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Jabootu's Bad Movie Dimension


 

Fear and Loathing on the Food Chain.  Or...

 The Hills Have Eyes (1978)

Written and Directed by Wes Craven
Information at the IMDB, US.IMDB
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He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.
-- Dr. Samuel Johnson

Sure, that was opening quote for Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but it applies here, too.  And on at least two occasions during The Hills Have Eyes, a character talks about ripping someone's lungs out, which is a good Thompson oneliner.  Craven, who taught creative writing, might've been influenced by Thompson, whose best work was about the pain of becoming a beast.  You see, Dr. Thompson still had this thing called a conscience....

According to some biographical information on Craven, he made this movie shortly after moving to California.  Now there's a likely influence.  My God, where his creative writer's imagination must've taken him on that trip....
 

Contents

The Plot

We open in the desert.  Arch typical old man-of-the-West Fred (John Steadman) is packing up to leave his gas station that time forgot when he is interrupted by Ruby (Janus Blyth).  She wants to go with him, but because she's a savage and he fears her associates, he refuses.  Their conversation is interrupted by the arrival of the Carter family, who are en route to California in a station wagon hauling a camper trailer.  After some introduction to the annoying Carters (you'd kinda like to see these people get whacked), they mention they are also looking for an old silver mine which was given as a gift.  Fred warns them to not bother.  "Stay on the main road, now.  Y'hear?  Stay on the main road!" shouts Fredalf the Gray.

Shortly after the Carters leave, Fred's truck explodes.  He's not going anywhere.

Later, the Carters have, of course, long since left the main road, gotten lost, gotten hot, and are being watched by unseen stalkers.  (Heh, remember the title.)  During some petty bickering (which makes you want to see these people get whacked even more), they realize they're driving through a nuclear test range. All this, plus some low flying F-105 Thunderchiefs and a road kill primed rabbit, freak out the driver.  The Cartermobile flies off the road and crashes.  Like Fred, they aren't going anywhere, either.  One of the unseen stalkers says, "They're stuck real good."  As SF author Larry Niven used to say, "Think of it as evolution in action."

Two of the menfolk -- Big Bob (Russ Grieve), the family patriarch and Doug (Martin Speer), the son-in-law -- start walking in opposite directions to get help.  This leaves the other annoying manfolk Bobby (Robert Houston) to guard the womenfolk -- needling matriarch Ethel (Virginia Vincent), whining younger sister Brenda (Susan Lanier), skittish older sister Lynne (Dee Wallace-Stone) and her frightfully quiet baby Katy.  There are also two dogfolk, a pair of German shepherds called Beauty and Beast.  Beauty breaks loose and chases "something," and Bobby goes after her.  Getting some distance from the camp, he hears her whelps of distress and finds her.  Uh, let's just say this movie has that little "No animals were harmed or mistreated" disclaimer.

Bobby returns to the camp and says nothing.  The unseen stalkers begin closing in on the camp.

Meanwhile, back at the gas station that time forgot, Big Bob arrives and talks to Fred, who confesses that he's of terrified his monster son who was born back in '29.  After the little tike showed some ambitiously violent potential as president of the Calligula Fan Club, Fred chastised him pretty hard in the head with a tire iron and left him for dead in the desert.  However, the little monster survived, grew up (a lot!), kidnapped a "whore that nobody would miss," and started a little family of his own.  He now calls himself Jupiter (James Whitworth).

We gradually meet Jupiter's boys:  his belligerent son, Mars (Lance Gordon), his odd looking son, Pluto (Michael Berryman), and his fleet-of-foot yet slow-of-wit son, Mercury (Arthur King).  They live like illiterate, neolithic savages using freely available technology (such as portable radios and handguns) as it suits them.  To them, all outsiders are meat and other sundries, their way is right, and they're about a generation away from inbreeding.  In other words, they fit Jeff Foxworthy's definition of rednecks.  We soon get to meet the rest of the Jupiter clan -- Mama, who looks like she hasn't been missing any meals, and, of course, Ruby.

