Though preceded by films such as Herschell Gordon Lewis’s Two Thousand Maniacs (1964), John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972), and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes made an important contribution to the development of “backwoods” horror, demonstrating the potential of the genre to explore serious social concerns, despite the high level of violence and mayhem. Hills also demonstrates the flexibility of the backwoods genre, with the typical backwoods replaced by a hilly desert and the usual Southern rednecks and hillbillies are replaced by a clan of Southwestern desert people whose patriarch is an apparent psychopath. It also displays an unusual amount of sympathy for its hill people, suggesting that they might have some legitimate reasons for the rancor with which they greet outsiders.
A low-budget, rough-hewn film, The Hills Have Eyes is nevertheless very efficient at delivering information. For example, an opening shot of a rundown gas station in the middle of nowhere quickly establishes the remoteness of the film’s setting. Indeed, a hand-painted sign on the side of the station not only identifies the station as “Fred’s Oasis,” suggesting that it might be in the middle of a desert but also reinforces this impression with the additional notation, “No mo gas for 200 mi.” Meanwhile, a tumbleweed blowing across the road in front of the station alerts viewers to look for connections to the Western genre, in which such tumbleweeds are iconic images. Finally, a shot of the rubble of a ruined house, with the crumbling chimney still standing, adds to the ruined feel of this site, all of which together suggests poverty and decay.
All of these opening suggestions will then bear considerable fruit in the course of the film. The Hills Have Eyes does, in fact, intersect with the Western genre, while the air of poverty that pervades the film’s opening shot helps to set up the film’s central conflict, in which the impoverished and starving Jupiter clan, which lives amid the hills of this desert, is opposed to the relatively affluent Carter family (from Ohio), consisting of middle-aged parents Big Bob and Ethel (Russ Grieve and Virginia Vincent), their teen children Bobby and Brenda (Robert Houston and Susan Lanier), and their twenty-something daughter Lynne Wood (Dee Wallace), along with Lynne husband Doug (Martin Speer) and their infant daughter Katy (Brenda Marinoff). The Carters and Woods are traveling through the desert on their way to Los Angeles on a vacation trip. The film’s opening moments further set up the conflict between the Jupiters and the Carters when the travelers consult Fred himself (John Steadman), explaining to him that they are detouring through the desert to take a look at a silver mine that has been gifted to Big Bob and Ethel on the occasion of their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. This mine does not play an important role in the film, but it does suggest the way in which the Carters, though outsiders, feel entitled to own property that might more properly belong to the Jupiters.
Fred’s Oasis, of course, is another gas station on the edge of nowhere, following such predecessors as the ramshackle outpost where the travelers of Deliverance meet the banjo-picking boy or the Gulf station where the travelers of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre meet The Cook. Though urgently warned by Fred to stay on the main road, Big Bob insists on taking what he thinks is a short cut to the mine, then crashes their vehicle when he swerves to avoid hitting a rabbit. What follows is a sustained nightmare in which Carter clan is viciously assaulted by the Jupiters, leading to the deaths of Bob, Ethel, Lynne, and one of the family’s two German shepherds, though the surviving family members respond with extreme violence of their own, ultimately meting out more punishment than they take and virtually wiping out the Jupiters.
Fred later reveals to that he the father of Papa Jupiter (James Whitworth), the head of the clan of hill people. Jupiter, born in 1929, was “not right” from the beginning, showing a number of psychopathic tendencies, eventually murdering his older sister. Fred then clubbed Jupiter with a tire iron and left him in the desert to die. He survived, though, and has now founded his own degenerate family, who live in the hills that now serve as a U.S. Air Force bombing range, the silver mines of the area being long depleted. Jupiter has thus suffered a series of outrages throughout his life, which has made him not only psychotic but bitter and angry, characteristics he has passed on to his now-adult children, while the whole family has also resorted to cannibalism as part of their desperate struggle to survive in the desert.
Tony Williams, in an extended study of the role of the family in American horror films, argues that Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972) and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) join The Hills Have Eyes (1977) as films in which “typical American families encounter their monstrous counterparts, undergo (or perpetuate) brutal violence, and eventually survive with full knowledge of their kinship to their monstrous counterparts” (11). In so doing, according to Williams, these films, along with many other American horror films, stand in stark contrast to mainstream representations of the American family and challenge accepted ideas about American family life. It is certainly the case that many American horror films focus on the family, either as an embattled locus of normality and virtue that is threatened by monstrous others or—especially from Psycho (1960) forward—as a source of monstrous evil in itself. In the case of The Hills Have Eyes, families actually play both roles, with the seemingly “normal” Carter family set against the grubby Jupiters, a family of grotesques who perform monstrous acts in the course of the film. At the time it was originally released, The Hills Have Eyes had a major impact because of its spectacular and graphic violence—perhaps partly because audiences were expecting such things from Craven, whose first film, The Last House on the Left (1972), had received considerable attention due to its scenes of shocking violence. Over the years, however, Hills has gained increasing respect for its subtlety and complexity. In particular, the dual family structure around which the film is built is far more complicated than a simple opposition between the “good” Carters and the “bad” Jupiters.
