The one thing you should know about my brother Luke is that he has always been very determined. From a very early age he knew he wanted to be a barrister. A barrister… I didn’t even know what one was until I was twelve. I just wanted to be a vampire when I grew up. Anyway, as a grown man my brother is now a brilliant, successful barrister, one of the best in his field, all stemming from the determination of a small child. But there is one twist, my brother initially didn’t want to be a barrister at all. No he wanted to be a doctor. That was his original dream, to serve humanity in the world of medicine. To be a world class surgeon I guess. There was just one problem, one reason why he switched from the hospital to the court: he couldn’t bare the sight of blood.
The point of all this preamble is that it got me pondering a question from when I was but a whipper snapper in shorts to this very day. The question was simple:
Why on earth would my brother, back in the sunny days of 1977, go to the Purley Astoria to see The Hills Have Eyes when a drop f blood would make him want to throw up.
I remember him quite clearly describing the plot in intimate detail afterwards. His face was pale and gaunt as he did so. He described such horrors that he never wanted to see again. And hell, Im pretty sure he has never watched another cannibalistic B movie in his life.
On the flip side his thorough description of the film just made me desperate to see it. I was only six, the film was an X certificate and home video hadn’t been invented yet, it was never going happen. In those days you just had to wait til it came on TV, which I figured would be about five years. Luke said it could never be on television, at least not on the BBC who wouldn’t stand for that kind of thing. I had to put it into my mental library wish list and hope it would still be playing at the local when I was old enough.
And here I am watching it for the first time now… I don’t know why it has taken me so long, I’ve seen the remake, I’ve even seen the sequel which has flashbacks to this one for about half an hour of the film. But never the original. So, at last, here I am.
Can’t say it was worth the wait.
You probably already know the basic story: a typical American nuclear family break down in the middle of nowhere and are hounded and murdered by a cannibalistic family m, mutated by nuclear testing. It is a companion piece to Wes Craven’s previous film – Last House On The Left – continuing the theme of how violence changes ordinary folk. It is also hugely influenced by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre for obvious reasons but then most horror films are influenced by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, so that’s not really a problem.
The Hills Have Eyes does create its own identity. The cannibal family are a unique bunch with a strong patriarchal order to it – the father, Jupiter, is an imposing figure over not just his victims but also over his own children. With his weird hair lip nose and wild teeth he’s a threatening character. Some of his kids? Not so much. Considering Michael Berryman is the poster child of The Hills Have Eyes advertising campaign he’s not in the slightest bit scary, in fact he’s rather sweet with his soft voice and poppy eyes, more like an over excited, overgrown puppy than a horror icon. He freaked me out as a kid, staring wildly from that poster with his unnatural, elongated skull but then The Clangers freaked me out as a kid so I clearly couldn’t be trusted.
Unfortunately all of this family are let down by some really awful clothes which just don’t seem very authentic at all. They look like they were designed by a Doctor Who costume department in a hurry rather than being real and warn home made items. However they look positively Weta in quality in comparison to the wigs the cannibals are wearing which would give Donald Trump a run for his money. This and the make up effects which are variable at best undermine the frightening idea of the family and frequently make them comic when they should be creepy.
The goodies are also quite an interesting bunch – the father isn’t a total innocent of violence, being a retired policeman still packing a badge and a piece. The son-in-law is dismissed by his father-in-law as a weakling, understandably so with his droopy moustache and scarily short shorts but turns out to be much braver than the rest of them. The women, sadly, are given much less to deal with, mostly screaming or being raped before being murdered. What fun that is. To watch. This continues another theme of Last House On The Left: the grim tone of misogeny, although the brightness of the desert and Berryman’s shiny bald skull stop it from being as bleak as Craven’s previous effort.
The best additions to the side of good, are the two German Shepherds – Beauty and Beast. I have an ongoing issue with unnecessary dog deaths in horror movies, and for beauty her fate is sealed pretty early on as meat for the barbecue. But in a twist, one I’m surprised hasn’t been imitated more, her brother Beast spends the rest of the film’s stalking and exacting revenge. On her and his family’s killers. The only other film I can think of which has a similar stance is when Donald Plesence’s pet monkey goes on a switch blade welding revenge hunt against his owner’s killer in Argento’s Phenomena. Okay sure it is kind of ridiculous, giving animals human traits of anger and vengeance, but then we are talking about a genre where most humans when they at their most mortally vulnerable choose to split up from their friends, so it’s not like anyone really acts that normally half the time. Beast is the star of the show here, and his actions reflect a theme that runs throughout The Hills Have Eyes – that of nature verses humanity. The family foolishly find themselves trapped in the desert, the harsh, empty landscape an affront to their privileged, cluttered urban lives. Meanwhile the cannibals are abominations of nature, mutated by man’s experiments with nuclear weapons, and mutating themselves by reproduction by incest. Beast is nature once again rising up and fighting back against unnatural humanity, without mercy and with throat-tearing teeth.
I’m in two minds about The Hills Have Eyes. On the one hand it does have a strong, grisly tone to it with an obvious underlying intelligence to it, as to be expected from a director who was once a university professor. But on the flip side it sometimes feels so cheap and exploitive it’s almost amateur (that could be down to my DVD which is not the greatest transfer ever, or maybe it was just budget restraints). Certainly it’s grim tone stops it from being particularly entertaining. You could certainly say that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has a grim and unpleasant mood to it as well, but it’s also full of energy and authenticity whilst Hills is just inconsistent and kind of fake looking. Plus The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is simply one of the greatest films ever made. Maybe time just hasn’t been kind to the The Hills Have Eyes. Maybe anyone would have been fearful of it back in 1977. Today, in the comfort of my own home I just can’t see it myself.
Postscript: upon finishing this review I finally got to ask my brother why he went to see The Hills Have Eyes. He said the simple truth was that back in those days Purley Astoria only has one screen, so him and his mates, and the girl they were all trying to impress, just saw whatever was on. So there my brother was, stuck in a cinema watching cannibals cooking up a family and serving them up for breakfast. The film was the first part of a double bill. The second movie was a British sex comedy called I’m Not Feeling Myself Tonight. It’s tagline was “a must for sex maniacs”. The moment it started Luke got up and walked out.