With the passing of master of American horror Wes Craven this past Sunday, I felt compelled to revisit my favorite film by him – The Hills Have Eyes (1977). This movie is so deeply etched in the American cinematic consciousness that even if you haven’t seen it, you probably remember seeing it. Most notably, people remember the scene where the mutant rips the head off a bird and drinks the blood out of the neck hole, or they are haunted by the iconically creepy image of Michael Berryman’s towering bald inbred mutant giant Pluto. Disturbing, no doubt. Some people have referred to the film as obscene and savage. Of course it is because Wes Craven was the master of showing the disturbing, obscene and savage underpinnings of the white American nuclear family. Sort of an Anti-Norman Rockwell, Craven showed the blood-drenched fallacy that bred the American white Christian family. What Wes Craven has always done (and The Hills Have Eyes is the most rich example of this) is use the landscape of the American family to show the horror that resides at the heart of American culture; how it was founded, the violent ideology on which social order was built, and the inherent blood-filled legacy of genocide and violence that paved the way for the suburbs where “God and guns” (to quote Hills Have Eyes) reign.
In many ways, horror is the most subversive and radical genre in American film. While it may seem like gratuitous and artless violence to many, when done right (and Craven did it right), the horror film can be used to show the artless violence that is at the very foundation of American socio-politics. Through the lens of monstrosity, gore, and bloodshed, horror films have the capacity to depict the horrific aftermath of the Christian colonization of this chunk of land we now refer to as The United (my ass) States of America. America is a horror story on so many fronts.
Many critics have ripped The Hills Have Eyes apart for its excessive violence. They call it disgusting, savage, and obscene. But this is exactly why the movie is radical. The film’s savagery exposes the truth of the disgusting and obscene violence on which this country was built. The hills do have eyes, and they have witnessed the savage genocide of Native Americans and the brutality of the slave trade. They have witnessed Christians who commit crimes against humanity in the name of God. They have witnessed white racist cops gunning down the black, the innocent and the disenfranchised. They have witnessed the military industrial complex as it builds bombs, wipes out vast amounts of the American landscape, poisons people, and launches its weapons to spread its Imperialist disease. The hills have watched white American middle class Christian families living in a state of violent denial and righteous entitlement as they pound their Bibles and load their guns. All of this is jammed into a cacophonic 89 minutes in Wes Craven’s film.
The Hills Have Eyes doesn’t soft step our couch its message. It brings multiple levels of the ideological violence of American imperialism to the foreground. The movie opens in an American wasteland – a post-apocalyptic desert landscape with gutted buildings, bone dry gas pumps, and tattered remains of consumer culture. An American family decides to travel through this landscape on vacation. Helmed by the patriarch Bob (a retired racist cop who has no problem recalling his run-ins with “niggers”), the family cruises in their station wagon and camper in ignorant denial, thinking their guns and the Lord (as the mom quotes) will save them from any trouble. But trouble does happen, and a collision of America’s ugliest underpinnings comes to surface. Military toxicity collides with a nuclear family and a family of mutants who are nuclear casualties. The drama unfolds in a nuclear fallout zone and unveils the horrific gory ugliness that encompasses American “values.”
Let’s talk about Bob. Bob steers the family into this wasteland. Bob is a blustering red faced blowhard of a man. Uttering racist slurs as he leads his family in prayer, Bob is set up for the audience to despise him. Not only is Bob a racist, but he’s a sexist. When military fighter jets swoop down at the car and drive Bob off the road, he praises the military and berates and blames the women for distracting him. Bob is an asshole, a despicable representative of ignorant white middle class men, and we want Bob to get his comeuppance. Bob does get it and get it good does as the movie systematically slaughters the white Christian family for the entertainment of the audience.
