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FILM (1977)

Jacobean gore-fest in California desert

The Hills Have Eyes resembles a cross between the backwoods brutality classic Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Deliverance - except the 1977 slasher movie filmed in the Mojave Desert is messier than both.

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 August, 2012, 10:23am

The Hills Have Eyes

Susan Lanier, Robert Houston, Martin Speer

Director: Wes Craven

The Hills Have Eyes resembles a cross between the backwoods brutality classic Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Deliverance - except the 1977 slasher movie filmed in the Mojave Desert is messier than both.

The New York Sun described The Hills Have Eyes as "a bloody, if exuberantly directed, mess of gore, the grotesque, the glib, and the gloating, marked by graveyard humour, graveyard acting, a crucifixion, a corpse used as bait, cruelty to dogs, cruelty to a parakeet, cruelty to an old codger, cruelty to a young mother, cruelty to a retired cop, and way, way too many people eyeing a 'tenderloin' of baby as the source of a good dinner".

The spectacularly sick 90-minute thriller directed by former English teacher Wes Craven opens with a disarmingly simple but edgy event: a camper-van breakdown. En route to California, against the advice of a creepy petrol station attendant, the Carter family is taking a shortcut across a nuclear testing site when an axle breaks, stranding them.

In the van are retired policeman Big Bob Carter (Russ Grieve), his wife Ethel (Virginia Vincent), their twins Bobby and Brenda, and eldest daughter Lynne with her husband Doug (Martin Speer) and their baby, Katy. The family's two German shepherds, Beauty and Beast, complete the team united by a quest to find an inherited silver mine.

Big Bob heads back to the petrol station, only to be ambushed by Papa Jupiter, the leader of an inbred cannibal clan. Things turn ugly and weird at warp speed. Big Bob winds up being crucified on a Joshua tree and set alight. During the diversion the atrocity generates, another cannibal, Mars, stages a trailer invasion. He tears the head off the pet parakeet - apparently a delicacy in feral communities - then drinks its blood before raping Brenda and kidnapping Katy.

The clan and the family become locked in a siege-like war of attrition, with the all-American Carters striving to get in touch with their inner savage. The family's dog Beauty is carved up, but they are ably supported by Beast and cannibal misfit Ruby (Janus Blythe).

In the final close-up, Doug is stabbing Mars to death while Ruby wails over her brother's body. At least - the key point of contention amid the mutant mayhem - baby Katy survives.

Like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the low-budget, X-rated shocker with a precariously upbeat ending has more depth than may be obvious. The Hills Have Eyes stems from the story of Sawney Beane - the homicidal chief of a Scottish clan in the 15th or 16th century, who was executed for the cannibalisation of more than 1,000 victims.

That legendary dimension fuels the mystique of the wickedly creative, action-packed cult classic, which is reminiscent of a grisly Jacobean tragedy. Boredom never enters the movie's bloody frames.

Emboldened, Craven followed up with a spare but still sick horror epic: Nightmare on Elm Street, foreshadowing his Scream series.

David Wilson

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