The Hills Have Eyes review by The Grim Ringler

As odd as it may sound…I truly think that director Wes Craven is a lot smarter a person than he is a director. Which maybe ain’t so bad in life but isn’t so great when it comes to movies. To hear him speak in interviews or on commentaries is to listen to someone very intelligent speak about movies, thematic ideas in movies, and about the animal that Man is. But to watch his films is to watch so much potential squandered. I think Craven is a pretty good director and has done some wonderful films in the horror genre but I really think that his press is a lot better than his films are. I think that Last House on the Left is a very well made, very brave film but it isn’t nearly as good as people give it credit for being. And then there are the middle films of his career that are just outright bad – the sequel to Hills, his television work, and his Deadly Friend. It’s as if his movies are a lot better as ideas than as films. And I don’t think all of that is Craven’s fault. He is more than willing to admit that his films are not all great, and that some of that is just the nature of working within a studio system. To me, he really hit his stride with Scream, which, though not his best film, is the one that suited his directorial talents well and also had more to say than people give it credit for. Something all of his stories have, even if the films are not always successful. Which brings us to another of Craven’s early horror films which has gained a cult following and is quickly gaining some late critical acclaim as well. While not as raw as his film debut – Last House – it is another brutal portrait of the American family faced with the monsters of society.

During a cross country trip an extended family from Middle America takes a detour into the heart of the Western desert in the hopes of finding a silver mine that the mother and father of the family (the family includes – mother, father, two daughters, one son, a son-in-law, and a baby) had inherited many years before. Against the advice of a curious old man that owns a run-down gas station the family heads down a deserted dirt road searching for their mine but, when buzzed by an Air Force jet (the desert in this area sports a bombing range), the father drives off the road, breaking an axle on the car and stranding the family in the middle of nowhere. But while they are far from civilization, they are also far from alone. A feral family, which is like a stone-age mirror image of these Mid-Westerners, is watching these interlopers from the surrounding rock falls and crags and are making their plan of attack. The family splits up, the father heading in one direction for help while the son-in-law heads in the other direction, both hoping to find some kind of help and leaving the son to watch over the women. As night falls and the men are still not back, the predators of the desert are moving closer. Their true nature is revealed when one of the twin German Shepards the family own runs into the desert and is gutted by one of the members of the feral family. And as the night grows and the cannibalistic family makes its move the All-American family are shattered as they lose three of their own in a brutal attack that ends with the theft of the baby, and now, faced with the sorrow of their losses and an escalading fear, the family must become like their hunters in order to survive. The film then becomes a war between the new American family and their throwback cousins as the desert sun climbs to its height to watch the drama unfold.

The draw of this film is two-pronged – it is a very brutal horror film, which will always gain you an audience in this genre, but more than that, it is also a social commentary on how very shaky the ground society stands on is. When pushed into a corner, when we, or our family are threatened, we are more than willing to become monsters if it means we will survive. Which is the beauty of this, and many of Craven’s films – he actually has something to say. Unfortunately Craven’s ideas over-reach his skill. The film is ably and believably acted – by the New American Family, and features some very good performances from actors just finding their first work. But the weak link lies with the cannibal family, who come off not threatening, but as cartoons, their dialogue and its delivery becoming funnier than it is threatening. And I feel the same with the casting of the feral family. Aside from the woman that plays Ruby, the member of the ferals that wants to escape them and that helps the N.A.F (New American Family)., the rest are just caricatures of what we imagine these people would be. Dirty, stupid, selfish, and not even seeming as much a family as a tribe, which I think is a problem for the film. What would have ideally happened is that the deeper into the film you got, the more you’d see that both families are the same and both are merely trying to survive. You should empathize with the monsters and the heroes so that at the end, both families are the same. But we never get that sense. We see a young family driving into an area of the desert they should not have, but they never harm nor impinge on the feral family. They are victims through and through. And if that wasn’t clear enough, you have the daughter (who is about eighteen in the film I would guess) being raped by two of the ferals and the other daughter’s child being stolen. The film is slanted far too much for the N.A.F. I appreciate what director Craven was trying to do, and as it is, it is an effective, if predictable, horror film, but it could have been so much more. And the hell of it is he meant it to be more. You can see that at the very end, with the final shots of the film, and hear it when he speaks about the film, but he never achieves his goal. The same can be said, to a degree, about Last House, where you never ever feel for the villains in the film and are happy to see them murdered. It’s more powerful and shocking if the audience begins to side with the ‘bad-guys’ and has to re-examine the way the were viewing the film.

But I don’t want to put people off from seeing this. Flawed as this is, this is still a very well made, very effective horror film. The desert makes an eerie, surreal location, and the tension builds palpably as the two families strategize their attacks in the hopes of destroying their foes. The heart of the film though lies with the young father who, having lost his wife, and both is in-laws, must become the monsters he hunts wholly in order to rescue his stolen child. The actor goes all out in this role and really brings depth and heart to what could have been a very false secondary plot. It is obvious in Hills that Craven was becoming the director that would make A Nightmare on Elm Street and his eye for pacing and tension are obvious. There is a lot to like in Hills, the interplay between the N.A.F. especially, but the weak link always has been, and remains the ferals and their portrayal and the way they were written. This is a good film, but could have been a great one.

The film looks surprisingly clean and clear and is really a tribute to how well Anchor Bay regards this film. The 5.1. audio is a bit weak, as, well, it wasn’t shot in that and while I give them kudos for attempting to create a surround soundtrack for the film, I found it more distracting than engaging. The extras on the two-disc set features the usual informative and well-spoken commentary from Craven, which is a pleasure to hear as he is so interesting and knows enough to make a track at least interesting. There are also two interesting documentaries, one on the making of the film, which is about an hour long, and another that is also an hour long that focuses on the films of Craven. Both are very interesting and very informative, and it’s a real pleasure to hear someone as intelligent as Craven speak about films in general. There is also an alternate ending to the film that is a bit too ‘up’ for what the director wanted to do but which is a better wrap-up to the film had they been able to show both families as victims.

This is a very effective, very grim look at what the All American Family can become, if put in the right circumstances, but it never achieves quite what it might have had the writing for the ferals been a bit stronger. But this is an interesting and intriguing film and shows a director just hitting his stride. Not as classic as a lot of people seem to think, but a very strong horror film that deserves a second look.


7 out of 10 Jackasses
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