The Hills Have Eyes has become a cult classic of the American horror film genre, as well as an important part of the cannibal studies canon. The film follows the Carters, a suburban family targeted by a family of cannibal savages after becoming stranded in the Nevada desert.
Wes Craven’s directorial debut was The Last House on the Left (1972), an American version of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (Swedish: Jungfrukällan), a movie that shocked (at least in 1960) with its themes of rape, torture and murder. Craven became known as a “Master of Horror”, and went on to make such classics as A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and Scream (1996).
Other influences on this film include John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). Like The Last House on the Left before it, the film also drew influence from the work of European masters such as François Truffaut and Luis Buñuel.
Wes Craven liked to find inspiration in the classics, and there’s nothing wrong with that. They say there are only seven or so archetypal stories in literature, and all the others are variations on a theme. So, The Hills Have Eyes is based on the legend of cannibal Sawney Bean, a story that Craven saw as illustrating the fine line between civilized and savage. Bean was believed (and how do we ever sift the fiction from the fact in cannibal stories?) to be the patriarch of a 48-person incestuous Scottish clan which murdered and cannibalised more than one thousand men, women and children in the 16th century. When the King and his soldiers finally caught up with the family, according to the Complete Newgate Calendar,
“The men had their hands and legs severed from their bodies; by which amputations they bled to death in some hours. The wife, daughters and grandchildren, having been made spectators of this just punishment inflicted on the men, were afterwards burnt to death in three several fires.”
Just like the Sawney Bean legend, the violence of the cannibal family in this film is matched by the ferocity of their victims. Unlike Texas Chain Saw, where escape by the “final girl” is victory enough, this movie ends with the “last boy” (as it were) savagely stabbing the last cannibal, and continuing to do so long after he is dead, watched by the “final girl” who is an abused and therefore redeemable member of the cannibal clan. The end of the film is not a fade to black but a fade to red.
Craven saw this treatment of the Bean clan by supposedly civilised people as paralleling the clan’s own savagery, and illustrated the point graphically in this film.
Chain Saw and Hills showed a slice of American life that doesn’t usually make it on to the screen – the “flyover states” where industry and agriculture have closed up shop, and the air force use the “empty” desert for nuclear testing. The remnants of the population, mutated by the radiation (the gas station dude’s baby, who became the cannibal patriarch, was at birth “twenty pounds and hairy as a monkey”), survive in the economic wasteland by doing whatever they can. In Hills, as in Chain Saw, they do it by capturing “civilised” folk who blunder into their killing fields. The survivors of the American Dream have become depraved cannibals, not just eating their victims, but first raping and tormenting them. In both movies, there is what, in his excellent review, Bloody Disgusting’s Zachary Paul called an archetypal “gas station of doom”, a final point of no return. They, and you the viewer, have been warned.
As a classic horror film, it is actually quite dull in large sections. This is not a fault of the production so much as the budget: the whole thing was made for peanuts and shot on 16mm film, on cameras that were borrowed from a Californian pornographer. There was not a lot of spare cash for gore, so the episodes of violence are extreme, but short. The sudden jolts of music make up for the missing build-ups.
The symbolism of the film is unsubtle. The cannibals are freaks and monsters, although remarkably technology-savvy:
The family of victims are the tough patriarch, a former cop, who cannot save them and is crucified by the cannibals, the virgin daughter who is raped by them, and a baby who is stolen and almost (until they changed the script) eaten (they describe her as “a young Thanksgiving turkey”).
But by the end, both families have descended into mindless brutality.
A sequel was made by Craven in 1984 called The Hills Have Eyes Part II. Although the villains were allegedly cannibals, there is no cannibalism in it, so I won’t be wasting our time on it in this blog, particularly as it managed a score of ZERO on Rotten Tomatoes, which is quite a feat.
Both films were remade in 2006 and 2007, and we’ll get to those, eventually.
The Hills Have Eyes was part of the “new wave” of horror that arose in the 1970s. Other notable directors who made up this new wave were Tobe Hooper, George Romero, David Cronenberg, John Carpenter and Brian De Palma. Horror had moved away from outsiders (monsters, aliens, vampires, etc) to humans, usually the victims of pervasive social dysfunction and degeneracy. Cannibalism was getting closer to where we live – our species. Later films would move the cannibal into our cities, and then finally into our homes.
Our voracious appetites continue to turn inward.