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Cementing Wes Craven as a horror master, “The Hills Have Eyes” is a brutal but thought-provoking film — as relevant today as ever.

Released July 22, 1977, The Hills Have Eyes followed the success of its cult film predecessor, The Last House on the Left, which was released five years prior.

This achievement prompted Peter Locke, companion, producer, and Hills Have Eyes cast member (Mercury, credited as Arthur King), to fund Wes Craven’s second feature.

With a budget of $350,000-700,000, this film not only stood on par with Craven’s impressive debut, but it earned $25 million at the box office and became a horror fan favorite. 

Ironically, this picture is also the second film of twenty-nine-year-old up-and-comer Dee Wallace (Lynn Wood).

Wallace’s first feature role was as Nettie, the main character in 1975’s The Stepford Wives. Prior to this, she had only made a couple of minor television appearances. In the series Lucas Tanner, she played a waitress (on the episode entitled “Merry Gentlemen”). In the series The Streets of San Francisco, she made an appearance as the character of Joan Warren in the episode “The Programming of Charlie Blake”.

And just before starring in The Hills Have Eyes, she was in another series, Ellery Queen, once again playing a waitress in the episode “The Adventures of the Chinese Dog”. 

Playing Lynn Wood was an excellent breakout role for the talented Wallace.

As horror fans are well aware, she would go on to become a scream queen with her performances in horror classics, including The Howling, Cujo, and Critters.

Fellow cast member Michael Berryman would also go on to become a horror icon. But, at the time, The Hills Have Eyes was only his third credited role.

Berryman’s prior projects included Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze (1975) and One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). 

Berryman, himself quite a horror fan, was thrilled to have been cast as Pluto. His iconic look — which made him perfect for the role — is due to twenty-six congenital disabilities, including hypohidrotic ectodermal dysplasia (HED), which is a rare inherited disorder characterized by a lack of sweat glands, hair, and fingernails (sometimes teeth can be affected).

Despite his excitement to play the first (and most imposing) mutant to appear in the film, Berryman faced numerous challenges while filming on location in the Mojave desert — where temperatures reached 120 degrees Fahrenheit or 48 Celsius at their height and dropped to a staggering 30 degrees Fahrenheit (-1 Celsius in the evening). Monitoring his health was crucial following action sequences during the five-month filming duration. 

The Hills Have Eyes is terrifying despite its straightforward plot — essentially a ‘road trip from hell’ motif. 

The Carter family experiences a mishap that leaves them stranded in the middle of nowhere, allowing them to fall prey to a family of cannibals.

One may ask, what about this film launched into cult status? One of the prominent factors is the consumption of flesh taboo featured in the film, which found inspiration in allegedly true events.

The Scottish legend of Alexander “Swaney” Bean dates from the 16th century. He fled home with a supposed witch, and the pair fell into burglary and cannibalism. The couple spawned fourteen children with thirty-two grandchildren and also engaged in incest. Over one thousand people ultimately fell victim to the clan. Thus, James VI of Scotland ordered a mob of four hundred men and numerous bloodhounds to hunt them down.

Their execution was supposedly brutal. The men faced emasculation with the inclusion of severed limbs. The women and children were burned alive. 

This same savagery is present in the film’s resolution, as the survivors dispatch their assailants, essentially becoming no different than the deranged individuals who attacked the family.

As with The Last House on the Left, Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes explores the themes of morality, depravity, and the implications of revenge. Both films present an opportunity to engage in meaningful discourse and examine human nature and our complicated relationship to violence. There’s a reason Craven is often recognized as one of the greatest masters of the horror genre.

While Craven’s films are certainly frightening, they are also thought-provoking and culturally relevant. 

This is due in large part to Wes Craven’s background and his passion for intellectual discourse.

Before becoming an influential filmmaker, Craven earned an undergraduate degree in English and psychology from Wheaten College and a master’s degree in philosophy and writing from the prestigious Johns Hopkins University.

From 1964-65, he taught English at Westminster College and was a humanities professor at Clarkson College of Technology. He also taught high school. During this time, he purchased a used 16 mm film camera and began making short movies. His first creative job in the film industry was as a sound editor.

Though he became famous for making horror films, often considered low-brow by critics and some audiences, Craven was an undeniable artist and intellectual. His filmmaking inspirations included the likes of Ingmar Bergman, Luis Buñuel, Alfred Hitchcock, Federico Fellini, Jean Cocteau, and Francois Truffaut. In fact, his first film, The Last House on the Left, was conceived as a remake of Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960).

The goat in the dream sequence at the beginning of A Nightmare on Elm Street was included by Craven as a homage to Buñuel.

Craven’s films all have something to say, and they center around ideas of fractured families, abuse, the nature of dreams and reality, and satirical explorations of politics and society.

Like Craven’s first film, The Hills Have Eyes was not without its controversy.

His debut, The Last House on the Left, was never released in Australia due to censorship issues and was banned in the U.K. The film became infamous for stories about audiences fainting, walking out, or vomiting during screenings.

Craven was shocked by the negative reaction until he realized that many thought the film was championing rape and murder rather than condemning it. Following the backlash against the film, Craven found it extremely difficult to transition to non-genre films, which is what led him to make The Hills Have Eyes and solidified his reputation as a horror director.

Though The Hills Have Eyes might seem relatively tame by modern standards, the film’s graphic violence originally earned it an X (what we now call NC-17) rating from the MPAA, which meant serious cuts had to be made. Significant footage was removed from the scene, including the scene where Pluto (Berryman) and Mars (Lance Gordon) terrorize the trailer and the final confrontation with the head of the clan, Papa Jupiter (James Whitworth).

There was also controversy over the outcome of baby Katy, the abducted child. Originally, Craven intended the infant to meet a morbid demise. However, the cast was unanimously opposed to this horrific plot point, and Craven eventually decided against it. He rewrote the script to include the rescue of the child after the cast and crew threatened to walk out of the production.

However, even though Craven avoided this super bleak scene, he did end up crafting a much bleaker ending than he originally intended. In his first script, the ending was much more hopeful.

Interestingly, when Alexandre Aja remade the film in 2006, he decided to keep all the elements of the original The Hills Have Eyes intact.

Not only was The Hills Have Eyes a box-office success, spawning a franchise, but it was also well-received by critics.

Reviews for the film were mostly positive, with critics praising its tense narrative and humor.

Many critics have also responded well to the film’s smart social and political commentary, helping elevate it above other popular horror films of the era and ensuring its lasting importance in the pantheon of great genre films.

At the 1977 Sitges Film Festival, The Hills Have Eyes won the Critic’s Award.

Actor Michael Berryman also received a Saturn Award nomination in 1978 for best actor in the horror category. Later accolades include a Saturn Award nomination for Best DVD/Blu-Ray Special Edition Release for the “Limited Edition” release category.

Produced on a tight budget, under sometimes grueling conditions, The Hills Have Eyes cemented Craven as one of Hollywood’s great horror masters. Released 45 years ago, it remains as brutal, frightening, and culturally relevant as ever. 

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