Through the Eyes of America: Wes Craven’s "The Hills Have Eyes"

A historical and critical jaunt through the the twisted America of Wes Craven's "The Hills Have Eyes."
Matt Carlin
Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes is showing on MUBI in the United Kingdom, United States, and Ireland starting October 31, 2020
It is two years since the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War. Nine years have passed since the civil rights movements of 1968. It is 1977, and the Carter family are about to get stranded in the great American West.
This is not the triumphant America of the Greatest Generation. America is a divided and uncertain place, exposed to its own dark side, its own weaknesses. Poverty, urban sprawl, and drug use are on the rise while a consumerist culture tries to soothe the pain in newly designed shopping malls and luxury vacations.
This is the America of Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (1977). And whereas in that other, greater America, the enemy was an outside intruder and its cinema was plagued with monsters from other dimensions, in this America the enemy appeared to be much closer than we presumed, and looked a lot like us.
For Wes Craven, the horror film was not a chance for an audience to escape, but rather a place to confront. He looked towards Greek and Roman mythological tales, fascinated at how they explored the ever-present flipside of human culture; everything matched, both dark and light. “They were very primal… the reason those myths have stayed for so long is because they really nailed certain things about the human condition. They were carrying our cultures in a way that was elemental, boiled down to the barest bones of what we’re all about,” Wes Craven said in an interview for the Arrow release of The Hills Have Eyes. They exposed, for Craven, the fine veneer of civilization that protects us all. And in 1970s America, that veneer was never more fragile.
“For our culture, in some way there needs to be this bête noir: this black sheep film that just goes down to the nastiness of what is behind a lot of what happens and just pull it out in the air and let it be seen, let it be discussed, let it be declaimed, but get it out there…” Craven lamented while being interviewed regarding The Last House on the Left (1972). If one can be truthful and shine light on the primal, then “It will be a really good horror film. You’re totally justified in being here and it will require all of your intelligence and intuition.”
Out in the desert, the Carter family (led by Bob and his son-in-law Doug) will encounter another family, the Jupiter clan (featuring Jupiter, Pluto, Ruby).  It is this meeting, and the resulting fight for survival that follows, that The Hills Have Eyes concerns itself with. One of these families seek to survive and feed themselves. The other family is a nomadic group looking to ransack a silver mine in a gas-guzzling house-on-wheels. You would be forgiven for thinking you were going to root for the family looking to survive and sustain.
It is the Carters that come barreling down through the deserted street, crossing a hellish bleak landscape (filling up at a gas station proclaiming itself to be the “Last Stop”) in which the Air Force is ever present, jet engines rip-roaring overhead. They ignore this urgent call of a bleeding nation so that they can pursue their American Dream. It feels like a place left behind. Apocalyptic. Bob, the patriarch of the Carters, tries to deny this truth, and yet he too is struck by all the noise. It unnerves him so much that he jerks the steering wheel, losing control of the vehicle, and crashes.  Are the Carter family supposed to represent the typical middle-class American family, blind to anything but their own comfort? Notice the howitzer that the police force presented Bob with upon his retirement—red, white, and blue: America.
This dip into the dark genres of horror that would mark Craven’s career seems so circumstantial. Raised in a fundamentalist Baptist church, Craven did not see any films other than the odd Disney picture until he was an adult. This was the 1960’s—there was the explosion of the European masters on American shores: Fellini, Bergman, Kurosawa, Antonioni, etc... Enamored, Craven bought himself a camera and quit his job as a Humanities professor shortly thereafter. He moved to New York City, where he met Sean Cunningham. Cunningham, after having some success with a previous picture, was asked to produce a horror film. He tells Wes: “Listen, you say you want to be a director. Why don’t you go write something scary?”
Recalls Craven, “I don’t know anything about writing a scary movie.” Sean tells him to utilize his Fundamentalist upbringing and “pull all the skeletons out of the closet… So I went to a friend’s house on Labor Day weekend and wrote Last House on the Left. We got 90k to do it. 16mm. And it got picked up by AIP and it became a huge success, scandal-slash-thing.”
That scandal/thing set the foundation for a forty-year career in cinema and entered his name into the canons of American cinema’s masters of horror.  This advice regarding digging into one's personal demons, tossed loosely from the lips of the man who would eventually co-create Jason Vorhees to the ears of the man who would soon father Freddy Krueger, may be the most essential to Craven’s career. He would dig into his own past, his beliefs, his fears, and our culture’s dark corners, often presenting horrors far more truthful than we’d like to admit.
The Last House on the Left, at times appalling in its content, its amateurishness, and its nonjudgmental hand, was a war cry to American cinema. This wasn’t the world we were used to in movies, but it was eerily similar to the goings-on in the periphery of our society: the devastation of the Vietnam war, government corruption, drugs and crime rising in the streets. As a nation we were not the innocent heroes we had always thought ourselves to be. It is no surprise that in Last House, it is the discovery of the symbol of peace which initiates the descension of the innocent into utter depravity and madness.  Which is exactly what Craven went to the desert to deal with five years later in The Hills Have Eyes: the confrontation of good versus evil and how we all come out stained.
