January 7 - The Hills Have Eyes
I was a wee tot when the remake of The Hills Have Eyes hit theaters and vague, terrifying posters peppered my local multiplex. I was haunted by the title for years, speculating with my friends as to what it could possibly be about. I maintain that it’s an all-time great title – evocative, baffling, eerie, promising an inescapable horror at the level of environment, something that surrounds. I actually put off watching the original for a long time because of that title. Like most things, it was better in my head.
The Hills Have Eyes shares a lot of DNA with Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but it’s not the straight-up rip-off I feared. Our setting is the Nevada desert instead of Texas, our victims-to-be are a family instead of a group of kids, and our villains have knives not chainsaws. We start with the Carter family, some of the most unlikable horror normals I’ve ever seen (and I just watched House of Wax!) Patriarch Bob is an ex-cop who is surely a parody of white masculinity. In tow is his meek, occasionally Christian wife and three adult kids, one of whom has her own husband and baby along for the road trip. They also have two rather fearsome-looking dogs. Despite warnings from the gas station owner, the family go off the main road in search of a silver mine for a cutesy anniversary celebration, when they of course run into a family of hungry mutant cannibals, led by father Jupiter.
Wes Craven has enjoyed a long and varied career as a Master of Horror but, having seen many of his films, I can confirm there’s two things he just can’t do: silent villains and powerless protagonists. Father Jupiter and his large family are yappier than TCM’s hitchhiker; they talk on walkie-talkies, over campfires, while observing our irritating victims, while chasing them and chasing each other. It’s like the screamy, calamitous infighting the erupts among the Sawyers except for the entire damn movie, and boy is it draining. The Carters are even more annoying, but surprisingly capable, setting booby traps and fighting ably in the movie’s climax, after wandering around ineffectively for much of the runtime. The active would-be victim is one of Craven’s strengths in movies where the goodies are likable, but there are no Sids or Nancies here. I would have been quite happy to see the whole family (except the baby of course) meet a nasty end.
Papa Jupiter’s clan are of course a fun house mirror image of the Carters, except barely surviving. Craven builds sympathy for them as they hunt for food, mourn each other’s nasty deaths, and enjoy a cannibal dinner around a campfire. Nonetheless, the Carter’s violence never matches the mutants’ baby-eating proclivities. So if Craven was trying, as in his preceding film Last House on the Left, trying to depict the brutality that everyone is capable of, he didn’t quite go far enough, nasty as this film is.
And a word about the nastiness. While patriarchs are set aflame, birds are eaten alive, and there are stabbings galore – and even an icky rape scene – the nastiness never feels unsafe. This is the Roger Corman hixploitation, cheaply lit and cartoonishly costumed (Jupiter and family run about in these silly little Flintstone numbers). While TCM used its cheapness to feel like forbidden footage, The Hills Have Eyes’ cheapness holds it back from that same veracity. I tried to be unsettled by this film. I watched it alone in the dark. But it felt, most of all, like a romp, a B-movie reenactment of a nightmare, rather than the nightmare itself.
The Talent: Craven is of course one of the most prolific filmmakers in American horror. I actually think he’s the rare horror filmmaker who works best with a bigger budget and a little more polish. Dee Wallace, who plays one of the Carters, and Michael Barryman, the memorable Pluto, went on to interesting careers, while the rest largely remained in B-movie obscurity.
Subgenre: Hixploitation, slasher-ish, arguably anti-Western.
Story Type/Archetypes: The reckless travelers who disobey warnings and end up in uncharted territory. The monstrous family. (Thematically similar to Us now that I think about it).
Sense of Place: Yet another movie where we’re off the map. The sun-drenched desert landscape provides rattlesnakes and awful spiders, and some memorable shots, but rocky ridges are not what I think of when I think hills.
Mood: Ruthless, the good old ‘trying to be edgy’ vibe.
Are there heroes?: I did not like the Carters.
Who are the monsters (and why are they scary)?: Papa Jupiter and the kiddoes honestly have more charisma. Why are they scary? Well, they are indeed violent, sadistic, and cannibalistic, but they are also dirty, talk weird, and look different. Is there some ableism afoot? Gee.
This movie will freak you out of you’re creeped out by…: The desert, getting lost, cannibalism, violence against animals.
Is it a metaphor for something?: “You’re out, I’m in,” says Papa Jupiter to the toasted Bob, suggesting this film, like TCM, wants to call to mind a chaotic historical trajectory. You can easily make the argument that the mutants are a commentary on class – see their reaction to the Carters’ moderately well-stocked fridge. And of course, the film also wants to be about human brutality, but I remain skeptical.
Is there a twist?: Lol
What kind of ending is it?: Way, way too resolved for what it should be going for imo. I guess we see one of the Carters doing some brutal violence, but meh.
The girlfriend’s rating (i.e. how much would this upset my girlfriend?): X, for grievous baby endangerment
But how gay is it?: If anything, it’s tiresomely heterosexual.
And did it fit the daily theme?: I’d say so. Though Nevada is a little off the beaten path for hixploitation (what’s the stereotype of someone from Nevada anyway?) and the mutants seem to be more styled as, well, mutants (and maybe like cavemen or something) than a stereotypical redneck, The Hills Have Eyes helped codify the tropes of the genre. Spooky gas station, nasty family, car breaks down, inhospitable landscape, it’s all here.
Goth Queens / Best Character: I was rooting for Ruby, the mutant who would prefer to not eat a baby. She’s not a Goth Queen per se, but I could see her getting gothy once she gets to civilization.
Watch this if you enjoy: Exploitation movies of yore.
Musical Accompaniment: Sometimes the soundtrack is a symphony of screeching that does a lot to enhance the movie’s scare factor. Other times it sounds like a goddamn sitcom theme. Mixed bag, is what I’m getting at here.
Girlfriend’s Corner: How is this set in Nevada? I just don’t get it. The title seems to imply that it’s hillbilly horror, right? Like some kind of Deliverance-but-in-Appalachia type thing? And I guess maybe there are hillbillies in rural Nevada, but that’s not how I imagine that state’s rural population? I’m kind of glad I didn’t choose to watch this one, because it would’ve just bothered me. Two stars.