Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Director Report Card: Wes Craven (1977)

2. The Hills Have Eyes

 “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” solidified the back woods, inbred cannibal clan as a staple of horror films. To this day, horror films continue to rip it off and reference that great film. Four years after his incendery debut, Wes Craven contributed the second most iconic addition to that particular trope. Taking its inspiration from Hooper’s film and tales of the (probably fictional) Sawney Bean clan, “The Hills Have Eyes” proved that “Last House on the Left” wasn’t a fluke, that Craven really did have a knack for the visceral and the horrifying.

The film shows Craven’s thematic interest evolving as well. “Last House on the Left” was only partially about family while, in “The Hills Have Eyes,” it becomes a major theme, one that would carry throughout many of the director’s films. The story revolves around the Carter family, who get stranded while dragging their mobile home through the desert. Once there, they quickly come into conflict with a brood of possibly mutated cannibals that make the desert their home. There are deliberate parallels between the two families. Both have a strong, traditional father and a subservient mother. A young son trying to prove himself features in both. Big Bob Carter gives his son a gun, telling him he’s in control while he’s gone. Meanwhile, the cannibalistic Poppa Jupiter allows young Pluto to go on a raid. The parents squabble while the children struggle against their fathers’ authorities. Both families loose loved ones, motivating the action in the latter half of the film. And what does Jupiter’s Brood do to decentralize the rival family? Kill the father.

The main reason I love “The Hills Have Eyes” is because the characters are strong, realistic, and likable. The Carter family is introduced quickly during an early scene, each one walking off the trailer, up to and including the dogs. Bob Carter is lovably crotchety. His expletive ridden declarations and stories about his time as a police officer are deeply entertaining. He has a funny relationship with his wife, trading loving barbs. Later, the mother requests a prayer, in a moment that seems deeply real. Later, Mom, Bobby, and the daughters set the lunch table, discussing their rich history together. Craven’s character writing has never been quite this strong since.

The performances contribute to the cast being such fully realized characters. The actors playing the youngest Carter children probably give the best performances. Robert Houston starts out seeming to be your typical teenage boy but, as the situation gets worse, he reveals more depth. The scene where he confesses to finding their dog’s dead body is probably his best moment. Susan Lanier is excellent as Brenda. She plays her character’s traumatized state. I especially like when the lights going out causes a screaming fit. “Traumatized” is something of a default state for most of the cast. Martin Speer, as step-son Doug, shows real grief when he discovers two dead bodies. Though Virginia Vincent has less to do as the Carter matriarch, she has two stand-out moments, freaking out upon spotting her husband’s corpse and a dazed, sad discussion on her death bed. Dee Wallace, well on her way to scream queen status, is funny and tough, though she to exits the film too soon.

On the cannibal’s sides, James Whitworth is slightly over-the-top as Poppa Jupe but appropriately animalistic. Michael Berryman, horror’s most distinctive leading man this side of Rondo Hatton, is a little too broad at times as well but he fills the role of the youngest son trying to prove himself very well. Janus Blythe plays Ruby, one of the film’s more complex characters. The conflict and sweetness shows through in her voice. Finally, character actor John Steadman has a great part as the remorseful grandfather, successfully getting his mouth around some wild, fantastic dialogue.

The director has evolved in other ways since his debut. “Hills” is significantly better constructed then “Last House.” The movie is fantastically paced, taking its time to set up the characters and holding off on revealing the villains fully for quite some time. The first overt moment of horror isn’t until 23 minutes in and, even then, it’s still another 15 before things truly get rolling. Craven’s direction goes a long way towards establishing the isolation of the desert. The film opens with long pans over the jagged desert hills. There’s another fantastic shot of Doug, the camera pulling back, showing him screaming alone in the darkness of the wilderness. The rough edges are still present, as the editing is sometimes abrupt.

Unlike the folk-pop shenanigans of “Last House,” this film has a real score, provided by Don Peake. Multiple ominous chords pulsate on the soundtrack, adding to the tension. Occasionally, there’s even a good, ambling beat. Even then, the score is sometimes too seventies, the funky tones distracting from the story. For those looking, Wes’ improvised booby traps are strongly represented, playing key roles during the climax.

Craven’s stronger direction, writing, and cast make “The Hills Have Eyes” a good film but what makes it a great horror film are a series of startling, fantastic sequences. The old man’s monologue about Jupiter’s birth is highly quotable and leads to one of the greatest jump scares in horror history. Few cinematic villains are given as effective an entrance as Jupe is. Pluto gets a great entrance too, siphoning gasoline under the lover’s nose. The home invasion is rightfully infamous for its intensity. Mars cuts a grotesque figure, squishing ground beef between his fingers, milk dripping down his chin, chomping the head off the family parakeet. He asserts his authority as the dominate son by raping Brenda, causing Pluto to go on a frenzied rampage through the trailer. The sexual assault is not as lingering or disturbing as what happened in “Last House” but the close-up on Brenda’s crying face is certainly upsetting. Tension builds fantastically during the home invasion sequence, the confined area lending an acute sense of realism. The music ramps up, screams mixing in, murders taking place before our eyes. The tension becomes almost unbearable until the moment when the gun clicks, out of bullets. There are other good horrific moments. A torn out Achilles tendon here, a finger jabbed in a stab wound there, but the movie never quite tops the attack in the trailer.

“The Hills Have Eyes” is a note-worthy example of the “proto-slasher,” the horror subgenre that would explode just a few years after the film was released. The dogs detect the evil before anyone else does. The iron-lined hills make radio transmission impossible, the 1970s version of cell phones without signals. While the movie doesn’t rely on them too much, there are several jump scares. A trademark of the slasher, a young couple so into each other that they don’t notice the mad killer right outside their window, might have originated here.

The movie is sometimes accused of being campy. I feel the content of the picture rejects that. However, the movie is badly dated in some ways. The fashion, which includes multiple cut-off shorts, hip-hugger jeans, and a fierce porno ‘stache, hasn’t aged well. An important character in the film is actually a dog. Beast the German Shepherd is smart enough not only to seek revenge for the murder of his mate but also to carry his fallen enemy’s walkie-talkie back to his family. Mercury is an incredibly goofy character and, thankfully, not in much of the film.

Aside from the focus on family, there’s another important theme here. Like “Night of the Living Dead” before it, “The Hills Have Eyes” is an attack on the status-qua of “polite society.” The desert savages are refereed to as animals repeatedly. Poppa Jupiter delivers a creepy monologue to the decapitated head of Bob Carter, talking about watching his world crumble and devouring his children. The outsiders have come for us and are going to literally eat the rich. By the end though, Craven has made the point that there’s little separating the civilized Carters from the savage mutants. The ending was originally more upbeat, showing the surviving family members accepting Ruby into their life, the outsider and the civilized people meeting on common ground and looking pass their differences. However, Craven opted instead for one of his trademark closing nihilistic images. A man stabs another to death brutally, looking directly into the camera, the scene fading to blood red around him. It’s not subtle but it makes its point quite succinctly, that there’s a savage inside of all of us.

 “The Hills Have Eyes” was a big success on the drive-in/grindhouse circuit. Though the film has never found huge mainstream success, aside from the mostly pretty good remake, it holds strong as a cult classic and seminal film in the horror genre. [Grade: A-]

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