Bob is taken down by rival patriarch Arthur King who leads a clan of inbred mutants. Arthur King’s people embody the toxicity of the landscape. They are deformed outcast mutants driven to insanity as they have absorbed the literal poison of the ground they occupy. They live on cast-offs from the military – walkie talkies and whisky –, and they will eat anything they can sink their teeth into (dogs or babies). Their clothing and jewelry reference that of Native Americans, so they also are the monstrous legacy of genocide. When Arthur King and his clan go up against Bob and his family, it is patriarch on patriarch and abomination against abomination. Both families are equally horrific. One wears their monstrosity literally on their bodies; the other masks their monstrosity in homilies and bibles.
Bob’s death is one of the most memorable in horror film history. He is crucified on a Joshua Tree, and then his body is set on fire. He becomes a human burning cross in the desolate landscape of the Mojave desert. The image is horrifying for sure. Anyone who watches it will have a hard time forgetting it. But sometimes it’s good not to forget. The image of Bob’s burning body references the burning crosses of the Ku Klux Klan, the lynching of blacks in America, and the Christianity the underscores racist murders. These are important things not to forget. It is no accident that Bob’s face turns black, and he becomes the thing he hates and that which he has unjustly targeted with his gun and his badge. Certainly this image is as resonant today as it was in 1977. Bob is the cinematic sacrificial white man. He is the stand-in for all the wrongs the White Man has committed out of hatred and intolerance. The horror genre provides the perfect vehicle to take vengeance on him for his legacy of massacre and violence. The movie makes a public display of the White Man’s execution, and Bob is representative of an entire political culture that executed millions of people in this country. This is radical filmmaking.
Just because Bob is bad doesn’t mean that Arthur King is good. Hell no. He literally sprouted from the toxicity of the militarized landscape, and his clan of mutants are aberrations of the war machine. They adopt Native American costumes in an egregious coopting of culture. They inhabit a land of nuclear waste, and they are nuclear waste. They are the disfiguration of American values, monsters that have leaked out of a landscape drenched in blood from massacres and fallout from the hydrogen bomb. They are weapons begot by weapons and evidence of the rot at the core of the American nuclear family.
It’s hard to care about anyone in this movie, but the film does show the children as struggling between what is nature and what is nurture. The young mutant girl Ruby has not been completely bastardized. She wants to escape, and she wants to save the innocent baby who hasn’t had a chance to make choices yet. Even the towering giant Pluto seems like a whining baby and a victim to the corrupt system that bred him. The white kids are both superficial and pathetic. In the end, the dogs in the movie – Beauty and Beast – are the most sympathetic characters. Beauty’s slaughter seems much more savage than Bob’s lynching. And when we cheer for Beast’s heroics, it’s not because we want him to save the white family, but rather we want him to avenge Beauty’s murder.
The movie’s visual assault is coupled with cacophonic sound design. The static infused thrumming music sounds like a jet engine mixed with LSD, and it evokes the toxic secrets of military test sites and the abhorrent monstrosities the war machine creates. The music is coupled with an ever-increasing, ear-piercing torrent of blood-curdling screaming. By the time we get to the final showdown, the movie has disintegrated to screams and blood as if the hills themselves are unleashing America’s violent history in a massive flood of noise and gore.
After nearly 90 minutes of carnage, the movie ends with the image of an outraged young father – Martin Speer’s Doug Wood – savagely stabbing one of the mutant clan. Again, it is man-on-man to the death. Doug wields the knife in an insane fury as the screen is saturated with red, the bloodbath of history. The image is horrific and extreme, and it calls for action. How do we stop this brutal cycle? Where do we cut the cord on violence? The movie thrusts us in the middle of the maelstrom, so we need to flail our way out. There is no denying the horror when we walk away from this film.
The Hills Have Eyes is not an act of gratuitous violence. It is an outcry against history and the reality of American Christian values. Wes Craven was a radical filmmaker because he dared to show the horror of white Christian America in all its obscene ugliness. He used the low-brow horror genre to provide social and political critique of the smoke and mirror bullshit that comprises the white American Dream. This film is revolutionary as it incites the audience to take vengeance on an abominable system that has protected the white nuclear family with its faith in God and gunpowder while it has systematically destroyed the landscape and the non-white people who have lived and died in it.
RIP Wes Craven.