The Last Desert on the Left: Stress and Savagery in The Hills Have Eyes

The Hills Have Eyes (1977) is a story of terror and cannibalism born from the real life exploits of the 14th century Sawney Bean family, an inbred clan of cave-dwelling, mass-murdering Scottish cannibals who robbed and slaughtered innocent travelers over a period of 25 years. Their reign of terror ended when the family, which had bred for three generations, was brought to justice and brutally executed by Edinburgh authorities by burning them alive or bleeding them to death via limb amputation.

Writer/director Wes Craven developed his treatment for The Hills Have Eyes (1977) as a follow-up to his brutal low-budget debut The Last House On The Left (1972), after producer Peter Locke asked him to write a horror script that could be shot cheaply in the sparse setting of the California Mojave Desert with a small cast and crew. Craven stumbled across the Bean tale while researching at the New York Public Library and thought it would make an effective foundation for his script. Regardless of its historical basis, Craven ultimately delivered a film that feels like a collision of ideas from his debut film The Last House On The Left (1972) and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974).

The nature of human savagery has frequently been explored in horror cinema, from literal early films like Freaks (1932), Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde (1931) and The Island Of Lost Souls (1933), through to contemporary films like 28 Days Later (2003). Craven began his career exploring the human/savage duality through mirrored families in The Last House On The Left (1972), and he returns to the theme in The Hills Have Eyes (1977). In fact, he would continue to explore the theme in later films, including A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and The People Under the Stairs (1991). Both Last House (1972) and Hills (1977) concern a ‘good’ family that suffers terrible loss at the hands of a ‘bad’ family, which in turn fuels brutal vengeance against the ‘bad’ by the ‘good.’ The ‘bad’ family in Hills (1977) is similar to the primal family in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) — isolated by rural setting, rudimentary lifestyle and murder-for-meat practices — while the ‘good’ is an echo of Craven’s own nuclear family, drawn from a surprising catalogue of biographical details.

To make things morally ambiguous, the ‘bad’ families in Last House (1972) and Hills (1977) become conscious of their own brutality and uneasy about their actions — although in decidedly different ways. In Last House (1972), the moment of realization and regret comes after Krug Stillo (David Hess) rapes Mari Collinwood (Sandra Cassell) after sadistically carving his name in her chest with a switchblade. It’s a ridiculously fleeting moment, though, as moments after the camera lingers on Krug’s guilt-ridden face accompanied by Hess’s hippie blues ballad ‘Now You’re All Alone,’ he nonchalantly shoots Mari with a pistol.

Craven introduces the idea more convincingly in Hills (1977) with the character of Ruby (Janus Blythe), who is a sympathetic ‘bad’ family member hoping to escape her family’s morally corrupt lifestyle. Ruby straddles the gap between the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ families for most of the film, but by the end she makes a conscious decision at great personal risk to abandon her family’s ways and rescues a helpless baby from her brother Mars (Lance Gordon) to return it to its father Doug (Martin Speer). But Craven criss-crosses Ruby’s shift towards good with a vicious descent into vengeance by Doug, who savagely stabs her brother to death in self-defense with an undercurrent of revenge. It’s a devastating moment to see Ruby’s compassionate heroics answered by the killing of her brother over her horrified, bloodcurdling shrieks by the very man who benefited from her sacrifice, and it’s eye-opening evidence that the moral distinctions between the two clans is blurry at best.

The Hills Have Eyes’ (1977) ending is especially powerful because Doug’s violent act is the final explosion of long-simmering tension that’s been carefully brought to a boil from the beginning of the film. The audience is on his side when it happens because of everything we’ve gone through with him. When we first meet Doug, it’s through an exchange with his father-in-law Big Bob Carter (Russ Grieve) in front of the family’s travel trailer that hints at strain in their relationship. From that point on, the stress on Doug is slowly ratcheted: his beloved dog Beast begins to act strangely, aggressively barking and pulling him towards an unseen threat during their rest stop; the family caravan breaks down in the middle of an inhospitable desert, stranding them with few resources; Beast runs off and disappears, still chasing the threat it sensed at the rest stop, and is ultimately killed and gutted; Doug walks many miles searching for help, but returns in failure; his father-in-law is brutally killed, and his wife is shot and dies in his arms; and, the worst thing imaginable happens — his infant daughter is kidnapped by Pluto (Michael Berryman) and Mars from right under him. If that isn’t enough, Craven threatens Doug with an ornery desert rattlesnake right before his deadly clash with Mars. Doug’s furious stabbing to close out the film is understandable given what he’s gone through — those circumstances would break many a reasonable man.

Last House (1972) ends on a similar gruesome act of vengeance against Krug by the hand of Mari’s father Dr. Collingwood (Gaylord St. James), but it lacks the richness that the carefully developed arcs and conflicted presence that Ruby and Doug brings to Hills’ (1977) ending. After Krug and gang unwittingly wind up at their victim’s home through contrived ‘movie’ happenstance, things quickly spiral as the Collingwoods see their missing daughter’s necklace on Junior (Marc Sheffler), discover bloody clothes in Krug’s suitcase, and run outside to find their violated, barely-breathing daughter. This swift chain of events propels Dr. Collingwood down to his basement to root through his toolbox and formulate absurd booby traps while his wife (Cynthia Carr) initiates a vengeful sexual encounter with Weasel. The Collingwoods’ painfully deliberate methods of revenge — a shaving foam-slicked floor, an electricity-wired doorknob, a blowjob castration, and assault by chainsaw(!) — are so jarring, exploitive and absurd that it borders on black comedy, leaving Last House’s (1972) ‘Who are the real savages?’ question floundering in contrived chainsaw-spattered histrionics. It simply can’t match the long-simmering stress and deprivation of resources that Craven has mindfully set up in Hills (1977) to drive the film like a powerful engine.

The film’s setting and environment — the jagged rocks, fanged land and foreboding elevations of an unforgiving Mojave — enables much of the stress and tension in Hills (1977), but its most harrowing scene takes place inside the cramped quarters of a travel trailer. When Big Bob is nailed to a Joshua tree and tortured with a fiery explosion, Pluto and Mars use the chaos as a cloak to slip into the Carters’ trailer. Their claustrophobic assault is most unsettling for the tender life they desecrate: a young beautiful girl is raped, two generations of mothers are mortally wounded, and the fragile innocence of a baby girl is ripped away from her family in a matter of moments. Craven placing a baby smack-dab in the midst of the frenzied violence — crying, helpless and unprotected — has an extremely powerful effect, and Brenda’s ear-shattering screams, layered over Don Peake’s droning percussive score, are incredibly painful and difficult to listen to, easily rivaling the intensity of Marilyn Burns’ shrieks in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). When Doug’s wife Lynn (Dee Wallace) is shot, he cradles her in his arms, hugs her tight, and kisses her on the mouth, gently sobbing as he realizes she is dead. Too often in horror films the dead are hurriedly stepped over or rolled off in the ditch without another thought as the plot churns forward. Death is recognized and mourned as a human loss in Hills (1977), and that makes it much more real, and much more horrifying.