Got all those names?  OK, let's play...The Family Feud....

Jupiter and company make their move.  Ol' Jup' ambushes Big Bob and eventually sets him on fire as a tactical distraction.  While the some of the Carters run to their pyrotechnic patriarch, Mars and Pluto raid the camper, make life pretty unpleasant for those who are there, grab the baby (tenderloin), and hightail it out.

The surviving Carters must rescue the baby while defending themselves against the Jupiter clan; so begins their own descent into brutal savagery....
 

The Good Stuff

Characters Develop, Hooray for Brutality, and Free Therapy

Watching the surviving Carters become savages is both fun and horrible.  When we first meet them, they're  urban savages; Big Bob is a retired racist cop and Ethel is an over critical non-person.  When handed a .45 semi-automatic, Bobby acts like he's playing war in a movie; I would've seriously considered giving him an empty clip.  Brenda constantly complains about becoming a human french fry in the heat while asserting that "fresh air is bad for you."  They laugh about the time one of their dogs killed a poodle.  When their dogs viscously lunge for Fred, the Carter line is "They're just playing."  In a way, their dogs are their own savagery kept as pets.

On the other hand, we don't get to know Jupiter's clan in the beginning.  This follows the good horror movie rule of suspense by not showing the monster too early, and it also makes the us more interested in  Jupiter and company because we are not being told about them.  We know they're going to do some pretty ugly things (if only because of the advertising), but until we get to know them better, at least they are not annoying.

By the end of the movie, we get to know Jupiter's clan better (and now they're annoying) and the Carters have become brutal savages.  When the last combatant falls, the movie ends.  Period.  When the movie was first released, there were several complaints about this sudden stop; however, this ending lets the audience do two things.  They can subjectively write their own denouement and, if they have begun to identify with the Carters, they can experience a catharsis.  This catharsis comes from realizing that as the Carters become more brutal, they're easier to identify with, almost heroic.  Think about that.  There aren't many movies that can make total brutality into a moment of epiphany.

If the above sounds too analytical, you're probably right.  After all, it is just a cheap horror movie.  On the other hand, Wes Craven knew his way around psychology.  During an interview, he suggested horror films, like nightmares, are a form of therapy.  In his view, we don't pay admission to be frightened, but to learn to deal with the horror.
 

Tight Screenplay, and Giving the Audience Credit

I like a good, tight screenplay.  I don't have a lot of patience with action/adventure type movies that pad out the runtime with things you didn't need or want to know.  To this story's credit, there are several lines of dialogue that seem inconsequential that turn out to be significant later.  For example, Ethel has some lines describing a Marlin Perkins narrative on rattlesnakes.  At the time, that line is pretty annoying and its accuracy is questionable; by the end of the story, it's essential.

In fact, there are several things that are not explained but make sense when you think about them.  For example, the backwater Jupiter clan shows a lot of familiarity with modern small unit tactics, including using terse radio communications during reconnaissance and to coordinate their attacks.  Makes sense when you recall they're in the neighborhood of an Air Force base.  It's a good screenplay that gives the audience credit for their intelligence and doesn't waste time explaining simple things that have enough hints already.

Soundtrack

There are several nice touches on the soundtrack that creep out the audience.  Synthesizers are used, and though these were nothing new in horror films, their use here is effective.  There are some passages where the synthesizer builds tension by holding a single chord throughout the scene at a barely audible level. Since this done sparingly, the effectiveness increases.  An easy sign of a bad horror movie (for example, The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant) is overuse of electronic tones to build the scene, leading not to tension but laughter.
 

