary tracks, an episode of The Directors spotlighting Wes Craven’s career, as well as trailers and an alternate ending. The film has been cleaned up considerably, as proved by a restoration demo. The DVD features the original uncut edition of the film.

Bottom Line: The Hills Have Eyes was only Craven’s second directorial feature, but it remains one of his best. Like Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead, The Hills Have Eyes is a critique of a civilization at war with its own savage heart.

Episode: #134 (March 25, 2007); Revised #210 (October 26, 2008)