First, some full disclosure: I’ve skipped a Craven-directed movie, but some of you might not realize it. Remember what I wrote in my first Cravenous entry about the relationship between horror and porn during the late 70s and 80s? Well, Craven’s next documented movie after 1972’s The Last House on the Left was a 1975 Swedish-cocreated “arthouse porn” called The Fireworks Woman. You might have never heard of it as a Craven film because he wrote and directed it under the name “Abe Snake.” Gee, wonder why. He appears in the film as well. See?
Doesn’t he look groovy?
The movie is available online if you’d like to watch it. It’s about a brother and sister’s sexual obsession with each other. I decided to skip it, but you feel free to tackle that one, denizens. I’m holding out for the other Craven movie that features a canoodling brother and sister team.
[Loba Tangent: Oh, and just in case you’re wondering about the interconnections between these two genres? It’s because a lot of horror movies received X ratings from the MPAA, and the only theaters that would go anywhere near such a rating were…you guessed it: adult movie theaters. See? Travis Bickle could have taken Betsy to see a nice Wes Craven movie on their first date…]
So next in the horror line is Craven’s 1977 film The Hills Have Eyes.
We get some recognizable faces this go, with Horror Queen Supreme Dee Wallace in one of her first film roles. Also making one of his earliest appearances in movies is Michael Berryman, the gentleman whose unique visage graces this movie’s poster. Berryman, whose Hypohidrotic Ectodermal Dysplasia causes his odd appearance and leaves him with no sweat glands, hair, fingernails, or teeth, has bankrolled a full career from horror and science fiction movies, thanks in part to appearing as Pluto in this movie. We’ll even see him a few more times in future Craven films, as the director was often quite loyal to his actors.
As with his first film, Craven clearly still was fascinated by the exploration of humanity’s depravity and breaking points. He also was still fascinated by exploring the superficiality of our “civility.” No matter how refined we imagine ourselves to be, we still are animals—just scrape the surface a little bit and you’ll see. With this film, Craven wanted to explore exactly how much (or little) we’d need to scratch to find that ferocity. His test subjects?
A nice American family. They didn’t want to kill. But they didn’t want to die.
Fairly straightforward setup summed up perfectly in the movie’s tagline. We’ve got the all-American family extreme, traveling together across the country, camper in tow: Father, Mother, Three Siblings, One Son-in-Law, One Baby, and Two Dogs. What could be more white-bread, middle-class idyllic? The patriarch of the family, a recently retired Chicago cop who barely tolerates the simpering simplicity of his wife and two daughters, establishes himself as the cock of the walk right from the start.
Talk about foreshadowing.
He’s also on a mission, to locate a long-abandoned silver mine that he and his wife have jointly purchased for each other to celebrate their “silver anniversary” the next day. Even after being warned by the local gas station owner (who’s caught by the family in the middle of packing his own truck in preparation to leave the area) not to travel the dusty, dangerous dirt roads that strike off from the main highway, Mr. Retired Cop treats the warning as he must treat anything that doesn’t gel with what he wants: He ignores it.
Hilarity. It’s watching and waiting to ensue.
Also watching the camper is a band of hill people with questionable hygiene, even more questionable breeding, and supremely disturbing culinary tastes. All that tasty meat traveling along their roads? Too tempting to resist.
Just as Craven drew inspiration for his first horror movie from Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (which, in turn, drew inspiration from a 13th century Swedish ballad), this time he drew inspiration from the Scottish folklore of Sawney Bean. Mr. Bean and his clan lived in a sea cave, subsisting off the belongings and flesh of travelers who ventured too near Sawney’s domain. Who says studying folklore is a waste of time? Craven’s impressive knowledge of mythology and folklore served him quite well throughout his career, indeed.
Once this movie kicks off, Craven again offers us no reprieve from the action unfolding on-screen—or from the violence. This is a fight for survival, and as such, there are no time-outs or moments to catch our breath. Once our protagonists realize the dire nature of their predicament, it’s almost too late. Well, definitely too late for several members of the family (spoilers). However, when that survivalist mentality that Craven very obviously loved to explore so much finally kicks in for the remaining protagonists, it’s go time. We get a couple of great traps, including one that uses…disturbingly interesting bait.