The Bad Stuff

Missing Details, Potential Prejudice, and Spiders

When you have a script this thoughtful and tight, the absence of some details are noticed more.  For example, Jupiter and his boys are named after planets, but their matching dispositions match the gods in Roman mythology.  How would such a group pick names from classical mythology?  Did young Jupiter or pre-abduction Mama know these stories?  Maybe they caught someone who kept them entertained with these stories.  Or not.  It isn't explained nor even hinted at.  Although the classical names are easy to remember and gives the family a sense of weirdness, their actual use is as distracting as calling the boys Ike, JFK, LBJ, and Nixon.  Not that this would really add any significance to the family name Carter....

At least these names separate the Jupiter clan from Native Americans and associates them with European culture.  Early in the movie, Ruby frightens Fred.  Fred says, "Don't you ever make a noise when you walk?"  That's one of those stereotypical traits associated with Native Americans; giving the Jupiter family distinctly non-Native American names keeps them from being mistaken as symbols for "a bunch o' savage injuns."  This is particularly important as we learn more about the culture of the Jupiter clan.  It has a strong resemblance to several primitive cultures, but that resemblance is a result of their primitive environment.  Making sure the audience won't confuse the Jupiter clan with Native Americans is important; I don't know about Craven, but I sure hate being called a racist, especially when I wasn't intending a racist statement.

While on the general subject of prejudice, there is scene where Lynne sees a large spider, is terrified by it, and eventually kills it (a lot!).  This scene is drawn out for effect, so you get the feeling it's important.  Why?  I don't know.  Does it say Lynne (or the average human) will naturally destroy things that look like a threat?  In the next scene, Lynne is talking to Brenda, who notices she's upset.  Lynne avoids telling Brenda about the spider.  Does this say that civilized Lynne won't accept her own potential for brutality, or that she's ashamed of that brutality?  Later, after Bobby finds out what happened to Beauty, he doesn't tell the rest of the family about it.  Is this, combined with the scenes with Lynne, saying that civilized people have, as a weakness, the inability to express these things verbally to each other?  Not likely, since they've already gleefully described the destruction of a poodle.

I don't know.  I would like to think that Craven had a point here, and there would be enough information to avoid the wrong conclusion.  Not that psychologist Craven wouldn't sneak in a Rorschach ink blot test for the audience; that spider sure became one.
 

What the heck kinda dialect IS that?

Some of the dialogue spoken by the Jupiter clan is hard to understand.  Sure, they're a backwater group that isn't going to talk like classically trained Shakespearean actors, but there's a lot of inconsistency with their dialect.  Sometimes it sounds like standard American, sometimes it's West Virginian, and sometimes it sounds like lowland Cajun.  A consistent dialect that didn't sound like any of the above might've been more effective for convincing the audience the Jupiter family has been living in a cultural vacuum, and it would've helped to make the dialogue easier to understand.

To be fair, I know this movie shouldn't be compared to something by Anthony Burgess, who paid a lot of attention to the details of consistent cultural languages in A Clockwork Orange and Quest for Fire; however, gradual revelations about the Jupiter clan and their culture is one of the things that makes audiences pay attention.  When one of the characters talks about getting "some powerful food," it sounds too much like the actor used the Jed Clampet as dialect model.
 

The Who Cares Stuff

Not Your Average Mutants

Many viewers mistakenly think the Jupiter clan is a by-product of nuclear radiation.  This is an easy mistake to make, since they do live in the territory of an old atomic test zone.  However, note that Jupiter was born big and evil circa 1930.  If anything, setting the story in an old atomic test zone implies the land is trash, just as Jupiter was (to his father) trash, the whore Jupiter kidnapped was trash, and the Jupiter clan lives on the trash of their surroundings.  It's likely these sons of Jupiter were poisoned more by their father than the land.
 

Notes on the Cast and Crew

Wes Craven already has tons of stuff written about him, so we won't bother here.  Most of the cast haven't had distinguished careers before or since this movie, but there are a few exceptions.

