Sunday, February 28, 2016

Hills Have Eyes, The (1977)

... aka: Blood Relations
... aka: Quadrilha de Sádicos (Sadistic Gang)
... aka: Slagterbanden (Butcher Boys)
... aka: Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes

Directed by:
Wes Craven

When your directorial debut is a film as notoriously graphic and shocking as The Last House on the Left (1972), audiences expect a lot from you. With Hills, Craven was able to give those who enjoyed Last House the gritty realism, brutality and shocks they wanted plus edge himself a little closer to the mainstream in the process with a more commercial, better-made, less alienating film. Conceived as Blood Relations (the initial script title), this was originally going to be a modern retelling of the Sawney Bean legend set in the future; an idea Craven happened upon while reading a true crime book at the New York Public Library. According to the legend, Bean led a incestuous cannibal clan in rural Scotland who robbed, murdered and ate “over 1000” people in the late 15th / early 16th Century. Since they lived deep within an undiscovered sea cave, they were able to hide out there during the day and only attacked at night. After a reign of terror lasting upwards of 25 years, their crimes finally caught up with them. A manhunt was organized by the King James VI and they were located, captured and executed in ways every bit as ghastly and sadistic as what the clan did to their victims. (This irony of violence and how it debases victim, perpetrator and vindicator alike would be an elemental theme in both Last House and Hills).

Sawney Bean art; the man (above), the Bean cannibal clan having dinner (below).

Scholars to this day still debate on whether or not the Sawney Bean story has any validity, but most seem to think it's a work of complete fiction designed to move copies of a travel journal (James Boswell's 1785 book The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D.) and allow the Brits to smear the Scots during a time there was a lot of friction / class distinction between the two. Either way, it seems highly unlikely that if it did occur that the earliest printed account of the events wouldn't be until 100 years after it happened!

Once the Blood Relations script was reworked for the slim budget, with a change of location and a much smaller number of cannibals than originally planned, Hooper turned to Tobe Hooper's masterpiece The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) to fill in the gaps. A huge fan of the film, Craven stated in interviews that he intended Hills to be a partial homage of sorts. He even hired Chainsaw's production designer Robert A. Burns, whose brilliant work on Hooper's film was robbed of an Oscar nomination for Best Art Direction if you ask me. Unlike with Last House (which had an X-rated print working the rounds along with its heavily cut R-rated version), Craven decided to go ahead and appease the schmucks at the MPAA by removing numerous gory moments from the film to secure the R for its release. As a result, the film did fairly well at the box office and its status as a cult classic only grew into the video revolution.

Hills appears to have been very successful in Japan, going by these very cool posters.

Detective Big Bob Carter (Russ Grieve) has just retired from the Cleveland police force early due to a heart condition and decided to take his All-American extended family on vacation to California. Since he and his wife Ethel (Virginia Vincent) have recently come into possession of a plot of land where there used to be a lot silver mining (but is now being used as a nuclear testing site by the military), they decide to take a detour through the Nevada desert to check it out. First stopping at a run-down gas station to refuel, they're warned by jittery old attendant Fred (John Steadman) to stay on the main road, but naturally don't listen. Fighting over being lost, noisy aircraft overhead and a hare running out into the middle of the road send their vehicle into a ditch, breaking the car's axle. Now stranded out in the middle of nowhere, Big Bob and his son-in-law Doug (Martin Speer) decide to hike in different directions to try to find someone to help, leaving younger son Bobby (Robert Houston) to look after his wife, daughters Brenda (Susan Lanier) and Lynne (Dee Wallace) and baby granddaughter Katy (Brenda Marinoff). They will soon have worse things to worry about than roasting in the sun and becoming “human french fries...” namely that they'll be the burger instead.

Bob arrives back at the gas station just in time to catch Fred nearly hanging himself. Fred then tells the story about the misfortunes that befell his own family. His first son was born “weighing twenty pounds and as hairy as a monkey” and grew to be a vicious child who'd torture and kill animals. At ten years old, the boy burned their house to the ground, killing his wife and daughter. Fred split his face open with a tire iron and drove the boy out into the desert and left him, thinking the heat would finish him off. Instead, the boy lived. He eventually went and got himself a whore from the nearest city and raised his own cave-dwelling family of savages who do whatever it takes to get by. That includes robbing, murdering and eating any travelers passing through that they can get their hands on. After all, Papa Jupiter (James Whitworth) has his own family to take care of. Besides, he takes great pleasure in “fixing people good.”

After murdering Fred, Jupiter and his three sons; Mars (Lance Gordon), Mercury (“Arthur King“ aka producer Peter Locke) and Pluto (Michael Berryman), orchestrate an unexpected nighttime attack on the terrified sleeping family. Using Bob as a fiery distraction, they invade the waylaid camper, raid the fridge for raw ground beef, steal what they can, eat a parakeet, rape one of the girls, steal the “fat and juicy” baby (and plan on eating the “young tenderloin” later on) and take off, leaving two of the family members dead and one nearly dead. The following day it's a clash of the two very-different families, with the more normal and civilized family having to tap into their own primitive savagery in order to survive and rescue the baby. A pair of dogs – Beauty and Beast – also factor heavily into the action, as does Ruby (Janus Blythe), the cannibal clan's daughter, who is sickened by her family's ways and wants out.

Almost 40 years after it was made, Hills holds up surprisingly well even after scores of later imitations. It's tense, scary, well-directed, atmospheric and suspenseful, with moments that still rattle viewers, a palpable sense of isolation, enough subtext to keep things interesting under the surface and that wonderfully gritty 70s low-budget feel many of us would take any day of the week over today's more “polished” product. In fact, this may be Craven's best film ever. It's certainly one of my favorites of his.

Cast with mostly unknowns (aside from veteran actress Vincent), many of the cast members went on to do bigger (though not necessarily better) things. The memorable-looking Berryman, who suffers from a rare, incurable condition called Hypohidrotic Ectodermal Dysplasia, which prevents the formation of hair, fingernails, teeth, and sweat glands, became the poster boy for the film and began his long career in horror flicks right here. After starring in a few other junky films like Cheerleaders Wild Weekend (1979), Houston gave up on acting and became an Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker instead. The biggest success was the talented Wallace, who was starring in the likes of The Howling (1981), E.T. (1982) and Cujo (1983) soon after.

The Hills concept has proven to have legs over the years. Prior to the career-altering success of Elm Street, Craven was desperate enough for money to make the awful THE HILLS HAVE EYES PART II (1984); which brought back Houston and Blythe to reprise their roles and is perhaps the worst film of the director's entire career. Into the remake-heavy 2000s, Craven produced a popular yet dumbed-down and extremely gory remake directed by Alexandre Aja. (For the record, a lot of people seem to think the remake is better than the original... I just don't happen to be one of those people.) A few years later, Craven got on board to produce and write a sequel to the remake, but the second Hills II (God... what an age we live in!) disappointed fans and failed to match the box office. The official films stopped right there.

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