Firstly let me admit that I saw Alexandre Aja 2006 remake of The Hills Have Eyes way before the original and was far from impressed by it. To me the tale of cannibal hicks pitted in a battle to the death with a family far from home seemed generic and unoriginal.
This was because by 2006 it was however way back in 1977 when Wes Craven the sadly departed master horror maker wrote and directed this sick and still shocking low budget horror flick as his third (second official) feature it shock its audience with the sheer brutality brought to life on screen.
The Hills Have Eyes set-up is starkly simple as the Carter family on their way to California stop off at Fred’s Oasis a lone and overgrown gas station in the middle of the desert. Eager to do a spot of sightseeing off the beaten track they ask for information however the prickly old proprietor Fred (John Steadman) desperately urges them to stay on the road and away from the hills although never explicitly telling them why.
Not listening to his nonsense the gang set off but further along end up in a huge accident taking their car and trailer off the road in the middle of nowhere. Splitting up to get help the father Bob (Russ Grieve) heads back to Fred’s while son in law Doug (Martin Speer) goes another direction leaving mother Ethel (Virginia Vincent) and her three kids Bobby (Robert Houston) Brenda (Susan Lanier) and eldest daughter Lynne (Dee Wallace) to wait and care for Lynne’s and Doug’s baby daughter.
Unbeknownst to the outsiders lurking in the hills watching their every move is an inbred family of dangerous and deranged cannibals lead by disfigured and hate filled Papa Jupiter (James Whitworth) who commands his sons Mars (Lance Gordon) and Pluto (Michael Berryman) in an attack against the lost and isolated townies in an attempt to rape, murder and eat them the way they have everyone else who has haplessly passed through their horrific homestead.
An American horror masterpiece Craven crafts the tension terrifically building up suspense inch by inch avoiding any real glimpses of the murderous malformed mountain folk until the half way point. From then on the film descends into violence and terror as the families wage all-out war on each other with the Carter’s reaching the depressing realisation that to defeat their abominable adversaries they must think and fight like them.
Making a huge amount from the very low budget and skillfully shooting the harsh desert landscape transforming it into an arid labyrinthine location where day is as full of danger as night is Craven takes the audience on a nightmarish ride along with the very normal unwilling heroes plunging both into a chaotic world without rules, morals or motivation other than pure survival.
Occupying extreme opposites the Carter family are good looking, healthy living, civilized Christian city dwellers traveling with all mod cons in blissful ignorance of what is about to happen to them. Their counterparts are hideous primitive Pagan hillbillies dressed like cavemen in furs and bones worshiping only strength driven by carnal hungers for food and sex and nothing else.
What is interesting is that when the two tribes collide it is only by crossing the line into the celestial named crazies world that the Carter’s stand a chance of winning displaying the dark message at the heart of The Hills Have Eyes which seems to suggest that for all our airs and graces, possessions and pretentions we are all only a few steps away from totally losing our humanity.
An essential film for all horror fans released by Arrow on DVD and a Limited Edition 4K Restoration Blu-ray both heaving with added content, The Hills Have Eyes proves what an innovative and important artist Craven was seeing as it not only set a template still copied to this day but remains as disturbing now as it ever was.