Dir. Wes Craven
My interest in Wes Craven is still strong from the other film I covered for this season, but The Hills Have Eyes has been a film I'm apathetic to. A family gets lost in the middle of a barren American desert, only to be targeted by another family, living there, of cannibalistic killers, the madman Jupiter (James Whitworth) and his offspring, including the most iconic of the film, Pluto as played by the instantly recognisable Michael Berryman. It's one of Wes Craven's most well known films, yet it's a film that's been shadowed for me by its 2006 remake which, while it's been a long time since I've seen it, still retains in memory far more of an impact on me out of the two. It's not helped I saw the remake before the original; this isn't necessarily the case with every film against its remake, the "remake" a controversial word amongst horror fans, but here there was something more necessarily vicious and darker in the remake that gave it teeth. Here, with the original, it's a lot more divisive about its effectiveness.
It's a bold film that's for sure, which helps it out. While a more commercial movie, it has the visual palette and feel of The Last House On The Left (1972), a coarseness with a vérité feel that does transfer here to a more accessible film. It's graininess gives it something that heightens the atmosphere of the film. The setting is perfect for the story, the original version retaining a great attitude to depicting it. A vast empty wilderness desert, the hillside littered with back breaking rocks and drops, characters having to wrap themselves through gaps in the formations. The occasional shot of fighter planes in the beginning, the only sign of life where there are not even many animals, the desert partly a bombing site, adding to the isolation. Wes Craven is a good director between this and The Serpent and The Rainbow (1988) in making good horror and thriller sequences, particularly here with moments that catch the eye, such as moving camera shots on the side of the family car's front wheel as it's travelling down a road, or when the family become stuck, in a moment of great frantic editing to depict the actual crash. It's also an immensely nasty film still in tone. While it's remake pushed this further, since it's first half, including the attack on the family trailer, is taken from this film almost entirely, the vicious side of the original version still sticks out. I can add a thread now in Wes Craven's filmmaking of incredibly sickening, uncomfortable violence, far from trivialising it but instead having a tangible sense of pain even in a more commercial film. With The Last House On The Left as your first ever film, this isn't surprising, but what's amazing is that when he became a commercial filmmaker, Craven didn't scale down the violence in tone by that much. One thinks of an iconic moment from A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984), the upside-down-on-the-ceiling murder, or the end of Scream (1996), a prolonged and incredibly bloody ending involving self stabbing and even violence in the humour in someone getting hit by a telephone, and Wes Craven has an uncompromising take on depicting it in his work. (So much so that Scream, while ironically, in breathing life back into horror cinema, lead to more teenager friendly films being made off its back, was censored for American release).
In this film though the tension and horror around this violence doesn't feel that carefully done however, aspects here not succeeding as well as in other movies I've seen where Craven is at his best. While the tinge of seventies American genre cinema - where everything slows down, and unknown actors start to talk - has an enjoyment in it, here for such a short film there is not enough sense of threat and terror to make the film really work. Moments occasionally do. The family in the centre of the story, including two dogs, have emotionally dark sequences that the actors do their best to convey, which adds a connection to the film beyond mere brutality. The whole dynamic where one of the dogs becomes almost anthropomorphised, out for revenge against the killers, is ridiculous but adds an entertaining dynamic. The problem is a lot of the film can come off as very silly, undercutting its violence and darkness immensely. For once the age of the film does effect it, the seventies flares and hair incongruous against mountain men. The mountain men as well, the eyes in the hills, aren't that scary either. Berryman, while imposing, feels more of a Mad Max character, Jupiter is a burly bearded man, one of the sons covered in feathers and looks like a giant chicken, another a hippy gone off the pot, and the sympathetic female member Ruby (Janus Blythe) looks like a girl next door with her hair ruffled up and soil on her cheeks. The remake completely sidestepped this problem, adding a further twist in having them actual mutants as a result of generations of atomic testing radiation, and going for the lurid, horrifying character designs from this idea. There is nothing really scary about a hippy with a white man's afro even if, in a scene like the attack in the trailer, it's still disturbing to see innocent people brutalised and the events that take place to happen.
By its end, an abrupt ending, cutting to a red screen suddenly, the necessary tension was not there in this viewing, never feeling as if I should care for the remaining characters. After the main attacks on them, which are impossible not to feel sympathy for them, horror at what happens and Craven creating great scenes, when the tables are turned, the film falters and they are merely average characters played by actors and the film falters in tone. It's not just in comparing the film to the remake that undermines it, but that it's underwhelming by its end by its own faults.
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): None
No chance of getting on the list.
A Cinema of the Abstract movie?
Well there's the infamous sequel to this film which is silly and was an utter production mess - that may be more interesting in turns of what I do for this site if its anything like I've heard about it. It's prequel isn't a film for the blog - especially in comparison to other films I've seen by Wes Craven or those I've yet to get to that sound the more interesting. In the previous review on a Craven film, I said that it would depend on the finale analysis what my thoughts on him would be, and there's a lot more films to see or rewatch before I 'm going to make a judgement, out of respect and with the potential that my opinion could vary on him with the abruptness shifts up and down of a rollercoaster. I was left cold by The Hills Have Eyes originally and unfortunately this hasn't changed on a repeat viewing.