The most recognizable actor in this movie is, of course, Michael Berryman, who played Pluto.  After all, it was his distinctive features the marketers decided to put on the advertising.  In a sense, Berryman became an actor by accident.  He was "discovered" by George Pal and got a bit part in Doc Savage.  It was enough screen time for him to be noticed; soon he was playing Ellis in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and that's when he learned about acting in movies.  Lately, he hasn't been getting the really good parts like he used to, but he still has an agent, he's still working, and he has a web page.

In an interview with Fangoria magazine, Berryman talked about doing some publicity for the movie by dressing up as Pluto and going to a media event for the Detroit Free Press.  Afterwards, he found a local theater that was showing The Hills Have Eyes, and, still in his Pluto outfit, slipped into the back of the audience quietly and sat down.  During the movie, a woman in the audience grabbed her boy and was leading him out while saying, "This movie is sick and depraved!"  Just as they approached him, Berryman stood up and said to her, "Damn right, lady.  This movie is horrible!"  It seemed to have the desired effect....

Dee Wallace (Lynne) is now Dee Wallace-Stone.  She did some TV movies after this, and soon was doing A-line movies, including 10, The Howling, and  E.T.  She's dropped back into the B-line and TV movies, but at least she's still working.

Robert Houston (Bobby) didn't exactly have a stellar career, but he wrote and directed an English version feature based on a compilation of scenes from two of the Sword of Vengeance movies.  It was called Shogun Assassin.

Several of the production crew moved on to Tourist Trap and Demonoid.  Ah, well...

According to the IMDB, Walter Cichy (the production manager) had worked on Flesh Gordon as an associate producer and special effects designer and director.  I think it says a lot when you're only credited for two things -- Flesh Gordon and The Hills Have Eyes.
 

Roots, Shoots, and Other Compares

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (1902) -- The descent of two individuals into brutal primitivism.  One has already gone there in the name of civilization, and the other is going to join him...

Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1954) -- Foundation for recent visions of the "isolated group descends into brutal primitivism" theme.  Unlike Conrad, Golding describes a more social and cultural process.

Panic in the Year Zero (1962) -- Civilized family in the wilderness struggles to maintain their sense of class while fighting some clean-cut bad guys on the weekend after the fall of civilization.

Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964) -- Yankees on vacation make a wrong turn in the Deep South and encounter a town that's still pretty irate about that war thing.  BYO BBQ sauce...

Deliverance (1972) -- Firmly popularized the idea that there are some vacation getaways you don't want.

Last House on the Left (1972) -- Craven's first; also uses the brutal revenge for a brutal murder theme.

Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)-- An influence on this movie?  Yes?  No?  Either way, comparisons are unavoidable.

Race with the Devil (1975) -- Vacationers in a recreational vehicle meet some Satan worshipers in the middle of a legally embarrassing moment.  Good cast but pretty unsatisfying.

Southern Comfort (1981) -- National Guardsmen take a seriously wrong turn with geography and their behavior in deep Cajun country.

The Road Warrior (1981)-- Probably popularized that neo-barbarian look that's been imitated in so many other movies, but obviously not this one.  That leads to the asking if The Hills Have Eyes influenced this movie....

The Hills Have Eyes Part II (1985) -- No comment.

The People Under the Stairs (1992) -- Craven again.  Don't feel like leaving the city to meet cannibals with savage boys?  No problem....

The Simpsons -- OK, I just threw that one in here; however, given the level of satire the series has taken over the years, I think they'd be at home in a parody of The Hills Have Eyes.
 

The Bottom Line

Typical family meets atypical family.  Technically crude yet competent, efficient film making.  Characters develop.  Tight script.  Signs of cheapness are not distracting.  Catharsis at the end.  Conclusions left to audience.  Works to a degree on both the early splatter level and an intellectual level.  May appeal more to neurotic NRA members than neurotic gun control zombies (despite the fact that that Carters' armory doesn't do them a damn bit of good).  Hey, this ain't the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath.

Published 28 March 1999

 






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