50th Post Special: The Hills Have Eyes (1977)

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SGS On Film has reached fifty posts and to commemorate this minor landmark, I am going to pay tribute to the late great filmmaker, Wes Craven. However, in stark contrast to the usual manner in which I discuss figures in cinema that have recently passed away. I am going to do it through the prism of one film, which, in this case, is apropo as this film encapsulates Craven’s appeal as a writer/director. Additionally, it is a formative picture that cemented my love of the seventies as a decade for horror cinema.

Wes Craven will be remembered for many things. Firstly, he was the creator of the conceptually fascinating childhood monster, Freddy Kruger. Secondly, he was the overseer and instigator of the self- reflexive and snarky horror pictures that primarily resided in the nineties and early twenty-first century, with his Scream series.

While he will be primarily remembered for these two outstanding feats in the horror genre, I shall remember him fondly the most for his 1977 picture, The Hills Have Eyes. The film has a deep intelligence and was the first picture that showed me that horror films can be about something, as opposed to just being mere ninety-minute exercises in unrelenting shocks. The film can be interpreted as being about two things.

Firstly, it showcases the fight between the civilised, which are the Carter family and the uncivilised, which are the feral and caveman looking characters that embody the title of the picture. In this way, the film is a ticking time bomb, where we witness the civilised brought down to their knees and with nothing left but their survival instinct. The true horror of the picture is in the closing moments where we witness Doug Wood mercilessly stab Mars, (the leader of the people in the hills) to death.

Despite, what we might feel about the justification of the killing in the moment, Craven lingers on Wood’s face in the aftermath of the act. It shows utter shock and instant remorse. The film leaves us with the idea that it does not matter how civilised human beings may think they are, this can be easily broken and we can lose that civility and rationality in the face of survival. Thus, this illustrates the fragile nature of man and how we are no different from the people in the hills who already do deprived acts for the sake of living.

On this viewing, I read the film as being a representation of the Vietnam War, which had ended two years earlier in 1975. Craven famously drew upon Vietnam imagery in his earlier film in the decade, The Last House on the Left. I feel that Craven is still grappling with the issues that have to do with the war in this film. Firstly, the parental figures in the film are the first to go, leaving the younger generation to survive and fend for themselves.

To me, this evoked the Draft-card burning protest, which illustrated the younger generation’s disenfranchised attitude with the establishment over the merits of the Vietnam War. Similarly here, the younger members of the Carter family are reluctant inheritors of the situation that are caused by one of their parental figures. Their father did not heed the advice of an old man called Fred, who advised them to stay on the main road, which they do not. Additionally, some of the insane imagery, events and plots points evoke Vietnam in a particularly potent manner. I do acknowledge that this the reading seems to be a foolishly reaching at times, but this is what struck me on this viewing of the picture.

Elsewhere, the craft of the film is impeccable, which results in Craven effectively creating an atmospheric horror film, that scares the audience. Firstly, Craven’s use of the camera results in an ever-present tense environment. Sometimes he shows a usual medium shot that has two characters talking. Then he employs a point of view shot of the people in the hills looking down, which is a terrifying reminder that the Carter family is not alone and that every word and action they make is being watched.

Additionally, the use of sound in the film also contributes to some of the film’s most tense scenes. Most are curiosity of the family dogs, Beauty and Beast, who initially meet the people in the hills. Their barks are a constant reminder of the omnipresent evil that lurks beyond the Carter’s family car. This aspect coupled with Craven’s camera work and methodical pacing, results in one of the best horror films of the 1970s. The film is a testament to Wes Craven, who always imbued his films with an intelligence and a primal edge, which resulted in his themes of dreams, family and vengeance feel eternally potent and horrific.

RIP Wes Craven.

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