Wes Craven’s infamous schlocker The Last House on the Left was an exercise in pop culture-crashing perversity. It was a grindhouse blockbuster and, five years later, Craven returned with a film that went on to eclipse its reputation: The Hills Have Eyes, the grueling tale of a WASPy family that finds itself stranded in the American Southwest desert, and, most unfortunately, near a lair of mentally impaired cannibals.
The film was very much Craven’s attempt to capture the rural horror of Tobe Hooper’s earlier The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Suffice it to say that while frequently effective, The Hills Have Eyes is no Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Because Craven goes to such great lengths to humanize the cannibal family by mirroring their actions with those of the straight-laced clan, he ends up diluting the terror of being confronted with the proverbial Other.
The film ends with a grand statement about our inherent need to kill, but such impulses are usually more devastating when they aren’t necessarily in response to a life-or-death situation. Also, Craven indulges in his least terror-inducing motif: the MacGyver solution. Just as Nightmare on Elm Street’s climax boiled down to an elaborate parade of Acme Inc. booby traps, The Hills Have Eyes stretches credibility in the end with a series of outlandish attacks.
In any case, Craven’s latent sick streak gets a major workout here, and the rudest shocks seem to center around the “good” family’s parental figures. The patriarch, Bob (Russ Grieve), exits the picture in a blaze, tied to a burning tree. And the mother, Ethel (Virginia Vincent), who suffers a long, slow demise after being shot in the stomach, ends up being used by two of her children, Brenda (Susan Lanier) and Bobby (Robert Houston), as bait for the cannibals.
Like Brenda and Bobby, Craven was raised by fundamentalist parents, so it seems fairly reasonable that he was working through some major issues while writing the film’s screenplay. The Hills Have Eyes isn’t subtle, then, but it’s better acted than probably any other film from Craven’s early period. Because of his emotionally bare nature, Houston’s achingly implosive terror is more complex than your average male lead in a horror film.