A family going to California accidentally goes through an Air Testing range closed to the public. They crash and are stranded in a desert. They are being stalked by a group of people, which have not emerged into modern times.
Anyone who experienced the shattering impact of Craven's early movies probably feels the director of the first and last Elm Street movies and the Scream franchise (not to mention Music Of The Heart) has become a somewhat sedate, avuncular figure. Freddy and Scream's Ghostface are pantomime monsters,comfortably removed from our lives; Krug and Company, the villains of Last House, and Papa Jupe's brood, the cannibals in The Hills, are not so fast with the wisecracks. They go for all out savagery in ways a contractually-mandated R rating just won't allow.
Last House is a gore movie remake of Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring (1959), but The Hills Have Eyes has no truck with art. Craven's script was inspired by Sawney Beane, a mythical/legendary Scottish cannibal whose clan preyed on unwary visitors to his highland domain, and the original draft was set after a cataclysmic breakdown of society. However, Hills is really a mutant Western with the wagon train of pioneers replaced by an Ohio family in a trailer, and attacking Indians transformed into a brood of inbred mutants sired by the monstrous, split-faced Papa Jupiter (Whitworth). They dress like a combination of Indian warriors, Ben Gunn and the hillbillies from Deliverance.
Most horror movies are about claustrophobia (even the The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) is mostly set inside an old dark house) but this uses the wide-open desert spaces of an old nuclear testing range, where camouflaged creatures blend with the rocks and the broken-down trailer is a dot in a vast and hostile landscape. Like the 70s films of George Romero, Larry Cohen and Tobe Hooper, Hills is torn between Vietnam/Watergate-era cynicism and a commitment to being gruesome that owes much to the much-banned EC comics of the 1950s (Tales From The Crypt, The Vault Of Horror). As in Last House On The Left (1972) and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a family of whitebread Americans is set against a parallel clan of grotesques who torture, slaughter and consume the innocents. The city folks are a Brady Bunch of good-looking, bland blondes in pastel clothes. The most recognisable is Dee Wallace (The Howling, E.T.) as a young mum in yellow flares, while husband Martin Speer, bears a disturbing resemblance to Sonny Bono.
The degenerates are barely seen in the first hour of the film, and are all the more horrible for it. Tall, bald, crag-faced Michael Berryman (a veteran of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest), is poster-boy Pluto, but he's comic relief next to his brothers Mercury (Arthur King) and Mars (Lance Gordon). As in Last House and Deliverance, the message is that the middle classes, because they have more to lose, are capable of more extreme violence than the have-not outcasts. "A typical American family," read the original poster, "they didn't want to kill, but they didn't want to die." Horrible atrocities are inflicted on the Carters (Big Bob is crucified, burned and decapitated) and Jupe's boys threaten to gut, cook and eat the stolen baby. But in the end, it's the savagery of the good guys that shocks, especially when Barbie and Ken teens Brenda (Lanier) and Bobby (Houston) use their mother's dead body as bait to trap Jupiter, and the family's dog Beast avenges the murder of his mate Beauty by dispatching two of Jupiter's boys.
Decades on The Hills Have Eyes no longer seems quite as breathlessly swift as it did. But it retains an air of low-budget reality: no costume designer with an eye for fashion-house product placement came up with the gear the Carters wear, and the interiors of both the trailer and Jupiter's cave are cluttered with the authentic detritus of messy lives. Like most great splatter movies, it's less violent than you remember — the curl of smoke rising from Big Bob's dead mouth and the jagged bone Beast exposes in Pluto's ankle are exceptions — but it always hits the unease button. These days, Craven looks back at his early films and wonders where the anger came from.
We can revisit The Hills Have Eyes and be reminded of a time when horror was anything but safe, and you had a sense that there was a madman in charge and no censor or distributor was going to take his film away from him.