A family film,
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This review is from: The Hills Have Eyes (2 Disc Special Edition)  [DVD] (DVD)
The Hills Have Eyes is a nasty, rattle-and-scream horror tale, which is a cut above the slashers that would follow due to its focus on suspense over simple gore. That said, this is still a sick and horrifying film, full of crucifixion, burning, rape and, no doubt most controversially, a baby in peril (no violence against it happens, thank God). Its plot is the stuff of campfire tales. An all-white, conservative family (mum's a Christian and dad's a casual racist) are driving to California when they stop at a gas station run by a bearded hermit (John Steadman) who warns them against a detour to an abandoned silver mine in the desert. Of course they ignore his warnings and find themselves stranded, surrounded on all sides by ominous hills.
The family consist of Bob (Russ Grieve), a retired cop with heart problems, Ethel (Virginia Vincent), their children Bobby (Robert Houston), Brenda (Susan Lanier) and Lynn (Dee Wallace), Lynn's husband Doug (Martin Speer), their baby Katie, and two dogs, Beauty and Beast. They seem like a normal, close-knit seventies family unit, the kind you'd see on old American sitcoms. When Bob and Doug go to look for help Bobby is given their spare gun and left in charge, despite being younger than Lynn. There's subtext here, especially when we meet our antagonists, a family of grotesque savages. Their patriarch is Papa Jupiter (James Whitworth), who with Mama (Cordy Clark) has four children, Mars (Lance Gordon), Pluto (Michael Berryman), Mercury (Arthur King) and Ruby (Janis Blythe). It's worth noting that only the men in this family are deformed. Mama and Ruby look comparatively normal, and would blend in with civilisation.
Such are the observations one makes while watching The Hills Have Eyes, which has a mind beneath its violence. I'm not one to whine about the good ole' days, but there's a difference between old and new horror films that anyone can notice. Gore is their main selling point today, and storytelling comes second. In The Hills Have Eyes both elements work alongside each other. It doesn't open with a slaying but establishes a scenario which it then builds on. Sadly this approach would be replaced by crap like Friday the 13th, that nowadays we look on as camp. The day may never come when The Hills Have Eyes is seen as camp. It's a dark and terrifying film, which like most great horror stories has a touch of tragedy about it. The destruction of the blameless family is sad, and there's a poignant moment between Ethel and Doug. We end up wanting the savages punished, and punished as horribly as writer/director Wes Craven can imagine. We become sucked into the final orgy of revenge, even if it does leave us cold, which revenge is known to do. For those who can stomach it, The Hills Have Eyes is an odd sort of masterpiece, though I'd like to emphasise the "stomach it" part. This is strong stuff.