It’s been awhile since I watched Wes Craven’s mutant cannibal family terrorize their unsuspecting victims in the dessert, so I wasn’t sure it would hold up. Having seen the remake more recently, I was thinking that the original version wasn’t quite as disturbing—but I was wrong.
While The Hills Have Eyes suffers from some of the same dated problems that I mentioned The Last House on the Left having, by the time it gets to the killing, you kind of forget about the bell bottoms and super groovy hair.
While traveling on vacation, the Carter family ends up on some seriously crazy back roads (supposedly because they’re “searching for a silver mine”… what.). After stopping at a gas station to fill-up and getting warned by the owner Fred to head back to the main highway, they stranded when their car and trailer tires run over a booby trap (Craven sure likes these!) set by the cannibals.
So let’s see: three women, three men, a baby, and two dogs are stranded in the middle of nowhere, and it’s getting dark, fast. Naturally the smartest thing to do is for the men to split up, and leave them women behind.
The first sign of trouble is when the teenage son, Bobby, discovers one of their dogs gutted. Then when Dad arrives back at the gas station and Fred spills the beans about the cannibal family, and its origins. Seems Fred’s demon spawn killed his own mother, torched his house, and then ran away to the wild to raise his own family with a hooker he kidnapped. (Note to Craven: I’m not really sure this is a more believable story than the remake’s tale of a family mutilated by nuclear testing).
Now known as Papa Jupiter, he commands his sons Mars, Pluto (Michael Berryman!), and Mercury to murder people traveling through their domain and eat them. Only daughter Ruby seems reluctant to participate in their madness, because of the torture and abuse she endures at the hands of her male kin.
In addition to the 1977 vibe, a few other things distance you from the terror; one being that the cannibal family communicates with each other via walkie-talkies in their own hilarious language, which is some kind of hillbilly/baby talk mash-up.
Even still, from the moment the boys torch Father Carter and burn him alive, Hills turns into a non-stop assault of uncomfortable torture, holding its own against the 2006 version. Pluto and Mercury find their way into the trailer, assaulting teenage Brenda, and running off with the “juicy” baby (ewwwww) before the men can stop them. It’s the perfect recipe for revenge and rescue, but it doesn’t quite play out exactly as you think, and happy endings aren’t really possible once every member of the family has been traumatized.
There are still some laughs and lots of cheesiness, but there’s a reason this is considered a cult classic. The ladies’ performances (yay, Dee Wallace!) are particularly effective, bringing you into the story and making you feel like it’s really happening.
Definitely recommended if you’ve never seen, and worth a revisit if you have.