By Julie Lavelle
For fans of the horror/exploitation genre, Wes Craven’s early films are required viewing. For newcomers to the genre they are a great starting point; the films genuinely terrify despite their lack of production value, experienced actors, or special effects. In his second film, 1977’s The Hills Have Eyes, Craven revisits themes from his profoundly disturbing directorial debut, Last House on the Left (1973). The film initially asks us to identify with the Carters, a white-bread, gun-toting, RV-driving, blonde haired archetypal American family. When they set out on their ill-conceived search for a defunct silver mine in the southwest, you want them to listen to the old gas station attendant (and progenitor of the evil breed who will ravage the Carters) who sagely warns them to “stay on the main road, you hear?”. Soon the unwitting family is terrorized by a family of cannibals who live in the barren hills of the desert. Craven locates monstrosity or “otherness” within the family by setting up a mirror image between the “normal” family and the “monstrous” cannibal family. However, the lines that divide these two families blur as the narrative progresses, and the viewer is left unsure where (if anywhere) their sympathy lies.
The monstrous family is tied to animal behavior; they scuttle about in the background, speak in snarling tones, and eat babies. The father of the clan is a murderous tyrant whose children are terrified of him. When the daughter, Ruby, tries to run away, he punishes her by chaining her like a dog outside the cave. Craven deliberately avoids showing the faces of the family members (with the exception of Ruby) in the first few scenes, and sticks with point of view shots of the Carters through binoculars or from the hills.
Although the mutant family is overtly monstrous, the film works to draw parallels between the monsters and the so-called normal family. The Carters are aggressive, argumentative, and sadistic. A burly, macho father (“Big Bob Carter”) dominates the family and makes decisions without listening to the concerns of his wife and daughters. The mother, “Mama Bear Carter”, is a caricature: she is prone to malapropisms and prayer, and is the butt of jokes throughout the film. Although the two daughters, Lynne and Brenda, appear to be the most intuitive of the group, their ideas and concerns are dismissed.
The first few scenes are ripe with antagonistic dialogue between the Carters. Big Bob makes a speech about his years of escaping death on the job (he’s a retired detective) only to be nearly killed by his “goddamn wife with her goddamn maps”. Brother Bobby chases his sister around with ketchup on his hand to solicit screams of terror, and the family cheerfully reminisces about the time the family dog (a German shepherd) killed a neighborhood poodle.
Our identification with the Carters wanes as Craven makes the mutant family increasingly sympathetic. Their monstrosity is a result of nuclear testing in the area, and their aggression is in part a result of the desperation of their situation: the film emphasizes the family’s hunger and increasing inability to survive in the environment. Verbal exchanges between the mutant characters are very human despite their perversity. When Pluto (the excellent Michael Berryman) attacks Brenda, he is pulled away by his brother, who humiliates him by saying he’s not ready for this yet. The biggest laugh of the film occurs when they get on the radio and mock Bobby’s calls for help. Later, when Pluto is being hunted in the rocks, his laughter at being scared of a bunny makes the next scene more poignant. As the narrative progresses, Craven works to displace the viewer’s sympathy, making it difficult to decide which side to stand on. As the viewer’s sympathy for the mutant family grows, the Carters grow more monstrous, note Brenda and Bobby’s glee when they think their plan (using dead family members as human bait!) has worked. The final shot of the film emphasizes this point: the hunted has become the hunter.
While Craven’s first film, Last House, contains its critique mainly within the family, Hills makes the connection between family and society more overt. The opening shots of the film create an atmosphere of despair and desolation. As the film progresses, we learn more about the area in which the film is set; like in Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the director emphasizes a region and a people discarded by capitalism. Frequent references to the military (the area is an army bombing base), nuclear testing, pollution, and other problems are made during the first half of the film. Later, when we learn about the origin of the mutant family, we are told that things had already gone drastically wrong before the cannibal family was spawned: the mutant family is a product of the decaying society rather than the cause.
Craven’s film retains its power because it is more than a string of horror film cliches, rather, it provides an examination of human behavior that locates monstrosity firmly within the family. Its sustained critique of the capacity of humans for cruelty, the sadism of revenge and the capitalist sexist culture that sustains these behaviors stays with the viewer long after the credits roll.
USA, 1977. 89 min. Blood Relations Co.