We also get a, pardon the phrasing, bleak-as-fuck ending. Serious spoilers from this point forward: Some of the crimes that the cannibalistic clan perpetrate upon our wholesome American family are the sexual assault of one sister (though far less disturbing than anything from The Last House on the Left, it’s still troublesome that Craven felt the need to include it and the resulting tipple into the rape revenge trope), the murder of the other sister, and the kidnapping of that sister’s baby for the purpose of holding a baby barbecue. Because I heard they taste like chicken. When the baby’s father realizes that his wife is dead and his daughter is missing, nothing could stop him from going out into the hills to bring her back.
Admittedly, the ending could have been far worse than it actually was. Craven initially contemplated having the clan go through with killing the baby. His own crew threatened mutiny, however, if he chose to go that route. Instead, he went with having the baby’s father succeed in capturing the kidnapping cannibal and murdering him in one of the most high-octane first-person death scenes to appear in movies up to that point. Placing us in the position of the cannibal, we witness the utter loss of control…of civility…by the baby’s father, Doug, as he repeatedly plunges the dagger into his captive, well past the point of death. Logic, however, cannot penetrate the control of “fight-or-flight” evolutionary programming to which Doug has completely succumbed. Craven is almost purely focused on forcing us to watch Doug’s unraveling, cutting away only to show the knife plunging in every now and again or the emotional distress of the cannibal’s sister as she watches her brother’s murder. The camera and the audience, however, is captured by the pure descent of Doug into that most primal survivalist mode. We hear his guttural grunting, we see the way spittle flies from his mouth, hangs from his lips, spews downward onto the camera. And when Doug finally stops? The movie ends.
Literally, the last thing we see is Doug, the realization of his actions just beginning to register on his face before the scene freezes and fades to red. Even with The Last House on the Left, Craven gave us a moment of decompression before fading to black, perhaps to regroup alongside the protagonists as they begin to process their actions. Not so in this case. The original ending that Craven filmed was far less dystopic, with Doug returning with his daughter and the cannibal’s sister (who had helped him rescue his daughter) to meet up with the rest of the survivors and begin their journey back to civilization. Craven opted for the more shocking and bleak ending, forcing us to process Doug’s actions and contemplate on our own the ramifications of all that had just transpired.
Doug’s devolution isn’t the only one we witness within this film. Two of the siblings, Bobby and Brenda, when encountering the patriarch of the cannibal clan after their trap failed to kill him, both quickly embrace their more primal responses. Both siblings have been running on fear and adrenaline for many hours—Bobby being the first to know something was wrong with where they were stranded after finding one of the family dogs disemboweled in the hills (yeah, Craven took the low blow by killing one of the dogs; he also used an actual dead dog in the scene, having collected the body from the sheriff’s department), and Brenda being the sister who was raped a few hours earlier—and so their violent response is almost synchronous and definitely autonomic.
Even the surviving dog plays a role in Craven’s character study. Beast in many ways seems not only intent on protecting his human family but also in seeking revenge for the death of his mate, Beauty. Some of Beast’s actions seemed somewhat anthropomorphic, but Craven drew nice parallels between his primal predatory instinct toward the cannibals and the human protagonists’ similar instincts: Want to survive? Then kill.
Craven’s insatiable need to examine the primal undercurrent of human civility is a fascinating one that continues to be relevant today. What are the factors that contribute to our standings in society? Are we born with intrinsically good or bad intentions? Or are there external circumstances that contribute to our choices? Craven seems to argue a bit in favor of both points with this movie (kind of). We learn through secondhand exposition that the cannibal family’s patriarch was born with evil intent in his heart (as secondhand information, however, we must extrapolate our own opinions of this information). Craven also once more focuses on class and education standing as influencing certain aspects of the story (the well-heeled American family with their college-educated children versus the uneducated hill people who have turned their survival into a bloodsport), as well as an underlying current of misogyny. The retired cop character ignores the thoughts of the women around him. The sister from the cannibal family is chained because she wishes to leave the hills and find a better life. The mother of the cannibal family is almost incidental to the story beyond the fact that she was a prostitute in her earlier years. And, of course, there is the continued use of sexual assault as the ultimate attack against women in horror films. Combine all these elements together and they equal another offering from Craven in which he posits that, yet again, we are the ultimate horror monsters.