As in Last House, Craven would refuse to shy away from the subject of violence.  “I wanted to show something about violence, the way some violence was. Which was quite nasty and quite ugly and protracted… you did not have the benefit of a cutaway or a fade to black… these scenes were designed so... you just have to be there. The audience is implicated by being there… The audience would say it was so ugly… Well what were you doing in the theatre then? Were you there to be amused by violence?” Craven is talking here of  Last House, but it is clearly a theme that interested him going into his sophomore effort.
Craven at first resisted revisiting the dark well of horror. Producer Peter Locke kept insisting he could put some money together if Craven would make another scary movie like Last House. Craven did not instantly take to this idea: “You know Last House was very controversial and a lot of people looked at me like I was insane. I resisted until I was broke.” And how did Craven manage to take his horrors from Westport, Connecticut to the desert? Thank Mrs. Locke for that. Peter’s wife was in Las Vegas, so he told Craven: “Write something for the desert.”
Myths and legends served as fuel for The Hills Have Eyes. Researching for the film, Craven came across Sawney Bean, a 16th century Scottish family. They were cannibalistic and preyed on travelers. Eventually, an expedition found them and took the family back to London where, as Craven says, “they did horrendous things to them. Broke them all on the wheel. Hanged the women in front of the men and then they dismembered the men. And I was so struck by how on the one hand you have this feral family that’s killing people and eating them. But if you look at it they weren’t doing anything that much worse than civilization did when they caught them. And I just thought what a great kind of A/B of culture. How the most civilized can be the most savage and how the most savage can be civilized.”
This story fit in with Craven’s already proven interest in good and evil that he explored to disturbing effect in The Last House on The Left. Within the confines of this legend, he found the perfect structure to further his query: “I used the theme in a more conscious way with Hills. I constructed these two families as mirrors of each other. I found it very interesting to look at ourselves, to think of ourselves as having the capacity not only for great good, but for great evil.” The film functions effectively the same as Last House. An evil element exposes the façade of civilization by attacking and destroying the civilized family unit. This family, forced to fight back, attacks the evil, using the same brute force, emerging victorious but also closer to the enemy than he would have ever imagined.
This confrontation with good and evil would establish a consistency in an otherwise much varied filmography. His early work deals with the confrontation: one side clearly labeled good, the other side, clearly bad, and throughout the course of The Hills Have Eyes the line would be blurred until it was obliterated. As Hills implies and later works like A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and Scream (1996) explore, Craven may not ultimately believe there is a way back once we cross this line of humanity. And this carries to future generations. Their civilized selves had been plundered as well as their property and bodies. And there is no easy return.
“One of the things I did with the whole family was the conscious stripping away of everything that they had of civilization to protect themselves,” Craven illustrates, “First their car and their trailer and everything was just taken away from them. You see what they have when they are just down to their core resources.”
The film is set against the backdrop of rural American poverty. In the land of plenty and wealth, most of America lives below the poverty line. In this regard, Jupiter’s clan, like many other hard-pressed Americans, must steal for survival.  As we are introduced to them, Ruby informs us that they are starving and that pickings are now slim. She looks desperate. Nobody comes along this way anymore. The world has advanced with highways and byways: the world has moved on and left them behind.
Pluto’s portrayer, actor Michael Berryman, recalls discussions with Craven prior to shooting the scene in which he raids the RV about how he would only take that which he would use. Everything would have a purpose. What they take, they need. There is no waste. This concept of the affluent American and his or her desire to collect and consume “stuff” was not new to Craven. He was reacting to the consumerist culture that Romero would soon satirically explode in Dawn of the Dead (1978). In Last House when Krug and company are now at Marie’s parents, “they are now pissed off at these people because they have so much extra stuff that people don’t really need and they are taking on this sort of moral tone,” stated Craven.
Jupiter’s clan, likewise, has no use or place for extraneous belongings. Their belongings have no material value beyond the practical use they provide. If this is a response to capitalist culture, what does it say about the clan? Or is it more revealing that we have no problem with Bob, with his two dogs, his huge RV, and his silver mine? We do not question the actions of the Carter family, but we do Jupiter’s clan, even though we know they are starving, and only want to survive. The Carter family literally have to drive themselves off the road in order to make their survival less than assumed. Naturally, they are disturbed by this non-Capitalist existence. When Doug returns from the desert, he carries with him as much as his arms will allow, declaring, “Look at all this stuff – no wonder we are paying higher taxes!”
The Carter family represents modern American society in miniature, a microcosm of our great nation: Bob a retired police detective, has put in years of hard work so that he can now retire in luxury with his too-accommodating wife and their ever-expanding family. All together, they go into the badlands to look for… more.
Meanwhile, the Jupiter family is more cohesive, inclusive and grander. They are named after the planets. Jupiter, the largest planet, is also the name of the primal father. “The father that you would just never cross. His ferocity went beyond anything you could imagine,” says Craven. Meanwhile, there is also, “Pluto – least known of planets and strangely safe. And Mars, God of War, so terrified by the father you cannot find your own manhood.” Ruby, gem among her family and sole hope for a brighter future, is different. A ray of hope that seeks to somehow save in a land suited for destruction.
