Following his unexpectedly successful debut The Last House On The Left, Wes Craven ended up convinced to stay within the genre and cook up a worthy follow-up that would cement his stature as one of the up-and-coming voices in horror. Interestingly enough, he was initially quite hesitant because he feared he would paint himself into a corner. Little did he know that the corner he was painting himself into would be looked at with adulation by generations of filmmakers. That’s because similarly to George A. Romero, John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper – his contemporaries – he had a knack for distilling social anxieties into his stories and elevating what could otherwise be disposable exploitation films to become cultural icons.
Craven’s sophomore feature, The Hills Have Eyes fits this description perfectly even though its genesis was, shall we say, tumultuous. It did not originate organically as an idea Craven was desperate to write down, but rather as an answer to a challenge from his producer to follow up his debut with something other than a Grimm fairy tale adaptation Craven wanted to make instead. This is actually quite an interesting wrinkle because it testifies to the likely possibility that a lot of socially-awake horror films of the time (or even in general) are not engineered to reflect the zeitgeist of the era. They are simply vessels for inspiration, wherever it may come from. Their thematic messaging is serendipitous and organically reflective of what the filmmakers were carrying in their souls at the time as well.
Therefore, it is equally valid to see The Hills Have Eyes as a direct response to Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which Craven was a fan of. Notably, this could also be read as an instance of circular auto-inspiration-by-proxy because the rogue spirit of The Last House On The Left clearly carried over to Hooper’s film as well. However, the well of inspiration is much deeper than that and encompasses John Ford’s adaptation of Steinbeck’s The Grapes Of Wrath, Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs and an obscure Scottish legend about a clan of cannibals. At one point, the film was supposed to have a post-apocalyptic slant as well, which filtered partially into the finished product anyway, albeit implicitly.
Taken together, this soup of references added to something more than the sum of its parts because The Hills Have Eyes is not just a retort to Hooper’s masterpiece, but something else entirely. Although it carries distinct elements of structural and aesthetic symmetry with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Craven’s film taps into a completely separate stream of thematic anxiety permeating the society at large.
Hooper’s film could easily be read as a critique of the hippie culture and a veiled cautionary tale suggesting that young progressive liberals would be literally eaten alive by the raw and unbridled energy inhabiting America’s hinterlands. In a way, this is a variation on the melody carried by Craven’s own debut as well. The Hills Have Eyes circumvents any allegations of copycattery almost by accident by retaining a distinct post-apocalyptic tone. Even though the narrative template is essentially symmetrical to the one found in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the film immediately assumes its own unique atmosphere by paying attention to its setting. For all intents and purposes, Craven’s picture is not really set in America the viewers would immediately recognize. There is no sight of any signs of civilized life and the eerily unsettling desert landscape (that also seems to be effectively all-encompassing) has more in common with an alien planet. This film could effectively take place on Mars and nobody would be able to tell the difference. And this is exactly where its genius lies hidden because it’s not set on Mars.
As a result, this simplistic tale of ambush and survival becomes saturated with a cutting politically-relevant tone. In contrast to Hooper’s dandy liberals, Craven’s picture-perfect family is not assailed by a family of hillbillies who just happen to be cannibals. People they encounter are affected by the landscape they dwell in – the radioactive wasteland left behind by the US Government’s testing of nuclear weapons. Hence, The Hills Have Eyes becomes much more than a genre-elevated take on the culture wars America was grappling with. It is an incidental commentary on the fears which have at that point already become internalized by the global society – fears of nuclear armageddon.
It must be remembered that ever since 1949 – the year when USSR gained nuclear capabilities – the entirety of human civilization had lived with a gun pressed against its temple. After nearly twenty-five years and a handful of near misses, the most important of which was the infamous Cuban Missile Crisis, this anxiety recoiled into a fully internalized invisible fear. The status quo which, by the way, still continues to this day is effectively challenged in Craven’s film. Peace and prosperity don’t come for free and this thematic conversation is reflected in the form of a visceral conflict between a family of peace-loving postcard Americans and a tribe of deformed savages who want to literally eat their babies. Although this message is skillfully hidden beneath the primary narrative which also happens to keep the viewer occupied with the horror of torture and survival, it is nonetheless there. The Hills Have Eyes easily functions as an elevated cautionary tale about a very distinct possibility that the technological advancements which gave Americans nuclear weaponry will not save them from demise. Battered by radiation, the land will have its revenge eventually and the very people who have benefited from the serenity afforded by the nuclear deterrent will end up cannibalized by a sub-class of humans they don’t even know exist.
Thus, Wes Craven’s sophomore feature proudly builds on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, infuses its organic message critiquing class divides and obliviousness of the entitled upper classes with a more far-reaching commentary about the trajectory of the human experiment. What is even more frightening, The Hills Have Eyes remains relevant today, forty-three years past its release, because we still live under the gun of potential nuclear holocaust, our societies are ravaged by tribal polarization and entitled liberal elites continue to live in blissful ignorance of a very distinct possibility that unless something changes, a day will come when masses of disenfranchised savages will rock up on their doorstep with a desire to eat their children.