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Friday, September 16, 2011
Back in the 80s when I was compulsively renting more videos than I would ever be able to remember, two of Wes Craven's more notorious horror classics passed through my VCR and then went swirling off into the recesses of my mental abyss. A while back I revisited one of them, THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, and found it to be a disappointment. Now comes the other one, THE HILLS HAVE EYES (1977), also enjoying a new DVD release, and this time the revisit is a welcome experience.
Craven seems to have improved as a filmmaker between these two flicks, and so has his choice of actors. The look of the film still betrays the low budget and Craven's inexperience, yet there is some style and he does a good job of staging scenes within cramped confines (car, camper trailer) while also taking good advantage of the Mojave desert's wide open spaces. His cast is better here, too--while their thespian skills aren't always up to par, they handle the more hotly emotional material with abandon.
Naturally, the older cast members are the most skilled. Veteran actor John Steadman, best remembered by me as "Pop" in the original THE LONGEST YARD, plays Fred, proprietor of a "last chance" gas station in the middle of nowhere. Russ Grieve and Virginia Vincent (I WANT TO LIVE!, THE RETURN OF DRACULA) are Bob and Ethel Carter, who stop by for a fill-up before taking their family into the desert while vacationing after Bob's retirement.
Old Fred tries to warn them to stay clear of the area, knowing that there's a family of vicious cannibals out there led by his own son, Jupiter (James Whitworth, TERMINAL ISLAND), a misshapen, split-nosed giant with a mean streak a mile wide. The Carters, of course, disregard Fred's warnings and are subsequently terrorized by the murderous savages until forced to throw off their veneer of civilization and fight back in kind.
Craven takes his time introducing us to the family, gradually allowing a sense of dread to creep in after they break down in the desert. While not entirely realistic, they're more three-dimensional and less cartoonish than most of the characters in LAST HOUSE, and the awful comic relief that marred the earlier film is mercifully lacking here.
The hill people are barely glimpsed at first but their presence is felt as their actions become more overt. When Bob takes a nocturnal hike to Fred's gas station for help, Jupiter's sudden entrance is a shocker that would be imitated in "Friday the 13th Part 2." What happens after that is a starkly violent descent into nightmare that keeps the story gripping and fast-paced until the very end.
Future fan fave Dee Wallace makes her third film appearance as Lynne, whose husband Doug (Martin Speer, who resembles a "Simpsons" character) is along for the trip. Robert Houston plays her brother Bobby Carter, an insecure teen trying to prove himself to a domineering father. Susan Lanier doesn't make much of an impression at first as flighty younger sister Brenda, but when the action starts and she goes into screaming panic mode, her ability to totally freak out is striking.
On the other side, James Whitworth is an imposing Jupiter, especially when he's berating a "civilized" captive while munching on his barbecued arm. Legendary actor Michael Berryman, whose career has spanned everything from ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST and STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME to the more recent THE DEVIL'S REJECTS, lends his eerie Boris Karloff-like countenance to the film and its poster as Pluto.
The attack on the Carters' camper by Pluto and his equally animalistic brother Mars (Lance Gordon) is one of the film's most harrowing setpieces and demonstrates to the viewer that no character is safe from brutal death. The unnerving capper to the scene is the kidnapping of Lynne's infant daughter as a future feast for the cannibals.
HILLS kicks into high gear when the surviving Carters decide to fight such savagery with a little savagery of their own, proving surprisingly adept and creative at the task even as certain aspects of it are a terrible affront to their humanity. They're aided in this by Jupiter's daughter, Ruby (Janus Blythe in a fine performance), who rebels against the brutality of her family and puts her own life in danger by helping the strangers.
Jupiter's final assault on the campers is a thrilling sequence in which they counterattack with amazing ingenuity, but it's the grueling hand-to-hand fight between Doug and Mars which really punctuates all that's gone before (the very last shot is stunningly good). Here, Craven gives the film one of the most effective abrupt endings I've seen, akin to a writer dotting his last sentence with a sharp jab of the pen.
The DVD from Image Entertainment's "Midnight Madness" series is in 1.85:1 widescreen with both Dolby 5.1 and original mono sound, and the film looks pretty good for its age. No subtitles. Extras consist of a trailer and a chummy commentary with Craven and producer Peter Locke, which appears to be from an earlier release since they thank Anchor Bay at the end. The two offer lots of good behind-the-scenes info including how difficult it was to secure an "R" rating due to the film's graphic violence and disturbing themes.
I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked THE HILLS HAVE EYES upon seeing it again after so many years. What Craven and Locke accomplished on this trip into the desert with their low budget, small crew, and limited resources remains an impressive achievement that rises above other films of its ilk to provide chilling, suspenseful, and freaky fun.