40 years ago today, Wes Craven unleashed his follow-up to the grim and nasty Last House on the Left with the equally grim and nasty The Hills Have Eyes. Hesitant to dive into another exploitation flick, Craven eventually came around to persistent urgings from the film’s producer, Peter Locke. And as if Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was nothing more than a dare, Craven crafted Hills with a similar hysterical energy, upping the gore quotient and tossing in an innocent baby for demented measure. The two films share many similarities, not just in plot but crew as well. Craven’s survival horror yarn doesn’t shy away from rough subject matter, and unsurprisingly, the production itself was no cakewalk. Despite the struggles the cast and crew may have weathered to get the damn thing “in the can”, it all paid off in the end. To steal a tag from Herschell Gordon Lewis’s Blood Feast, “There’s nothing so appalling in the annals of horror!”
Last House (1972) was Craven’s first feature as a director. He aspired to create something different in his sophomore effort, something outside the horror genre. Producers weren’t interested in what he was selling, however, unless it featured a little blood and depravity. A close friend of Craven, Peter Locke, had some money and wanted to funnel it into a horror picture. Finally, “I was broke,” Craven has stated, so he got to work on a new horror script. The writer/director took a great deal of inspiration from the purported case of the Sawny Bean Clan. From the lore’s Wikipedia page:
“Sawney” Bean was said to be the head of a 48-member clan in Scotland anywhere between the 13th and 16th centuries, reportedly executed for the mass murder and cannibalisation of over 1,000 people.”
While the obvious connective tissue is there (feral cannibal family), it was the treatment of the Bean Clan after their capture that proved interest to Craven. After finally being hunted down and arrested, the entire family was slowly tortured by burning, quartering, hanging, and more. The filmmaker was struck by the parallel between the cave-dwelling cannibals and the animalistic revenge meted out by more “civilized” people. A script entitled Blood Relations was born.
Eyeing a Massacre
Only three years had passed since Hooper’s TCM came along and blew up the indie scene. Wes Craven certainly wasn’t a stranger to the film and was open about the fact. He’s stated he was crafting a bit of an homage to the grindhouse classic. I’d say that’s blatantly obvious. Though, there are some who would prefer to call Hills a straight “rip off.” Certainly the plot is colored in several shades of Chainsaw. A family on vacation cuts through a barren desert in hopes of coming upon an old silver mine. After wrecking their car, they’re now stranded in the wide open nowhere and must protect themselves against a tightly knit family of cannibals. Both films even feature their own take on the “gas station of doom”. In all fairness, however, TCM is likely the originator of said trope.
Production designer Robert Burns actually worked on each film. The home of the clan in Hills was decorated with numerous bones, animal hides, and various knick knacks that were carried over from the set of TCM! The two films will always be linked as early examples of extreme survival horror. That said, I have, perhaps, a controversial opinion on the matter. Hooper’s film is a genuine masterpiece of gut-wrenching, grounded terror, but I’ve always prefered The Hills Have Eyes. Maybe that’s blasphemous to say, but no matter how many times I’ve seen it, I find the tension Craven builds to be overwhelming…and my eyes always end up watering up at least once (more on that later).
So, sure, in terms of tone, both films feel hot, sweaty, and covered in dirt. There’s a genuine discomfort felt in the actors’ performances which is palpable, mostly due to the fact they were uncomfortable given the exhausting shooting conditions. It’s interesting to note the style of Hills is inline with that of Craven’s first feature. Last House was an ultra low budget, lean-mean exploitation machine. With that in mind, it’s hard to call Craven a thief in terms of style. Considering Last House was released in 72′, who copied who? At the end of the day, these are two distinct filmmakers with their own claim to genre fame, so no one was really aping anyone. It was the late 70’s and these two filmmakers were at the forefront of the type of grindhouse horror cinema that was about to explode into mainstream culture within the next decade,
Sick and Depraved
With temperatures upwards of 120 degrees during the day and as low as 30 at night, it was a difficult shoot for everyone involved. The budget was around 300k. That’s about 3x as much as Craven had on Last House, but it still meant that people were scraping by to get the film finished. There were no luxuries, a lot of the actors were doing their own makeup, and Dee Wallace quasi-jokingly stated the dogs (Beauty and Beast) were treated better than anyone else on set. The entire cast was drained from their physically demanding roles after clocking in 6 day work weeks ranging from 12 to 14 hours a day. Apparently when the clan is devouring some char-grilled Big Bob around the fire, the actors were starving. The fake human flesh was actually a leg of lamb roast. As repulsive as the idea of cannibalism was to them, it was actually a treat to “play pretend” for that particular scene.
