FRED Watch Quickie Review: The Hills Have Eyes Franchise (1977-2007)

CRAVEN’S CANNIBALS!

I’m a Wayne Stellini and welcome to FRED Watch, where we review everything from the mainstream to the obscure. In acknowledgement of Halloween, we look at the flesh-devouring franchise that began with Wes Craven’s…

The Hills Have Eyes (1977)

Blood Relations Co. / Vanguard / Monarch Releasing Corporation

On a road trip from Ohio to Los Angeles as part of their silver wedding anniversary, Bob (Russ Grieve) and Ethel Carter (Virginia Vincent) are travelling with their adolescent children Bobby (Robert Houston), Brenda (Susan Lanier), as well as eldest daughter Lynne (Dee Wallace), her husband Doug (Martin Speer), and their baby daughter Katy (Brenda Marinoff).

However, the suburban family find themselves stranded in the Nevada desert and become the target of a cannibalistic brood, who have a particular interest in eating baby Katy…

Having made a notorious impact with The Last House on the Left (1972), Wes Craven sharpens his craft in this superior assault on middle class America. The Hills Have Eyes is an effective exploration of humanity’s primal instincts, as two families fight for survival in a vast, barren hell. Taking a leaf out of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s (1974) book, Craven keeps a clear divide between the wholesome, God-fearing Carters and Papa Jupiter’s (James Whitworth) animalistic clan.

At the mercy of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to ensure an R classification, Craven had to compromise his vision and leave moments on the cutting room floor. But this does not mean that The Hills Have Eyes suffers greatly. After all, what is in your imagination is always worse than what is on screen.

Themes of good and evil are prevalent throughout The Hills Have Eyes, and there is plenty that can be read from the narrative. However, this does not mean that the film doesn’t have flashes of humour, which are handled in a more controlled manner here than it was in Last House. Here, Craven offers moments of uncomfortable stillness between the action; he works the audience’s anticipation well so there’s no holding back when the final reel kicks into gear.

Notable for scream queen Dee Wallace and genre icon Michael Berryman’s entry into horror, the pair deliver the goods in a production where the performances are a mixed bag. Whitworth is wonderfully repulsive as the hill-dwelling patriarch, Janus Blythe gives dimension to Ruby, and, although inconsistent, Susan Lanier soaks up the screen. However, the film belongs to leading man Robert Houston, who is easily one of the most good looking and talented actors to star in a B-grade film during this era. He does so much with Craven’s sometimes-clunky material, that it is a shame Houston’s career did not allow him more opportunities to be in front of the camera.

Although not perfect, The Hills Have Eyes is beautifully grotesque and captivating. 4 / 5

 

Starring: Susan Lanier, Dee Wallace, John Steadman, Robert Houston, Martin Speer, Russ Grieve, James Whitworth, Virginia Vincent, Michael Berryman, Lance Gordon, Janus Blythe, Cordy Clark, Peter Locke (credited as Arthur King), Brenda Marinoff.

Director/Writer/Editor: Wes Craven | Producer: Peter Locke | Music: Don Peake | Cinematographer: Eric Saarinen

Available: DVD and Blu-ray


The Hills Have Eyes Part II (1984)

Hills Two Corporation / VTC / Castle Hill Productions

Heading to a race, a group of bikers become stranded in the desert and find themselves fighting off cannibals (Michael Berryman and John Bloom) who live off the land…

After slashers Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980) proved that young audiences were hungry for a horror franchise or two, filmmaker Wes Craven and producer Peter Locke teamed up to turn their 1977 shocker into a series of its own. But that vision seems to have fallen flat before it even took off.

The Hills Have Eyes Part II has the hallmarks of a strong, albeit familiar, slasher framework, while maintaining a more subdued theme of good versus evil. What lets the film down is how the concept was (or more to the point, wasn’t) fleshed out. The laughs here come through the cringeworthy dialogue and generally mediocre performances. Also, there’s too much time devoted to flashbacks and the scares aren’t really there; where the original film was predominantly set during the day, the climax here takes place at night, which is unfortunate because David Lewis’s cinematography is so poor.

