It is with a heavy heart that I post this Midnight Screening on the occasion of horror maestro and professional boogeyman Wes Craven’s untimely demise. But what better way to honor his legacy than with a review of his best film?
Once upon a time, Wes Craven was a wandering journeyman horror director of the micro-budgeted exploitation cinema school, wielding a fancy for American genre cinema and European art-house works (his debut remains cinema’s most demented Bergman remake, after all). He spent five years struggling up the funds to direct his second feature, 1977’s The Hills Have Eyes, after unleashing one of the most controversial features of the modern era in 1972: The Last House on the Left. As important as that film is, however, The Hills Have Eyes is a superior effort in every way. More impeccably crafted yet more divorced from the respectable doldrums of “prestige” that craft often carries with it, Hills is the Wes Craven film that feels most like tetanus.
It is also the best Wes Craven film, largely because it avoids his latter-day crutch of relying on over-baked conceptual shenanigans to market his films rather than legitimate craft. The process began, unfortunately, with what is by far his most famous film – A Nightmare on Elm Street – the film that saved his career from an early grave, ironically, by taking him back to the cemetery and the only film of his later career that really evolves beyond its premise into a great work of filmmaking. Too often, Craven was so infested with ideas about what horror cinema represents that he forgot how to make a horror film that you feel right in the bone and not only the head. He had an eye for the didactic that occasionally stretched his films so thin with commentary and psychological exploration that all the room for quavering experience, for actually hurts-your-heart cinema, was taken up by philosophizing.
In other words, for a commentary on horror cinema to work it also has to survive as a horror film, and The Hills Have Eyes is a startling, scorchingly abrasive horror film that isn’t about anything so much as it is about nothing, and in doing so, it becomes a statement of its time. Following a family of vacationers through a blindingly sun-scorched desert valley that nonetheless feels pitch-black, we watch as they become victims to the wastelands of American history and American nothingness – not for any particular reason mind you – but simply because. There is a family of cannibals in the hills, and they wish to eat on protagonists. That’s it. They just act that way because they do. And nothing leaps into the crawling dark heart of the cynical, nihilistic 1970s more than a family being punished and dying just because. All of Craven’s later films strive and suffocate for a why, but The Hills Have Eyes is something altogether drearier and more cavernously effective: a world in which the why is meaningless, where horror exists all on its lonesome as the only reality to be known in the first place.
The Hills Have Eyes ends up being about everything that made the ’70s the ’70s then, without actually having to bear the burden of being about something, if that makes sense. It has the freedom to simply be, and in being a product of its time, it ends up, simply by virtue of being, expressing the moods and fears of the time it was made. While something like Nightmare threatens to (but ultimately doesn’t) become only about horror, Hills is free to simply be horror, which is altogether more enticing and excruciating and uncompromisingly uncomfortable. It is not nearly as famous as John Carpenter’s Halloween, Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or George Romero’s Night and Dawn of the Dead, but it inks blood onto the same idea: death, destruction and malaise in the 1970s was an inexplicable, unexplainable fact, and searching for explanation would only get you killed.
As far as Craven’s film goes, it is perhaps not as monumentally perfect as the aforementioned films, but it is as close as can be; Craven dialects between kinetic, hurtling, fear-of-god camerawork and lengthy, autumnal passages of quiet, menacing nothingness (a takeaway from his European cinema fascination). The color work in the film, starting from the very opening credits sequence set atop a deeply disturbing
collage of faded, waning blue and impenetrable darkness, is exceptional, with darkness and light always used as a tool rather than a given. The location shooting meanwhile (where temperatures danced either side of the bell curve from 120 to 30 degrees) affords for a venomous, tactile anti-majesty that feels as earthen as dirt and as mythic as Monument Valley in a John Ford film (one of Craven’s favorite films is Howard Hawks’ Red River, an answer film to Ford’s many Monument Valley Westerns, and Hills often feels like his take on a nihilistic, revisionist Western). Craven’s use of off-screen space and off-screen sound – a deliberate marker of a director that understands the difference between horror and terror – is jealousy-inducing.
Even more impressive is the odd, off-kilter family characterization of the main protagonists, given inhuman, “cheesy” – to use a lazy, mostly pointless word – performances by a cast that makes them feel eerily, and pointedly, like a stereotype of an American family rather than an actual family. This is combined with Craven’s slight moments of characterization, revealing, impressively, little personal habits and identifiable cores in his humans not by stopping to characterize them through dialogue but by hinting at their person-hoods through their actions, marrying character and horror in a violent mash-up. Hills is, with this characterization and its married use of shadow work and off-screen space, a masterpiece of implication and “less is more” independent filmmaking.
In all, it is a film that signals an emergence of a new cinematic voice, much more so than The Last House on the Left, a voice that grew and reshaped itself and experimented with the idea of cinema over several decades, but a voice that was already aware of and elegant with wielding horror tradition from the beginning. He would go on to create more popular films, but never again did he unchain something so rabid and ravenous and pure upon the world, or so terrifying. Unlike many of Craven’s later films (Scream, most cravenly), Hills is no charlatan. It is a Molotov cocktail thrown straight into the 1970s and left to burn.