Pay attention to a scene early in the picture. The Carters have just been stranded. The camera cuts off to panning vistas of an empty barren hillscape and back to Bob, framed as large as the hills and speaking. Who is he speaking to? Is he talking to the hills? Is he justifying his presence there? His righteousness? And let us not forget what he says: “25 years I’m a cop in the worst goddamn precinct in Cleveland. Niggers shoot arrows at me and the hillbillies throw dogs off the roof at me. I’m even shot at on two separate occasions by my own men, but none of these bastards ever come as close to killing me as my own goddamn wife and her goddamn road maps and her wrong turns and her goddamn hysterical screaming.” He seems to have hateful words for nearly everybody and everything, this hero Craven has given us
The wife hears this and says “Watch your language. And watch your heart too” a very powerful double entendre if ever there was one. For while on the surface she is referencing Bob’s medical health, hearts are about to grow cold and savage over the next 90 minutes. As stated before, Craven forcefully removed all aspects of civilization from the Carters in order to see what remains once one has been deprived of everything, stating, “When we were doing this, I was always thinking of the whole 3rd world rage against the US and white western society… [Jupiter’s] speech that he gives to the father’s head was basically written from that perspective. ‘I’ll watch your cars rust out…’ It was almost anticipation of 9-11 rage of other people against us. That we can’t imagine they would be as wild and as vicious as they are.”
The scene referenced is one of unquestionable power; Jupiter bellows “You come out here and stick your life in my face,” while he feasts on the father’s arm and points it at his decapitated head. “I thought you were smart and tough.” Craven’s frame has Jupiter peer towards/past the camera. At us. Accusing the audience of sticking our fingers in his pie. “I’ll eat the heart of your stinking memory. I’ll eat the kids of your kid’s kids”
Craven’s early films share a unity of vision that lends truth to Jupiter’s boasts. In our society, there is an assumed trust of established order. Civilization. Society. The trust of the parental unit. This trust breaks down and the individuals are left to fend for themselves, at first by clever means (Last House, Hills, and Nightmare all feature macabre versions of Home Alone (1990) Macguyer-ism), but ultimately rely on brute force and barbarism not much unlike those they are trying to fight. Mari’s father, John, wields a chainsaw in Last House while Doug bludgeons his opponent with a rock in Hills. Both films end on grim notes of darkness ascending: In Last House, the sheriff looks on at the carnage unsure of who the victim is; Hills ends on a bleak freeze frame gone red, of an animalistic Doug.
It is only in A Nightmare on Elm Street that the heroine refuses to let her humanity be taken from her. Of course, in Craven’s world this is fleeting. No sooner than she makes her demands with powerful confidence, and is returned to her revived mother, about to be picked up for school by her now-living-again friends, then the nursery rhyme resumes and Krueger’s hand comes plunging through the glass of the front door. How silly we are, Craven seems to suggest, to assume that just by desire and conviction we can prevent this world from turning us into a beast.
Nightmare was a turning point for Craven. With the introduction of the supernatural, and with Krueger sending him straight into fame—Craven no longer seemed able, or interested to turn a dark mirror on our society. It is 1984 now and maybe the world of Reagonimics didn’t work with his brand of post Vietnam counter cultural revolution. His dark, abrasive & patchwork double-whammy of Last House and Hills certainly didn’t work for the slasher craze of the multiplex. He would continue to delve into the dark places of the soul, but never with the urgency and care of these early works. Whereas, in Hills Craven takes pains to refute any supernatural or mutant origins for the Jupiter clan, he now would allow demons and voodoo and literal ghosts into his work in a way that an audience would never need to remind themselves that “it is only a movie.” By inviting the otherworldly, he allowed the audience to forget the horrors of this world, and his films lost a great deal of power.
In 1994, Wes Craven went meta with Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, summing up his career to that point. Last House had been adapted from Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960), which had been adapted from a folktale. The Hills Have Eyes had been inspired by the Scottish cannibal legend of Sawney Bean. In New Nightmare, Craven suggests that evil needs to be encapsulated in tales, in order to protect us from it. A Nightmare on Elm Street, the film states, is itself a current legend of folktale, and through that film and its sequels, the evil spirit inherent in the tale had remained quiet and contained. Once the tales end (aka Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare), the evil is set free. What better argument might there be other than that for Craven’s dark introspections into the soul? Without The Hills Have Eyes, we would have one additional thing to fear when our car breaks down in the middle of the night.
Craven said of The Hills Have Eyes, “This picture has a lot of power. It is all about family. It is all about competition between the various generations—not wanting to be embarrassed in front of them, not wanting to expose them to something you think you are protecting them from. Competition between father and brother…it was all about being a man.”
These seem to be all too human of issues, however, and not something you can bottle up in a horror tale. It is not something one can look away from. Fred, the gas station owner may have warned the Carter family not to go into the wilderness because “There’s nothing back in there but animals” but it turns out that may not be enough in the end, for as it turns out, like the mirror image reflected in those Greek myths, perhaps there’s nothing but animals on the other side, as well.


Long ReadsWes Craven
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