The Hills Have Eyes (1977)

2 out of 5

Directed by: Wes Craven

It’s been a while since I’ve seen Wes Craven’s Last House On the Left, but I remember feeling like it earned its notoriety, being a discomfiting mix of goofy comedy and brash, in-your-face depravity.  Craven’s followup, The Hills Have Eyes, didn’t make the video nasty list like Last House did, but it’s often chucked in a pool of old-school horror flicks, like Texas Chain Saw Massacre, that have a certain grindhouse ethos and visceral effect.

Hills Have Eyes does share some things in common with TCM, in that there’s a predator family sicced upon ‘innocents,’ and that a fair amount of the horror takes place during the day, and that there’s not actually that much on-screen violence, but whereas Chain Saw comes loaded with atmosphere, and, once things get going, a near omni-present sense of wrong, Hills just mostly limps about through its desert and mountain settings, never establishing much of a tone at all, or even any intrigue regarding our mutated desert cannibals.  There is one wonderfully terrifying scene, in which the stranded family takes shelter in their camper while the mutants attack: Craven ratchets things up here immensely, proving there’s no shelter, and also no safety for the audience, as characters are dispatched with nary a wink.  The scripting thereafter implies that this tension is to be maintained – that we’re supposed to be on the edge of our seats during the back and forth between the two sides thereafter – but instead all of the suspense is lost, as the cannibals retreat, and we get a full awareness of their numbers and their abilities.  They’re not quite unhinged – and thus scary – the way the TCM family is; they’re just sort of idiots who are hungry for people.  The parallel of their behavior versus the “revenge” of the beleaguered family never crystallizes; Craven fades to red upon the final death, but this doesn’t come across as some shockingly violent end, rather, just, like, you hit 90 minutes and so time for the credits.

While the shooting style, in general, has a nice balance to it, and Craven deals with the low budget effectively, getting the camera up close to make dog attacks and whatnot workable, there’s a half-in / half-out feel to things: we’re watching an exploitation film, from a director who was maybe trying to make something more serious than that.  On the one hand, this gives us some pretty solid characterizations for the lead family, where people respond pretty realistically, and the screaming female gets to be the one who actually saves the day a couple times.  On the other hand: see my statement on the cannibal idiots.  They belong to a sillier movie, and are never much more than fake teeth and bad wigs.

Wes Craven kicked off his career with a flick that’s deservedly rather infamous.  He followed that with The Hills Have Eyes, which was still leashed to the exploitation mentality of the previous flick, while also being a half-step towards more “legitimate” styles of horror.  As such, the movie never really feels like it nails a tone – and certainly isn’t very scary overall – despite having some solid character work and at least one rather terrifying scene.