So here we are again, with another movie on the ever-shrinking List of Titles I Know I’m Going To Have To Deal With Some Day. A year ago I finally watched Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left, and now, with Arrow Video releasing an exquisite 4K restoration blu-ray of his second feature, it is high time I get over my aversion to psycho hillbilly movies and give it a watch; it is, after all, considered essential for horror fans.
The Carter family, a group of mobile white bread from Cleveland, make a detour on their vacation road trip to Los Angeles to find a depleted silver mine they’ve inherited in the Mojave Desert. It’s an isolated part of a desolate area used as an Air Force gunnery range and atomic bomb site so of course they’re going to have an accident and wind up miles from anywhere with a snapped axle. The menfolk set out in different directions to find help, not knowing there’s a family of cannibals in the rocky hills surrounding them, and they’re hungry.
In Last House, Craven was saying something about violence in Vietnam-era America, and he finds he still has to say it in the Disco Years. The Carters are a large family, and it’s difficult to figure out the exact relations of the characters at first, but then, if you’re a horror fan, you know intuitively there’s so many of them because their number is going to get winnowed down pretty quickly. The cannibals stage their raid on the Carter’s camper at roughly a half-hour into the movie, and from there the intensity rarely lets up. The elder sister’s baby is stolen away as a “tenderloin”, one of the many acts of transgression on display. In fact, The Hills Have Eyes got an initial X rating, necessitating many cuts, and I’d be willing to bet the baby subplot is what put the nail in that rating coffin, as the MPAA is reportedly as vanilla as the Carters.
As with Last House, Craven makes the point that people forced to rely upon themselves have the capability to do great violence to survive, and that violence will, indeed, have an almost irreversible impact upon their humanity. In Hills Craven plays even more with the concept of two families that are mirror images of each other. Jupiter and his feral clan work together, while the Carters are at odds with each other from the get-go. The cannibals use stolen CB radios to coordinate, while the Carters don’t really communicate, except in the form of argument and sniping.
A lot of folks feel this is Wes Craven’s masterpiece; I would argue the point, but it is a very good movie, as it turns out. Craven had resisted making another horror movie, but as he put it, “I was out of money and Peter Locke said, hey, my wife is working in Las Vegas, let’s make a movie in the desert!” He went to the library and found out about Sawney Beane, the leader of a clan of Scottish cannibals in the 16th century (his actual existence is still a source of controversy). This formed the basis of the script. Tobe Hooper had already proven that the concept would work by combining Beane and his clan with the crimes of Ed Gein for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
If there is any place worse to make a movie than on the ocean, it has to be the freaking desert, with 120 degree days and 40 degree nights. Craven and Locke managed to put together an amazing cast of actors trying to get into the business and willing to do what it took to do that. This is the first major film role for Dee Wallace, who plays the baby’s mother, Lynne (and once she is SPOILER FOR A 40 YEAR OLD MOVIE killed, I declared war on the cannibals myself), and it also serves as the debut of the remarkable Michael Berryman as Pluto, the poster boy for The Hills Have Eyes. Berryman describes himself as having “27 birth defects”, one of the more extreme being Hypohidrotic Ectodermal Dysplasia, which means he has no fingernails, hair or sweat glands. Craven and Locke both described him as “incredibly game”, and my god, no sweat glands and working in the desert? It’s amazing he survived. And he seems like an extraordinarily nice guy, on top of all that.
Craven and Locke’s luck with personnel didn’t stop there; they scored Robert Burns as Art Director, and he brought along a trailer full of props from Texas Chainsaw to decorate the cannibals’ cave. They hired Eric Saarinen as Director of Photography, already a veteran of several Corman movies, and he brought his own crew. Hills was shot in 16mm, a budgetary necessity, but Saarinen makes it look so close to 35 that I doubted my own assumptions (until I saw the Arriflex cameras they were using in production photos).
It’s obvious Craven learned quite a bit from making Last House and in the intervening five years; production-wise, this is a quantum leap forward in quality. It’s played practically forever in repertory, and survived a remake or two. Probably the only thing that kept it from doing truly blockbuster box office was a movie that was released a week after its debut, Smokey and the Bandit, which ate considerably into all the drive-ins and smaller movie houses that should have been Hills‘ domain. Ah well. Hills has a more timeless quality – it has endured the passage of time much better.
So yes, good movie, glad I finally got over myself and saw it. Arrow Video’s blu-ray is amazing and I would be just fine with them doing every blu-ray release from now on (though it would work their poor labs and restoration wizards to death). As i said earlier: this is a 4K restoration that simply blows away any previous presentation. They also carried over the making-of doc from the old Anchor Bay release (looking so good I think restoration radiation must have leaked through from the movie) and Craven and Locke’s commentary track. It’s wonderful and not a little affecting to see and hear Wes Craven again – his intelligence and wit remain sorely missed in the field of horror.
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