The production values have been upped this time around and the bike racing sequences are handled quite well, but there are only two villains now and our young central characters simply aren’t interesting. Michael Berryman’s reprisal of Pluto feels like a different character this time around and John Bloom’s imbecilic Repear fails to feel like a legitimate threat. Notable contributions from Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood’s (1988) Kevin Spirtas and Grease 2’s (1982) Peter Frechette, as well as Friday the 13th (1980) composer Harry Manfredini’s distinguishable score, will make this worth a look for fans of cult cinema.

Falling short of expectations and released straight to video in 1984 (though it secured a limited cinematic distribution in Italy), Craven must have been preoccupied considering that audiences were introduced to A Nightmare on Elm Street later that year. 2 / 4

 

Starring: Tamara Stafford, Kevin Spirtas (as Kevin Blair), John Bloom, Colleen Riley, Michael Berryman, Penny Johnson, Janus Blythe, John Laughlin, Willard E. Pugh, Peter Frechette, Robert Houston, Edith Fellows.

Director/Writer: Wes Craven | Producers: Barry Cahn, Jonathan Debin, Peter Locke | Music: Harry Manfredini | Cinematographer: David Lewis | Editor: Richard Bracken

Available: DVD and Blu-ray


FAST FACT:

Mind Reaper was released in 1995. Produced by Wes Craven and written by his son Jonathan, it was marketed in some territories as The Hills Have Eyes III but has no connection to the franchise.


The Hills Have Eyes (2006)

Dune Entertainment / Major Studio Partners / Fox Searchlight Pictures

On vacation, the Carter family encounters a community of cannibalistic mutants after their car breaks down in the desert…

Alexandre Aja’s remake of Wes Craven’s 1977 cult classic is both faithful to the original and yet offers enough new elements to feel fresh. Though no less cartoonish, this rendition of The Hills Have Eyes lacks its predecessor’s sense of humour, perhaps because the performances and dialogue are overall superior.

The film’s social commentary is clearly drawn from the Cold War but this feels immaterial to the unfolding action, particularly once the blood starts splattering. Top-rate make-up and CGI effects distinguish our antagonists more so than their personalities, though Laura Ortiz’s portrayal of Ruby is executed with wonderfully restraint sensitivity.

The all-American and Republican Carter family are given enough time to develop, with Aaron Stanford, Emilie de Ravin, and Dan Byrd delivering strong performances that make Doug, Brenda, and Bobby worth cheering for. The Carters provide a beautiful contrast to the mutants, as does the vast, arid landscape compared to their caravan. Also, Maxime Alexandre’s cinematography captures the different tones and moods of each location, particularly the test site village in which an unrecognisable Desmond Askew steals the show as Big Brain.

The Hills Have Eyes cannot escape comparison to the original incarnation and, depending on its audience, will either fair better or worse. Overall, it is a rather captivating exercise in horror (though the rape plot convention feels outdated and unnecessary) and the production’s team work well together to pull off an effective ride through hell on earth. 4 / 5

 

Starring: Aaron Stanford, Kathleen Quinlan, Vinessa Shaw, Emilie de Ravin, Dan Byrd, Tom Bower, Billy Drago, Robert Joy, Ted Levine, Desmond Askew, Ezra Buzzington, Michael Bailey Smith, Laura Ortiz, Maisie Camilleri Preziosi, Gregory Nicotero, Ivana Turchetto, Maxime Giffard, Judith Jane Vallette, Adam Perrell.

