Wes Craven wrote and directed The Hills Have Eyes (1977), which was his second feature film as a director and his second horror film, following The Last House on the Left (1972). After the overwhelmingly negative response to The Last House, Craven wanted to move out of horror, but none of his film pitches received financial backing. Finally, he heard from a friend that it was incredibly easy and cheap to film in the Nevada deserts, and Craven wrote The Hills Have Eyes, which received financial backing and cemented his professional personality as a “horror film director” rather than just a “director.”
The film ran into trouble due to how graphic the violence was, causing it to fall victim to major censorship. Various scenes had to be dramatically cut down, or completely disposed of. Supposedly, the deleted footage is completely lost.
It received generally favorable ratings (it currently stands at a 65% on Rotten Tomatoes), but Roger Ebert claimed that the film was too “decadent.” The film cost $230,000 to make, and grossed a total of $25 million. It spawned sequels and a remake (which was able to be far more graphic). This film also spawned an intertextual relationship with Sam Raimi. After Raimi noticed the Jaws poster in Hills, he placed a Hills poster in Evil Dead. The two directors continued to hide references to the other’s films within their own.
The Carter family stops at a run-down gas station in the Nevada desert near the Nellis Air Force Base on their way to a family vacation in Hollywood. Fred, the owner and purveyor of the gas station, warns them to stay on the main road. Unfortunately, to the family’s great terror, they quickly realize they have driven into the Air Force Base. Bob, the patriarch of the Carter’s, is unable to prevent the car and RV from going off the main road after the engine mysteriously explodes. After Bob returns to the gas station to get help, he learns from Fred that there is a family of cannibals living in the desert who are extremely dangerous. The patriarch of the cannibal clan is Fred’s son. Fred believes that he and his family have been horribly mutated due to the fact that the army was using the area as nuclear testing ground. According to Fred, the radiation must have changed his son and his son’s family into savage monsters. The family of cannibals, including “Papa” Jupiter (Fred’s son), Mama (a local prostitute-turned-wife of Jupiter), Mars, Pluto, and Mercury (their sons), and Ruby (the only ‘normal’ member of the clan, as well as the most abused), capture and barbecue Bob. The clan then moves on to attacking the Carter family, picking them off one by one. The film reaches a climax when, after raping Brenda, Pluto and Mars kidnap the Carter baby. By the end of the film, only Brenda, Bobby, Doug, the baby, and one of the family’s pet dogs, Beast, survive to reap revenge on the hillbillies. The film ends with Doug, repeatedly stabbing and kicking Mars’s dead body, while Ruby weeps over Mars.
Notes & Quotes
- Craven supposedly came up with the idea for the film through the Scottish story of Sawney Bean, who was reputed to have been the head of a murderous clan who killed and cannibalized 1,000 people in the 16th century (this also supposedly was an inspiration for The String of Pearls), however, I was more interested in the blatant connections to racist conceptions of American Indians, as well as early American captivity narratives. Not only do Jupiter’s clan dress in what resembles American Indian or frontiersman dress:
But it repeats many of the narratives of Indian captivity and attacks on white settlements in the early nation. It even includes cannibalism and barbecue, which were attached to the racist image of American Indians perpetuated (and believed in) by white settlers/Americans. It also includes the (almost) death of a white baby. The killing of babies in early American tales of American Indian violence is prominent (Professor Andrew Newman pointed this out to me). There is also the rape of Brenda, which seems to connect to the racist fear of miscegenation. American Indians were viewed not only as violent, but lusty figures who could cause the downfall of white women, who were prone to being mislead. This could cause the degeneration of the white race, which meant that white settlers needed to protect their white women. The image of the rape of Brenda seems to call to mind these fears, especially since the cannibal clan came from a series of terrible pregnancies and bad (mutated and immoral) genes. I don’t think Wes Craven would’ve been able to create this film without the American mythology of the “savage” American Indian.
- I’m interested in this film also because of its representation of the ecogothic. It’s slightly different, because it’s the human/military involvement that caused this part of the Nevada Desert to turn gothic- it’s the nuclear radiation. However, this film’s connection to early American fears of the American Indian, as well as its marketing, title, and framing of nature make it difficult to ignore its representation of gothic nature. For example, check out this shot from its original trailer:
It is the hills that have eyes, and it is the hills who are watching and hunting the Carter family. Jupiter’s clan have so degenerated that they have become part of the brutal natural landscape, rather than members of the human race. Additionally, there repeatedly are shots in which various members of the Carter family look out into the unrelenting blackness of the Nevada desert in an attempt to find the source of their attacks. Unfortunately, they are met with nothing but darkness. The final kill includes the use of a snake, and the first kill against the cannibals is accomplished by Beast, the family dog.
- Finally, I think it’s interesting that the Carter’s are trying to take a family trip to Hollywood, but instead find themselves terrorized in the desert. Rather than experience the sleek, Disney-fied land of romantic narratives and rich celebrities, they have found themselves in a gritty, graphic, grimy horror film which reboots America’s violent past.
The Hills Have Eyes (1977) by Caitlin Duffy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.