Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Hills Are Alive

Year: 1977
Director: Wes Craven
Cast: Robert Houston, Dee Wallace, Michael Berryman
Run Time: 1 hour 29 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Wes Craven's second official film (he directed an incestual exploitation film called The Fireworks Woman under the pseudonym Abe Snake in 1975) after The Last House on the Left in 1972, The Hills Have Eyes had a lot to live up to? Would it be just as brutal and shocking as Last House? (No.) Would it have the same level of intellectual subtext? (It tried, but no.) Would it cause as much of a stir? (Well, kind of.)

In all ways, The Hills Have Eyes is just slightly less than its big brother grindhouse flick. It ended up being a stepping stone to Craven's more palatable (and more ingenious) work, but at the time all that was obvious was that it merely couldn't recapture whatever grubby magic Last House had. It's still a charming 70's horror flick, but it's really not all that good when it comes down to it.

There aren't very many screenshots more exciting than this one.

When the Carter family's camper breaks down in the desert in the middle of nowhere on their way to a vacation in California, they are dismayed to find that they are being pursued by hungry cannibalistic mutants.

Although there are many members of the Carter clan, the only important one is the acrobatic son Bobby Carter (Robert Houston) who back handsprings his way into your heart with his blonde hair and the piercing blue eyes of a Siberian husky. Also Dee Wallace (E.T.'s mom) is there too.

Remember he had this haircut a full 17 years before Justin Bieber was even born.

After their dog, Beauty (Flora), runs off and is eviscerated by an unknown assailant, the Carters realize that something may be wrong. Things begin to get ugly (Geddit? Cuz Beauty is dead.) when the mutants kidnap their infant child and crucify their father, who they captured when he was learning their history from an old man in a gas station.

After having saved his life with the best suicide prevention line ever ("Get your stupid neck out of that belt, you jackass!"), he learned that the mutants were a result of nuclear testing in the area before one of them comes crashing through a window in the best and scariest shot of the movie.

All of this combined with the eerie playful voices in the darkness actually is pretty creepy, but the goodwill the first half of the film builds up slowly peters out and turns into a boring revenge flick. Although we will always have this baby's face to delight us.

Either she's being attacked by a bloodthirsty monstrosity or she just made a doody.

There's some halfhearted commentary on the nature of family relationships, economic downturn, and the folly of the military, but that is mostly forgone in favor of gruesome fight scenes that aren't really so gruesome five years down the line from Last House on the Left

The real star of the show here is Pluto (Michael Berryman), one of the mutant sons of the evil ringleader Papa Jupiter (James Whitworth). Berryman was born with Hypohidrotic Ectodermal Dysplasia, an extremely rare disease that left him without sweat glands, hair, fingernails, or teeth. 

Rather than get depressed and hide himself away, he turned in an excellent creepy performance in a high profile horror flick (and has since appeared in over 90 films). Although it's perhaps a bit of a shame that he felt he was compelled to use his condition to scare people, he nevertheless became a staple of late 70's horror.

And is featured in every advertisement despite being the third least important villain. Go Pluto!

But despite two strong performances, The Hills Have Eyes is bland fare that fades almost immediately from memory. Its director, breakout stars, and 70's ambient vibe have kept it afloat all these years but out of all of Craven's oeuvre, this one is perhaps the least deserving of being fondly appreciated.

Before we wrap up here, what is it with audiences that they hate seeing dogs die? At least 5 humans get eviscerated in this film, but the only death to provoke any response is Beauty's. Is it because dogs are perceived as innocents, much like babies? This is my current theory.

Either that or we're all sociopaths.

TL;DR: The Hills Have Eyes starts off strong, but is weak tea compared to the Craven shocker that came before.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 757
Reviews In This Series
The Hills Have Eyes (Craven, 1977)

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