On the way to California, a family has the misfortune to have their car break down in an area closed to the public, and inhabited by violent savages ready to attack.
“The Hills Have Eyes” is Wes Craven’s long awaited follow up to his first film, the grindhouse epic “The Last House on the Left.” In the latter film, the creator of such horror staples as “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Scream” delved deep into the recesses of human cruelty to tell the tale of two young women abducted, tortured, and killed by a small gang of escaped convicts. Through a twist of fate, the parents of one of these girls meet up with her killers and exact their own brand of terrible revenge. “The Last House on the Left,” although not incredibly gory in its theatrical cut, is a nauseating, seedy little nightmare that received an incredible amount of bad press even as it raked in money at the few places willing to show the movie. Craven’s subsequent career virtually assured that his early work would receive the DVD treatment. What’s surprising is how comprehensive a treatment “Last House” and “Hills” received. “The Hills Have Eyes” offers up a plethora of entertaining and informative extras on two discs. There is so much material of interest on these DVDs that it’s easy to lose sight of the film itself.
There is nothing more innocent and heartwarming than a family taking a trip across the country. In the case of retired cop Big Bob Carter (Russ Grieve), he’s taking his extended family out into the desert in search of a silver mine. His wife Ethel (Virginia Vincent) is along for the ride, as are daughter Brenda (Susan Lanier) and son Bobby (Robert Houston). Also tagging along in a mobile home is Carter’s married daughter Lynne (Dee Wallace-Stone), her husband Doug (Martin Speer), and their infant child. Rounding out the list are the two family dogs, one of whom will play an important role in the nightmare to come. Carter and his clan stop off at a decrepit gas station run by Fred (John Steadman) in order to ask for directions. Fred issues dire warnings to Carter about heading out into the desert. The cop, undeterred by such nonsense, proceeds to drive his entire family into the middle of an Air Force bombing range. When a couple of jet fighters buzz the Carter station wagon, Big Bob panics and veers off the road. Now stranded miles from the highway, the family takes stock of the situation. The automobile is seriously damaged, so Big Bob walks back to civilization while the family sets up camp. Listen to that terror music rise with a swell!
The Carter clan should have listened to crotchety old Fred. It turns out that a family of cannibals lives out in the mountains near where the car crashed, a family headed by Fred’s only son Jupiter (James Whitworth). The gas station owner tells Bob Carter a weird story about the birth of his son, describing the youth as a cruel, misshapen child cursed with a violent temperament. Fred eventually threw the kid out into the desert after a particularly heinous crime convinced the father that the son was a real danger. Now Jupiter has a family of his own, including Pluto (Michael Berryman) and Mars (Lance Gordon), with which to terrorize anyone unlucky enough to wander into their lair. As Big Bob races back to his loved ones, the film shifts focus to the family left back on the bombing range. Sure enough, Jupiter and his abhorrent offspring swoop down on the unfortunate outsiders, killing two of the family members and stealing Lynne’s baby. The rest of the film deals with the survivors’ attempts to retrieve the infant and kill Jupiter and his pack of cannibals. It’s a battle to the finish as Doug, Brenda, and Bobby rely on their wits to defeat stronger, better armed foes.
“The Hills Have Eyes” is really a film about civilization versus barbarism. It’s also a film based loosely on the Sawney Bean family, a real life pack of inbred cannibals who preyed on travelers over in the English isles three centuries ago. The film relies heavily on shock value rather than over the top gore, an approach that generally works even if it is a bit disappointing (I’d like to see more cannibal action, personally). And there is nothing more shocking than the frightening visage of Michael Berryman to send an audience over the edge. If I had to draw a picture of what I thought an inbred cannibal killer looked like, it would probably resemble Berryman. His misshapen bald head, buggy eyes, and malformed mouth add much to the impact of the movie. He is, in fact, almost as frightening as some of the performances in the film. Most of the actors do a good job with their roles, but Virginia Vincent goes needlessly over the top as matriarch Ethel. Talk about laying the ham on thick! Shelley Winters has nothing on this lady! I’m surprised Ethel and her relatives had to put up with cannibals at all, frankly. You would think the planes saw Big Bob go off the road and would notify the proper authorities. You would also think that a pack of cannibals couldn’t survive for long on a military bombing range. Oh well, best not to ask too many questions.
The supplements on the DVD are quite good. The best feature is the commentary track with Wes Craven and producer Peter Locke. They entertain themselves endlessly by poking fun at the unfolding hijinks. After listening to their comments, check out the interviews with cast and crew, the Craven career retrospective, and the alternate ending. Every horror film fan will want to check this DVD out. Even if you’ve seen the movie before, the extras are good enough to merit another look.