A look back at ‘The Hills Have Eyes,’ 35 years after its release

Photo by John Soltes

When a car breaks down in the middle of nowhere, people must instantly think they’re going to be killed by the warped, inbred, local cannibals. It’s a natural reaction, especially since Hollywood continues to stoke our collective fear of the “lost America,” that expanse of nothingness where it’s unimaginable to earn a living and raise a family.

Many great horror films have dealt with this “outskirts” premise. From The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to Kevin Smiths recent Red State, movie characters have been warned and it’s up to them to have enough gas in the car.

One of the original progenitors of the myth is Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes, which was recently released on DVD and Blu-ray from Image Entertainment. Some 35 years after its debut, the movie is still a disorienting, blood-soaked affair. It doesn’t outright scare modern audiences with jumpy moments, but that was never the purpose. The 90-minute feature is more interested in creating a palpable sense of dread. We are led to believe that escalating acts of debauchery are right around the corner.

As a horror film from the 1970s, The Hills Have Eyes still holds up nicely. It has that grittiness and rustic authenticity that makes us think we’re watching home footage. Tobe Hooper pretty much created this personal style of filmmaking with Chainsaw.

Craven starts off slow, but quickly lets his plot run rampant. An extended family has hitched the RV to the old station wagon and are heading West for California. But don’t expect Henry Fonda and The Grapes of Wrath.

The Carter family needs gas, so they pull up to a desolate station in the American Southwest. There’s no industry or residences nearby, just the faraway hills and a nuclear testing site. After filling up and trying to take a shortcut (note to self: never take a shortcut, especially when Wes Craven is in control), their car inevitably breaks down. Big Bob (Russ Grieve) and his son-in-law Doug (Martin Speer) decide to head in opposite directions to find some help. This leaves mother Ethel (Virginia Vincent), her daughter Brenda (Susan Lanier), son Bobby (Robert Houston) and oldest daughter Lynne (Dee Wallace) to stay with the car and tend to Lynne and Doug’s newborn baby.

I think you see where this is heading.

Eventually, the deformed cannibals who live in a nearby cave begin playing mind games with their new visitors. There’s a lot of screaming, blood, near sexual attacks, gasoline and, yes, even some cannibalism. Craven somehow keeps the camera just out of reach from the most horrific scenes, sparing us the details of the grossness.

One by one, the family members begin to fall, and it’s up to the survivors to protect the baby. A helpful German shepherd, like ever-faithful Lassie, aids the victims in their crusade.

The acting isn’t horrible, but it’s hardly spectacular. The screaming becomes annoying, and the crying seems faked. The deranged people from the hills have flashier parts and seem more comfortable in their respective roles. The iconic Michael Berryman, whose face is the only one displayed on Image Entertainment’s new DVD/Blu-ray release, doesn’t have to do much to be terrifying.

Craven’s direction is the real reason to experience this crazy tale again. As a young filmmaker, he sets up unconventional shots and with what appears to be a shoestring budget. There’s one scene where the camera leaves a solitary figure in the darkness of the desert, only his silhouette is visible. The atmosphere and hysterics all add to the DIY directing style and realism of this very unreal story.

As a screenwriter, he doesn’t excel, but there’s not much subtlety that can be worked into a cannibal tale.

Over the years, The Hills Have Eyes has become a bona fide cult classic with a legion of dedicated fans. The movie spawned a Craven-directed sequel in the 1980s and a remake a few years ago. Nothing can probably match the difficulty and uneasiness one attains from watching the original. It’s not a good film, but I don’t think it has any ambitions to be anything but horrifying.

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com

  • The Hills Have Eyes

  • 1977

  • Written and directed by Wes Craven

  • Starring Dee Wallace, James Whitworth, Susan Lanier and Michael Berryman

  • Running time: 90 minutes

  • Rated R

  • Rating: ★★½☆

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications. E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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