Distinctive character actor Michael Berryman was born with a condition that meant he would never be able to grow hair, fingernails or teeth. But he’s gamely embraced typecasting as a horror movie mutant. Berryman happened to be near a screening of The Hills Have Eyes in Detroit and snuck into the back row to watch audience reactions. The actor told Fangoria, “Right around the time the heavies in the movie were threatening to kill the baby, this woman got up dragging her son out of the theater screaming, ‘This movie is sick and depraved!’ … I happened to have my whole getup on from the movie, so as the lady came up the aisle, I grabbed her by the arm and said, ‘Damn right, this movie is horrible!’ So she went into hysterics and ran out into the street. Her son just shook my hand and said ‘Thanks’ and went back in to watch the rest of the movie.”

Director Wes Craven was forever typecast by his feature debut, The Last House on the Left. “They thought we were kind of monsters because of that film,” he told Cinefantastique, “and the only offers we got were to do other things that were very bloody.” But if Craven was a reluctant monster, he used horror to connect with audiences in a way that only a genre director can—he grabbed you in the dark and made you scream.

The Hills Have Eyes (1977) is arguably less depraved than Last House, if only because graphic violence was cut to appease censors. Craven’s second feature had the benefit of a bigger budget that made it relatively slick and conventional compared to the rawness of his feature debut. But it’s still a thoroughly unsettling experience. The movie was inspired by the perhaps mythological tale of Sawney Bean, who reportedly led a family of cannibals in 16th century Scotland. The legend spawned grisly accounts like that of John Nicholson, who in 1843 wrote of bandits who would rob and dismember their victims, “pickle the mangled limbs and afterward eat it.” It reads like a modern serial killer’s dream, “legs, arms, thighs, hands and feet … hung up like dried beef.” Where else would you set a 20th century update of this terrible legend but in the deserts of California?

It’s a spiritual desert indeed. On their way to Los Angeles, the Carter family travels through an arid wasteland to claim a silver mine inherited from a late relative. But in their search for treasure, they encounter a family of incestuous cannibals. Much like the young victims of slasher movies are punished for their sexual activity, this family is singled out for their greed. The family station wagon and trailer runs aground in the middle of hellish territory where they are “sitting ducks” for Jupiter (James Whitworth) and his clan, willing to eat dog but hungry for human flesh—even a fat, juicy baby.

If Hills is less visionary and personal than The Last House on the Left, it can also be more difficult to take. Last House suffered and benefited from an occasionally goofy score that kept its horror from fully registering. Here there is no such silly music to temper the horror, and unlike in modern slasher movies, each death is painfully mourned, as Doug weeps for his murdered wife and Ethel stares in disbelief at the charred body of her husband, insisting “That’s not my Bob.”

The film’s title gives human characteristics to a forbidding landscape, and the startling features of Jupiter’s son Pluto (Berryman) may represent nature at her most frightening. The evil mountain clan could have easily come off as mere simpletons, but their very grotesqueness gives them a kind of evil grandeur, and if they lack the manners of decent society, they thrive on a knowledge of landscape that is almost an animal instinct. And like the distraught parents in Last House, the surviving Carters must resort to animal violence to survive. This is clearly spelled out in the fates of the Carters’ family dogs, Beauty and Beast. Beauty runs off into the hills early in the film and is killed, but Beast eventually helps save the day.

The canine hero seems a grown up descendent of the diminutive family pet in Last House. Beast is a more commanding creature, and his animal heroism makes the film a kind of sick Disney adventure movie, with rape, kidnaping and cannibals. It’s a different kind of entertainment, one that thrives in the dark. The Hills Have Eyes is exploitation through and through, but it is also didactic, installing the brutal lesson that in order to survive in the wilderness, man must return to animal instincts.

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