According to Craven, a majority of the crew were made up of Roger Corman regulars . They’d apparently come straight from wrapping a production with Corman to the set of Hills. They were a surly, tired bunch. Craven believes they changed their tune a few weeks in after realizing what they were doing was something special. The Hills Have Eyes wasn’t going to be just another quickie cash grab. The young director’s enthusiasm was beginning to rub off. The producer was enthusiastic as well, he just channeled the energy a tad differently. Locke was always on set, rushing Craven to keep shooting. After all, this was his money on the line. He needed to ensure there was a finished product to show off at the end of the day. Of course, when he wasn’t barking behind the cameras, he was hamming it up on screen. Locke begged Wes to throw him a cameo role. The little seen member of the clan, Mercury (credited to Arthur King), who seemed to think eating a baby’s tongue was hilarious, was actually the producer himself.
Speaking of the baby, we all know that lil’ cutie-pie survives to see the end credits roll. That wasn’t always the plan, however. Craven was contemplating having baby Kathy wind up as an amuse-bouche for Papa Jupiter. The majority of the cast revolted against the idea. Michael Berryman (the iconic Pluto) stated if it came to it, he would refuse to do the scene. Craven eventually acquiesced, and baby Kathy remained off the menu. That’s not to say the film holds back in any other regard. The most impactful sequence of the film revolves around the clan’s initial assault onto the family’s tractor-trailer. One moment after the next is a flurry of brutal violence. The scene comes to a head with the pull of a trigger, empty of bullets and a threat. I always feel the need to steady my breathing after this scene. It’s one of the reasons a concerned mother during an early screening shouted out, “This movie is sick and depraved!” Unbeknownst to her, in the next row sat Michael Berryman. He politely tapped the woman on her shoulder and stated, “You damn right, lady.”
The Hills Have Legs
The film’s title, Blood Relations, didn’t seem to be going over well. So, out of a hat of a hundred odd names, the winner was The Hills Have Eyes. Craven wasn’t crazy about the new title, but it tested well. In the 40 years since the film was released, The Hills Have Eyes has amassed quite the large following. It’s hard to throw a rock at any decent horror convention without clocking someone involved with the film’s production in the head. Obviously, gorehounds flock to the film for the few but wonderfully staged moments of brutality. Others manage to relate not to the wholesome family at the center of the story but instead to the cannibalistic loonies on the fringes. Thrill seekers enjoy the catharsis of seeing the beaten down survivors fight back and take down the bad guys one by one. Of course, everyone loves Wes Craven’s MacGyver-esque antics as well. To me, the reason the film has had such a lasting legacy is the strength of the characters.
Craven molded the Carters after his own family and neighbors, and that familiarity shines through the screen. I see my mother and father so clearly in Ethel and Bob Carter, and it hurts watching the fate that befalls the patriarchs of this everyday family unit. I seriously get a bit teary eyed when Ethel has her breakdown upon discovering Bob’s burnt body. It’s tough to watch, and even more difficult still when Doug attempts to comfort her as her life slowly slips away. It’s these moments of true horror that make the finale so satisfying. The closing note is certainly no stereotypical happy ending (unlike the more traditional alternate ending rejected by Craven).
Bobby and Brenda are jumping up and down as if they just won a contest after bloodily dispatching of Papa Jupiter. Doug is wildly stabbing Mars when the frame freezes on his insanity filled gaze. In The Hills Have Eyes we don’t fade to black. No, we fade to blood red upon the realization our heroes, our nuclear family, have been completely broken in the face of a literal nuclear affected family. It’s the type of subversion Craven built his career off of. Despite resisting a return to the horror genre, Craven nonetheless went “balls to the wall” once he got behind the camera on Hills. The Hills Have Eyes is a wild, untamed film that has the power to stir the feral child within us all. “Juicy.”
Those who haven’t seen the film in a long time, I highly recommend the Arrow Video release from last year. The original 16mm camera negatives (shot on cameras borrowed from a California pornographer!) are presumed lost and what remains were 35mm prints. This leads to a fairly uneven transfer, but it’s likely the best the film will ever look. Plus, a little film grain and grime makes a movie like this all the better.