Tuesday, October 6, 2015

31 Days, 31 Horror Movies - 2015: The Hills Have Eyes

I'm behind on getting these posted, but I AM doing 31 Days, 31 Horror Movies again this year. I'll try and post a couple of these a day until I'm caught up. Work has been a bit crazy, so the quality of the writeups may be a bit suspect...

We lost two horror movie icons this year - Christopher Lee and Wes Craven. It seemed appropriate that I start off the viewing this year with one of their films. I had a hard time deciding what that initial film should be, though. Should I start off with Christopher Lee, as he was the older man with the larger body of work (and who had also passed first)? Should I start with Wes Craven, who I'm more familiar with and who's more recent passing was fresh in my mind? Beyond that, what, out of each man's oeuvre, should I choose?

I really struggled with this last bit - should I choose a movie that was representative, or a movie that I particularly liked? Something familiar, or a forgotten classic? Harder with Wes Craven, as I had already reviewed some of the obvious choices for previous versions of this thread - Nightmare on Elm Street, for instance. For Lee it was easier in that I haven't reviewed a lot of his work, but then the sheer volume of his films is intimidating.

Long story short(er)(ish), I finally narrowed the choices down to one film for each. Both from the 1970's (a favorite decade of mine for horror films) and both films I haven't seen since I was a teenager. For Lee it was The Wicker Man and for Craven it was The Hills Have Eyes. I figured I'd just watch both of them, one for today, the other for tomorrow. Still couldn't decide which to watch first, however, so I flipped a coin. And the winner was...

The Hills Have Eyes (1977)

I didn't enjoy The Hills Have Eyes when I first saw it. It was one of the earliest videotape rentals I made, I'm fairly sure. Seeing the torn poster in the basement of the cabin in Evil Dead certainly piqued my interest. I've got no clear memory of that viewing, however, just the vague sense that I didn't like it very much and that Michael Berryman was one creepy looking mofo.

If I watched it soon after renting Evil Dead for the first time I can see why I was disappointed - the gore in Hills is minimal, the production quality uniformly low, the acting generally amateurish, and the story as bare-bones as it gets. I'm not saying Evil Dead is a paragon of cinema, but in all those areas it beats Hills fairly handily (and that's saying something with the acting).

One creepy looking mofo
The Hills Have Eyes is, perhaps, more fairly compared with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre - they both feature a travelling group who run afoul of cannibalistic outsiders - but Hills also fails in this comparison, coming close only in the characters the villains. Papa Jupiter and his clan are no real match for Leatherface and his, however.

Whatever the reason, The Hills Have Eyes ranks fairly low on my mental list of horror movies that I've seen, so it was fair to say I had low expectations going into this viewing. I haven't seen it since the 1980's, however, and I've had to re-evaluate a lot of films that I watched back then.

The Medium
I watched this on Amazon Streaming. The quality was fairly poor, but I don't know if that was my connection or the film.

The Movie
After a nicely creepy intro - titles over silhouetted desert hilltops - I ran into my first disconnect with memory. In my head the movie started with the Carter family just showing up at the desert gas station. I'd forgotten the whole bit with Ruby and the old guy. I also don't remember her wearing normal clothes. Later events suddenly make a lot more sense to me.

 So, basic premise, the Carter family - ex-cop Bob , matriarchal mom Ethel, married couple Lynne and Doug with their baby Katie, and younger siblings Bobby and Brenda. They also have two German shepherds, Beauty and Beast.

Prototypical annoying American family
I'm just going to put this out there - Beast is the real hero of this movie. I'm still pissed about the poodle in Florida, but that's on your owners. Other than that, you're a good boy, Beast! Given enough time I think you'd have taken all of them out.

Who's a good murderous killer? You are! You are!
 Anyway, the Carters are on a cross-country trip to California. Bob has gotten it into his head to find an abandoned silver mine on the way and - ignoring warnings from family and stranger alike - drives the family and their camper/trailer out into the middle of nowhere, where he promptly wrecks the car. And blames it on his wife.

Bob and Doug head out to find help - Bob back to the gas station and Doug to a military base indicated on their maps. The rest of the family squabbles and annoys each other (and me) for a while, before Beauty escapes her leash and runs off into the desert, with Bobby close behind. Eventually he finds her - but someone or something has disemboweled the dog. Something moving nearby frightens Bobby and he flees, eventually falling and knocking himself out.

"Should we really have put this poster in the baby's room?"

Night falls. The family seems strangely sanguine about Bobby being missing in the dark in the desert.

Bob finally reaches the gas station where he finds the owner busily hanging himself. Bob seems less than sympathetic, but I'm sure that's just his gruff exterior. Eventually he gets the story about the man's son Jupiter, a malignant horror that he eventually ran off (by hitting him in the face with a tire iron). Now Jupiter lives in the desert with his family, a group of degenerate cannibals that feed on the unwary or unlucky traveler that wanders into their patch of the desert.

Then Jupiter - in the first truly cool, scary moment - pulls his father out through a window and beats the old man to death. With a tire iron. Bob flees, but is eventually captured by Jupiter (after what appears to be a heart attack).

Meanwhile, the rest of Jupiter's clan - particularly the monstrous Mars and Pluto - are busily stalking the rest of the Carters. Bobby finally shows up, but doesn't mention anything about hearing noises or something killing Beauty. Because, you know, reasons.

Things get spectacularly bad for the Carters pretty damn quickly. Bob is crucified on a set on fire within site of the trailer, Lynne is killed, Ethel gut-shot, Barbara raped, and the baby stolen  - all within roughly five minutes. Mars even takes the time to kill the pet parakeet. 

Nobody is getting 'children of the year' awards for their actions in this movie, FYI.

I must admit, I was finally hooked at this point. Usually a siege film like this spends a good chunk of time picking off people one by one - not here. The family is suddenly halved, with a baby missing. It was brutal and unexpected, even though I'd seen it before.

Things are a bit more typical Craven from this point on, with the survivors forced to become just as vicious and violent as their opponents in order to survive and protect their own. There are some excellent set pieces involving a corpse used as bait and a bald guy being stalked by a dog. (Good boy, Beast!) Some dark humor as well, as when Pluto tricks Bobby into disclosing information about their defenses.

The ending is a bit abrupt, but the good guys seem to win. Of course how far did they have to go to do so?

Bottom Line
You know, I still don't really like this film. It's... it's okay. It has moments. That first attack. Jupiter's assault and Bobby and Barbara's defense. There's some nice framing of the vast, uncaring desert and the tiny Carter encampment. Michael Berryman is still one creepy looking dude. 

Creepy, I'm telling you.
In the end, however, it's feels threadbare and slapped together. The pacing is either so slow as to make you yawn or so frenetic you find yourself wondering what just happened. What little gore there is is almost laughably bad. And the acting is - well, it's not the worst I've seen, but it made me want to slap a lot of people.

I'm actually pretty impressed with the jump in Wes Craven's skills between this and Swamp Thing, the next film of his that I've seen (still haven't watched Deadly Blessing).

Just thinking about it in this moment, I think I actually enjoyed it more while I was watching it than I do looking back on it, if that makes sense. It was a decent enough ride, but all the things that bothered me look even worse in the light of the next day.

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