Wednesday, 3 May 2017

1,001 Films: "The Hills Have Eyes" (1977)

Five years on from The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes showed signs of a tightening-up in Wes Craven's technique. Gone were the wacky comedy interludes and jarring soundtrack choices, in favour of a comparatively taut narrative set-up: extended family heading to California crash in the middle of an Army test site in the New Mexico desert, and find themselves under attack from local residents who range from the purely unwelcoming to the openly feral. Us and them, then: like Last House, this was horror born of Vietnam, but Craven makes a point in conceiving the warring factions as mirror images of one another, with youngsters struggling under the yoke of sternly abusive or ineffectual patriarchs, and both sides proving liable to descend into murderous madness: the final shot, tellingly, is a slow fade to red. If the pacing still leaves something to be desired, Craven was getting better at suspense: he keeps his "monsters" offscreen for exactly a half-hour, instead wringing creepy, insinuating effects from shots that emphasise just how isolated his "heroes" are in this landscape, and from sound effects like the desert wind blowing through an oilcan. Crucially, he was learning when to tear the camera away and let his audience's vivid imagination do a good deal of the gruesome work for him. It now looks a little tatty - weirdly quaint, almost, many of its images having been mined for their potency by others working within the genre - and not quite fully articulated, but it scores something of a coup, in that of all the iconic titles the drive-ins and grindhouses of the 1970s threw up, this is one of the few that remain watchable: Alexandre Aja's Dubya-era remake had a studio budget and would be more technically accomplished, but it needed Craven's ideas to build on.

The Hills Have Eyes is available on DVD through Anchor Bay. 

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