It’s a bit tough wrapping one’s head around it, but it’s actually been four decades since Wes Craven’s censorship-defying chiller THE HILLS HAVE EYES arrived and left viewers sitting in stunned silence. While the enthusiastically gritty LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT differed significantly in premise, it did serve as a bit of a precursor of what was to come for Craven; in his youthful days, the man worked tirelessly to push the envelope, and it won him a place in the hearts of countless fans across the globe.
Everyone loves a rogue with a pair of brass balls — and that was Craven in simplified but accurate terms.
As for THE HILLS HAVE EYES, it didn’t exactly set the box office ablaze (it’s difficult to track down accurate figures), but there’s a solid reason for that: Craven had to fight tooth and nail just to get the stranglehold of the MPAA loosened a bit. Approximately a half dozen scenes were said to be cut from the picture in order to escape an X rating. Craven made it work in the long run — but the picture was clearly so astonishing, the commercial market wasn’t entirely prepared to support the project. Fans, however, felt very different.
HILLS has long been a fan-favorite Craven picture. The dedication of the cast and crew seems to ooze from the screen into the hearts of fans… and believe this: the cast and crew were extremely dedicated to making the best horror film they could.
For example: Michael Berryman, who has Hypohidrotic Ectodermal Dysplasia — which prevents one from sweating — spent more than five months in 100-plus degree weather, all in order to turn Pluto into an extremely memorable and believable character. Virginia Vincent was injured and briefly hospitalized when a squib beneath her robe malfunctioned and exploded; she may not have actually been shot (thankfully), but she didn’t walk away from the scene unscathed.
In many ways, Craven’s film was very much a guerrilla-style piece of work: conditions were treacherous, and the challenges the cast members faced were consistent and sometimes quite terrifying. A number of the reactions we see on screen today involved little acting, and only natural responses: Dee Wallace has gone on the record and admitted to being petrified during the tarantula scene, and you may also remember a certain rattlesnake inducing a look of unease in Janus Blythe — that, too, was a natural response to an uncomfortable situation.
Oh, and we haven’t even touched on the dead dog yet.
While most viewers made the assumption the dog was either alive and drugged or a prop, it turns out that dog was very real… and very dead. It wasn’t killed on set for the purpose of the film, of course, and it was provided to the crew legally — but there’s something quite chilling about knowing the “effect” was actually the real deal.
THE HILLS HAVE EYES was, in short, an absolutely insane creative venture which took a toll on more than just one member of the crew. But the tension, the terror, and the injuries (minor or not) were all crucial to the production. Part of the reason THE HILLS HAVE EYES reeks of fear and desperation is because it was genuine distress we witnessed.
That was Wes Craven: he cared about his cast, he cared about his crew, and he cared about his films — and that’s why he pushed relentlessly. He encouraged all those involved to aim high and hold nothing back — to be better than they’d ever been — and the final result practically bleeds authenticity and screams of organic horror.
In the years to follow the release of THE HILLS HAVE EYES, we’ve seen the landscape of the genre shift and continually change. We’ve also been fortunate enough to see some of those involved in the movie thrive on a professional level. Dee Wallace has gone on to become one of the greatest Scream Queens in history, piling on genre credits that include THE HOWLING, CUJO, CRITTERS, and THE FRIGHTENERS, to name just a few; Michael Berryman has enjoyed quite the successful career as well, surfacing in noteworthy pictures WEIRD SCIENCE, THE DEVIL’S REJECTS, PENNY DREADFUL and THE LORDS OF SALEM, and popular television shows THE X-FILES and TALES FROM THE CRYPT.
Beyond all the fan adoration and the longevity of the picture comes the greatest form of flattery: imitation.
While Alexandre Aja’s 2006 remake of the film attempts to inject a few unique beats and deviations, and was clearly a project enmeshed in passion, it is ultimately a very similar film to Craven’s. The vision hasn’t changed much — and quite a few scenes are essentially full-on replicas of sequences featured in Craven’s picture. Aja did a damn fine job of modernizing the film, but it’s essentially an imitation of the original. It’s a respectful imitation, to be sure, and Aja does a fine job of honoring Craven’s twisted vision… but when all is said and done, it’s the same film with a series of new faces tossed into the turmoil. But when your picture inspires a young, hungry talent like Aja nearly 30 years after its creation, it’s clear you’ve accomplished something profound.
So here we are — celebrating 40 wonderful years, with dedicated love and respect for a film that still stands the test of time, frightening and disturbing viewers in equal measure. Wes Craven may have departed this world… but his pictures will continue to live on long after our time on this earth has reached an end. THE HILLS HAVE EYES is just one of many Craven works that will continue to entertain and inspire.