“Vacation, all they ever wanted! Vacation, had to get away!!” Susan Lanier, Academy Award winner Robert Houston, Dee Wallace, Michael Berryman and James Whitworth star in Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes.
Cast of Characters:
Brenda Carter – Susan Lanier
Bobby Carter – Robert Houston
Doug Wood – Martin Speer
Lynne Wood – Dee Wallace
Bob Carter – Russ Grieve
Fred – John Steadman
Pluto – Michael Berryman
Ethel Carter – Virginia Vincent
Mars – Lance Gordon
Ruby – Janus Blythe
Papa Jupiter – James Whitworth
Director – Wes Craven
Screenplay – Wes Craven
Producer – Peter Locke
The Carter family – parents Bob (Russ Grieve) and Ethel (Virginia Vincent), children Brenda (Susan Lanier), Bobby (Robert Houston), Lynne (Dee Wallace) and Lynne’s husband Doug (Martin Speer) – are traveling on vacation from Ohio to California. While on a pit-stop at a rundown gas station, Fred’s Oasis, the owner Fred (John Steadman) warns them to stay on the main road, but go figure, they ignore his kind, life-saving advice and eventually car trouble leaves them stranded in the desert.
Shortcut or not, those side roads will kill ya.
When Papa Carter heads back to Fred’s Oasis to get help, Fred reveals to him that his family is in terrible danger, and it’s not the desert heat they should be worrying about. It’s what lurks behind the desert hills that should have them terrified.
Following the modest success they earned from The Last House on the Left, writer/director Wes Craven and producer Sean Cunningham were looking to move on to make other films, and it wasn’t long after that Craven met producer Peter Locke who encouraged him to make another horror film like The Last House on the Left. Though Craven initially had no interest in doing another film similar to his debut, given the controversy and backlash it caused, he eventually gave in once he was broke. That’s when Locke, whose wife was out in Vegas at the time, suggested they do a film set in the desert, and so began what would become The Hills Have Eyes.
Craven’s sophomore effort takes most of its inspiration from the legend of Sawney Bean, the head of a 48-member clan of incestuous cannibals from 16th century Scotland who were all eventually tortured to death by King James VI. Struck by how the brutality enacted by the civilized Scots was no different than what was done by the family of feral outcasts, Craven’s story would take those culture clash themes and apply them to his horror film, pitting Mojave Desert cannibals against an ordinary white-bred suburban family from Ohio.
While The Hills Have Eyes is certainly not without its violence (like Craven’s predecessor, this too initially received an X-rating), it isn’t the harrowing gut punch that The Last House on the Left was. The themes of human depravity are still there, but there’s a gleefully twisted energy and a more polished look that makes it a “lighter” watch. The villains here may not be as despicable as Krug Stillo (a monster not warped by genetic mutation, but simply human and all the more terrifying because of it), and at times they can get a little loony (the desert heat will do that to you), but when the situation calls for it, most notably during the Winnebago raid, the cast of celestially-named feral madmen (one of whom is genre favorite and, in a way, this film’s mascot Michael Berryman) are able to switch on the menace with ease.
At face value, The Hills Have Eyes can be enjoyed as a well-made grindhouse monster flick. As previously noted, Craven and Locke pumped this film with a bit more money than the former did with Sean Cunningham for The Last House on the Left (to be fair, the film’s grainy look fit what Craven was going for), which resulted in a smoother film, from the production values to the acting. Not that the performances are standout or anything (though out of the group, Dee Wallace would go on to have a fairly successful career with films like Dudley Moore’s 10, The Howling, Stephen King’s Cujo, Steven Spielberg’s E.T. and Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners), but unlike the varying performances in Craven’s debut, the actors here are more uniformly solid.
But as is the case with most of his work, Craven infuses his film with something deeper than just monsters terrorizing a family stranded in the desert. Like The Last House on the Left, we see what depths the civilized can be pushed to when faced with the uncivilized, and how they can become just as unruly and bloodthirsty when backed into a corner. To destroy their ruthless antagonizers, they must become them. The difference here is the desert setting which removes the protagonists from the confines of their home and places them in a raw, isolated world where the means to survive our stripped down to the bare bones. The bleak, abrupt ending, which has been criticized by many, perfectly captures the essence of what Craven’s trying to say.
Coming in between his imperfect yet tense The Last House on the Left and his magnum opus A Nightmare on Elm Street, Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes works as both a gritty, violent horror flick and a pointed commentary on the utter savagery that dwells within even the most civilized of mankind. With The Last House on the Left, Craven was only getting warmed up. The Hills Have Eyes would land him on firm footing as one of the great staples of the horror genre.