On their way to California, a posh suburban family’s car unfortunately breaks down in the middle of the desert, stranding them in their trailer home just below a mountainous region populated by a family of cannibals. The Hills Have Eyes is Wes Craven’s first film after his successful The Last House on the Left, and it helped secure Craven’s reputation as a horror auteur. A rough and jagged filmmaking style offers gritty realism that helps heighten the terror factor as the Carter and Wood families fight it out against the ragtag crew of inbred boogiemen – who depend on killing and eating wandering outsiders. Ridiculous and at times unintentionally funny, The Hills Have Eyes still packs enough scares to shock and unease. It’s especially true when Craven presents the death scenes of the two parental figures. The WASP father, when caught by the cannibal clan, is tied to a tree and lit on fire; the mother is shot in the stomach and left to die slowly, only to be used by her children as bait in an elaborate trap near the end. The iconic performance in the film is that of Michael Berryman, who plays the bald and disfigured Pluto. Berryman’s performance is noteworthy because of his appearance. Born with a rare disease that disfigured him physically, Berryman uses his appearance to frighten and, strangely enough, to illicit sympathy. When Pluto succumbs to the tyrannical pressure of his father, Berryman’s performance reveals itself to be subtle and tragic. Aside from the wardrobe and parts of dialogue, the film isn’t horribly outdated thanks in large part to a story that is set on location in the desert. Craven uses the setting for maximum impact, staging action scenes in the open, sometimes in broad daylight, and utilizes the imposing sand dunes as an ominous and treacherous hideout. The Hills Have Eyes may seem scruffy and shoddily made now, but Craven succeeds at maintaining a high level of tension throughout and uses the expansive desert locale as a showcase for a story that, ultimately, is more about the thin line between domesticity and savagery.

Richard Saad
© Cinephile Magazine, 2006