31 Screams in October, #3: The Hills Have Eyes (1977)

Posted: October 4, 2014 in Movie Review
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The Hills Have Eyes (1977)

Director: Wes Craven

Starring: Susan Lanier, Robert Houston, Martin Speer, Dee Wallace, Russ Grieve, John Steadman, Michael Berryman, James Whitworth, Virginia Vincent

“Did you ever have the feeling you’re being watched? That the eyes of strange, eerie things are upon you?” ~Bugs Bunny

Family vacations are a great way to “get away from it all.” They also never go completely according to plan. You’d also be advised to stick to the main roads. It’s a weird, rough and crazy world out there, and you can’t plan for what sort of evil might be lying in wait for some idiot who decided to take a detour onto parts of the maps indicated only by dashed lines. Gas up the car and get back on the highway… while you still can.

“The Hills Have Eyes.” The movie’s title alone is enough to creep you out. This being director Wes Craven’s second major contribution to the genre, it came during an era when you weren’t likely to look through the entire cast of a horror film and play “Spot the Stars.” Oh, there’d be a few you’d recognize here and there, but mainly you’d be looking at people whose careers would be defined or otherwise made by their roles in these low budget scary movies. So it is with 1977’s “The Hills Have Eyes.” In fact, of the cast, the only one who truly went on to bigger things was actress Dee Wallace (“The Howling,” “E.T.,” “Critters,” “Cujo,” etc.)

Wes Craven based “The Hills Have Eyes” on the legend of the Sawney Bean family, placing his modern retelling in a desert setting and naming the male members of the cannibalistic clan after Roman gods according to shared characteristics. These include sons Mercury, Mars (Pete Locke, who also served as the film’s producer) and Pluto (Michael Berryman, whose distinctive face is featured prominently on all posters and video boxes), and their father Jupiter (James Whitworth).

“The Hills Have Eyes” begins with an old man at a gas station looking worried and seemingly in a big hurry to vacate the premeses. His efforts are halted, first by a young girl in tattered clothes named Ruby who is intent on trading stolen items for food. But the old man, who has apparently had this arrangement with Ruby and “the pack,” feels “they” have gone too far and refuses to give handouts any longer. Their argument is short-lived, because a family of five by the name of Carter arrive looking to fill the gas tank of their station wagon on the way to a California vacation. But first they’ve decided to take a detour to see an old silver mine they’ve heard about in the desert. The old man strongly urges them to reconsider, but the family just figures the old man has probably been looting the mine in secret. The family takes the detour anyway, and of course manages to get lost. That’s whay happens when you let Ethel (aka Mama Carter) hold the map, I guess. Distracted by Air Force jets flying overhead and needlessly swerving to avoid a small animal, the family becomes stranded when the front axel of the station wagon is broken. Bob Carter gives a gun to son Bobby (Robert Houston) and goes looking for help.

Bob arrives back at the gas station where Fred, the station attendant, tells Bob why his family isn’t safe out in the desert. Years earlier, Fred had a wife and a baby girl, and a son on the way. But this one was so big that Fred’s wife died giving birth to it. In the ten years that followed, Fred noticed on many occasions that animals in his keep would turn up dead. The final straw was when his house burned to the ground with his daughter inside. That’s when he knew that this monstrous son of his was the culprit. Hitting his son with a tire iron and leaving him in the desert, Fred thought he’d ended it right there. Unfortunately, his son (whom the audience has come to know as Jupiter) grew up, kidnapped a prostitute and fathered three sons and a daughter, and they’ve been living in the desert ever since. Soon after finishing his sad tale, Fred is killed by Jupiter with Bob witnessing the entire thing before being taken prisoner himself.

In the meantime, Bobby has found one of the two family dogs, Beauty, viciously murdered for food by Jupiter’s son, Pluto, while the other dog (named Beast) has broken his chain. With Bobby’s sister Lynne (Dee Wallace) and her husband Doug (Martin Speer) in the station wagon, Bobby has locked himself out of the camper. Unbeknownst to Bobby, Pluto has snuck inside for valuables while Bobby’s mother and his other sister, Brenda (Susan Lanier) are both asleep. The family is distracted by screams in the distance. It’s Bob, who is being burned alive. Brenda is left behind, and Pluto and Mars take turns raping her while the rest of the family extinguishes the fire, albeit too late to save Bob. What happens next is easily the most shocking moment in the film, as the family returns to the camper where Mars and Pluto are in the process of stealing Lynne and Doug’s baby girl. A fight ensues in which Mars receives a knife wound to the leg, but not before fatally shooting both Lynne and Ethel, and Pluto makes off with the child.

It’s at this point where Wes Craven has figuratively grabbed a hold of the steering wheel, spun the car out of control and run us right off the road. By now, whatever happens next is anybody’s guess. Most certainly, the surviving family members are going to want revenge for their lost loved ones, but their enemy knows the lay of the land a lot better than they do, and the fact that they don’t have much to defend themselves doesn’t offer them much hope, either. What they do have on their side is a higher level of intelligence than the instinct-dependent family of inbreeds. Which, of course, doesn’t include the stupid decision to go off-road which got them in this mess in the first place.

Jupiter may be the head of the evil family, and Pluto may be the one whose face is plastered on all the promotional material, but it’s Mars who is by far the creepiest and most fun to root against. Most of the movie’s best lines are his, and it doesn’t hurt that the makeup on the actor is enough to make him appear as something a little less than human. A little less than a decade away from his most famous film, “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” Wes Craven was already proving why he was one of the more creative minds in horror with “The Hills Have Eyes,” ultimately a scarier movie than “Elm Street” because you can believe that something like this can actually happen. Just by scanning the headlines on one of the national news networks, you’ll see that stranger, more unbelievably evil things happen all the time.

  1. Sylvia Williams says:

    Since I saw most of the film while you where reviewing it, I don’t have to imagine most of what you are describing! what is the deal with the legend of the Sawney Bean family? where were they supposed to have lived? Tell me later over BBQ!!! Nice review!!!!!

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