Director: Alexandre Aja | Writers: Alexandre Aja, Grégory Levasseur (based on The Hills Have Eyes by Wes Craven) | Producers: Wes Craven, Peter Locke, Marianne Maddalena, Cody Zwieg | Music: Tomandandy, François-Eudes Chanfrault | Cinematographer: Maxime Alexandre | Editor: Baxter

Available: DVD and Blu-ray


The Hills Have Eyes II (2007)

Dune Entertainment / Fox Atomic

After spotting a distress signal in a distant New Mexican mountain range, a unit of National Guard soldiers commence a search and rescue mission into the hills, unaware that a community of cannibalistic mutants are watching their every move…

As a sequel to a remake, there should be little surprise that The Hills Have Eyes II doesn’t really have anything new to offer. This is not to say, however, that genre fans won’t be entertained by Martin Weisz’s contribution to the series.

There is evidence of Wes Craven’s contribution to the screenplay, with a slight emphasis on civility versus savagery. For example, men are women are treated equally in the National Guard, whereas each gender is relegated to primal roles and instincts among the cannibals—and violently so.

Overall, the film is adequately paced and benefits from Sam McCurdy’s cinematography, as well as editors’ Sue Blainey and Kirk M. Morri’s final touches. The make-up and costume effects are once again top-notch, showcasing the diversity of the antagonists; admittedly, they’re not given much to do, so it is sometimes difficult to tell one’s personality from the other. (Watch out for a pre-Friday the 13th (2009) Derek Mears as Chameleon, who does so much with such limited screen time.)

The Hills Have Eyes II may not win over newcomers to the franchise, but it gets straight into the action and has one or two decent seat-jumpers; in essence, it at least achieves what it sets out to do. 3½ / 5

 

Starring: Michael McMillian, Jessica Stroup, Jacob Vargas, Flex Alexander, Lee Thompson Young, Daniella Alonso, Eric Edelstein, Reshad Strik, Ben Crowley, Michael Bailey Smith, Derek Mears, David Reynolds, Jeff Kober, Jay Acovone, Philip Pavel, Archie Kao, Tyrell Kemlo, Gáspár Szabó, Jason Oettle, Cécile Breccia, Fatiha Quatili, Joseph Beddelem, Jeremy Goei.

Director: Martin Weisz | Writers: Wes Craven, Jonathan Craven | Producers: Wes Craven, Johnathan Debin, Peter Locke| Music: Trevor Morris | Cinematographer: Sam McCurdy | Editors: Sue Blainey, Kirk M. Morri

Available: DVD and Blu-ray


BONUS GRAPHIC NOVEL REVIEW:

The Hills Have Eyes: The Beginning (2007)

Fox Atomic Comics

Published to coincide with the release of the film The Hills Have Eyes II (2007), this Jimmy Palmiotti– and Justin Gray-penned graphic novel will be both appreciated and critiqued mostly by fans of the cinematic franchise.

The story looks at the genesis of the mutant cannibals—a community sheltered from the broader world who must survive at all costs, resulting in the level of savagery depicted in the films. Well enough plotted, there are some inconsistencies with the universe that The Hills Have Eyes: The Beginning sits in, most notably, Hades’s extensive vocabulary.

However, there are plenty of positives to draw from the graphic novel, such as John Higgins‘s beautiful illustrations and, for completests, the resolution of the Carter family’s fate (left open-ended in the 2006 film).

Overall, The Hills Have Eyes: The Beginning is the sort of narrative that will have appeal beyond its cinematic fan base, and may even prove to be a favourite among readers of horror comics. 3½ / 5

 

Writers: Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Gracy (based on The Hills Have Eyes created by Wes Craven, and produced by Wes Craven, Marianne Maddelena, Peter Locke) | Art: John Higgins | Art Assistant: S. J. Hurst | Cover: Greg Staples | Colour: Dennis Calero | Lettering: Comicraft | Book Design: Symon Chow | Editors: Heidi MacDonald, R. Eric Lieb


Let us know what you thought of these films in the comments!

 

I’ve been a Wayne Stellini and you’ve just experienced FRED Watch.

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