At the beginning and the end of 1977’s The Hills Have Eyes – now reissued on Blu-Ray by Arrow home video – clouds of dust blow through the desert like an all-American version of Hammer’s oppressive fog. It’s an early sign that writer-director Wes Craven is more concerned with atmosphere and slowly gathering unease here than he was in his first horror film, 1972’s The Last House on the Left. A tale of a family of tourists facing off against radioactive mutants, The Hills Have Eyes is not a subtle film, but it’s the kind of blunt instrument where you can admire the finesse with which it’s made.
How impressive you find that depends on your feelings towards Last House. One of the most notorious titles on the UK’s Video Nasties list, it’s a film no two people seem to have the same reaction to. For this writer’s part, I can accept it as an important and interesting film, but not as a good one. There are some hugely ambitious things at work in The Last House on the Left – the ironic use of music, the sudden changes of tone and style, the attempt at a moral equivalence between the villains and the victim’s parents – none of which land. It’s a fascinating attempt at deconstructing the revenge movie, made by someone who can’t yet construct one.
Craven’s only known directorial credit in between Last House and Hills was a pseudonymously-directed porn film called The Fireworks Woman, and you can only hope he didn’t learn anything about directing horror from that. What seems instead to have fuelled his increased proficiency is seeing Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Craven was rightly impressed by Hooper’s low-budget debut, and borrowed several of its themes for The Hills Have Eyes. Like Hooper’s clan of cannibals, the literal nuclear family in Craven’s film represent everything America swept under the rug in order to achieve its late-20th century prosperity; all those bombs dropped, all those people impoverished, all those old rural industries innovated out of existence. The satire comes through more strongly because Craven’s heroes are more culpable and cynical than Hooper’s dippy hippies. Paterfamilias Bob, played by Russ Grieve, is a casually racist ex-cop, and his family’s reaction to seeing the squalor the mutants live in is to tut about how their taxes probably paid for this.
The other way in which The Hills Have Eyes resembles The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is that it has less on-screen gore than you may remember. Craven was forced to cut it substantially to avoid an X-rating, and much of the alternative footage is now thought lost (with one exception – see below). It makes up for that with a level of cruelty that still shocks. Early on in the first act, the mutants kill one of the tourists’ dogs, a sign that the film isn’t going to pay much attention to the traditional sensitivities of Hollywood survival films. While Craven wisely avoids making the mutants as moustache-twirlingly evil as the gang in Last House on the Left – one of whom was introduced actually popping a child’s balloon – the level of sadistic pleasure they take in taunting the victims they’re about to cannibalise still feels much stronger and more distressing than you expect from this kind of backwoods horror.
This kind of determined nastiness is a double-edged sword. Halfway through The Hills Have Eyes, something happens – if you’ve seen the film, you know exactly what it is – which simply would not happen in a modern horror movie. On the one hand, you have to admire Craven for refusing to hold back; on the other hand, its implications are so bleak that it stops the film dead for a good fifteen minutes. Craven knows this is the kind of plot twist that guarantees a film legendary status among the midnight movie crowd, but it’s also the kind of plot twist other films avoid for a reason. If this was happening in reality, it would be the point of no return, and Craven resorts to an unconvincing contrivance – a mutant leaving a victim injured but alive for no real reason – in order to keep the narrative moving into act three.
The Hills Have Eyes is not a movie for everyone; it’s not even a movie for every horror fan. Its misanthropy and hopelessness still feels genuinely transgressive today. Underneath its radical, angry surface there is a degree of craft and intelligence that simply isn’t there in Last House on the Left, whether it’s in its uniformly strong performances (particularly Janus Blythe as Ruby, the sole sympathetic mutant), its atmospheric 16mm cinematography or in the strong classical unities (the whole film takes place over two days and one night) of its storytelling.
Craven is playing more by the rules of genre storytelling here than he was in his prior film, which earns him the right to break them at the end. Arrow’s disc has an alternative ending that, on paper, includes everything you’d want in a horror movie ending: a big bang, a final girl, and a moral conclusion of sorts. What it doesn’t have is the burned-out, despairing quality of the ending Craven went with, a quality which he rightly decided was more important for this story than traditional audience satisfaction. He was turning into the Wes Craven we know from his later works, the one who knew all the rules, and knew when to break them.