In terms of graphic violence, it should also be noted that The Hills Have Eyes is not nearly as nearly as graphic as many people seem to remember. Perhaps the most horrifying act in the film—the Jupiters’ plan to kill and eat Baby Katy—never even happens. Meanwhile, much of the worst violence (such as the rape of Brenda) is not actually shown directly but is merely implied. And, while we do see Doug repeatedly stabbing Mars at the film’s end, but we do not see the blade going into flesh. Granted, the crucifixion and burning of Big Bob might seem almost like something from today’s torture porn, but it is not shown in anything like the detail of the various physical violations and abuses that lie at the heart of films like those in the Saw franchise.
In his analysis of The Hills Have Eyes, Kendall Phillips focuses on the family dynamic in the film, noting that “Gothic” families are often at the heart of Craven’s early films. In the case of Hills, Phillips notes the many parallels between this film and earlier works of American literature:“Deprived of the comforts of home, the Carters take on the role of early settlers facing the dangers of the wild, and in a gesture toward early American literature, they must overcome these dangers in order to preserve their hold on civilization. At the heart of this contest is their encounter with the uncivilized—the savage” (114). Phillips then glosses this observation with a reference to Allan Lloyd Smith, who has noted that “At the heart of the American Gothic wilderness is the savage Indian, and the overdetermined compulsion of the settler to kill and to signal his triumph over the barbaric in a supposed distinction from the primitive, which unmistakably includes a doubling of his own nature with the savage” (Smith 44). Phillips then follows up very much in the vein of Williams by noting that “the Carters begin to be stripped of their comforts and cultural norms and are left to face their double—the savage, primitive native family” (114).
Phillips’ evocation of Native Americans points to the affinities of The Hills Have Eyes with the Western genre. After all, its setting in the desert Southwest is a typical one for Westerns, and the motif of “civilized” outsiders traveling through this setting only to be violently confronted by its “savage” inhabitants is also common in Westerns. Hills thus engages in a significant dialogue with the entire rich legacy of the Western and all of its implications. In this case, those implications are probably best understood via the work of Richard Slotkin, who has carefully analyzed the role of the Western in the construction of an American national cultural identity. For Slotkin, the focus of the Western on the conquest of the frontier—defeating both the Western natural wilderness and the “savage” inhabitants of the wilderness—is key to the development of an American national identity forged through victory over opponents in what Slotkin refers to as “savage war.”
The Jupiter family in Hills is certainly depicted as savage, violent, and dangerous, and it is surely the case that most viewers will identify more with the Carters, who are clearly coded as “normal,” as opposed to the Jupiters, who are malformed and clearly coded as “abnormal”—including one family member, Pluto (Michael Berryman), who seems visibly deformed. And yet we should remember that it is the Carters who are the interlopers, invading the territory of the Jupiters in search of silver. There are, also subtle indications that the normality of the Carters has its own negative, even sinister, aspects. For one thing, their normality is of a specifically white, middle-class variety and is thus associated with the discrimination and exploitation often suffered by those Americans who do not meet this description. In addition, they seem almost too typical and too American—note that they share a last name with the U.S. president who was in office when the film was released and that, when Bob takes out his trusty firearm, we see that it has a red, white, and blue handle. The Carters thus verge on being a parody of the typical white middle-class American family—or at least of taking on allegorical dimensions. Big Bob is an extremely patriarchal figure who clearly regards himself as the commander of the group, while Ethel is the prototypical little woman, happy to play a subservient role, while at the same time hoping to nudge the rest of the family in the direction of the God she so devoutly worships. Meanwhile, Bob and Ethel have a handsome, athletic son (sporting an Ohio State T-shirt) and two pretty blonde daughters, one of whom is safely ensconced in a heterosexual marriage in which she has already produced an offspring.
The Jupiters, meanwhile, also have dimensions that make it clear that they are more than just depthless monsters. The mother of the clan is simply called Mama (Cordy Clark), suggesting that she might be a prototypical representative of motherhood. Yet she is the virtual opposite of Ethel; she is, in fact, described as a drunken whore and is thus anything but a typical American image of motherhood, so that her designation as “Mama” might be taken as ironic. The much-abused daughter of the clan (the most “normal” of the group) is simply called Ruby (Janus Blythe), the ordinary name perhaps indicating her relative normality. Papa Jupiter, though, is suggestively named for the patriarch of the Roman gods, which might also be taken as ironic. The three sons, meanwhile, are also named for Roman gods: Mars (the god of war), Pluto (the god of the underworld), and Mercury (a prominent Roman god with a number of associations, including commerce and communication). Mars (Lance Gordon), somewhat reminiscent of a Neanderthal in tattered clothing, is probably the most violent and aggressive of the clan, so his name might seem appropriate, but in general this association of the clan with Roman gods seems ironic.
This namong does, however, serve the function of asking the viewer to seek mythic resonances in the film, and it should be noted that Craven has been quoted as suggesting that these resonances should be taken seriously. Martin Carlin notes that Craven said in an interview that “They were very primal… the reason those myths have stayed for so long is because they really nailed certain things about the human condition. They were carrying our cultures in a way that was elemental, boiled down to the barest bones of what we’re all about.” Carlin interprets this to mean that these myths “exposed, for Craven, the fine veneer of civilization that protects us all. And in 1970s America, that veneer was never more fragile.” I think this reading of the mythic resonances in Hills is a bit of a stretch, but the notion that this film reveals American civilization to a a thin veneer separating us all from savagery is certainly indicated in the film. Thus, Hills would seem to be pointing toward anxieties similar to those that motivated Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) back during another crisis period at the end of the nineteenth century, when he described modern European civilization as a thin veneer over savagery, brilliantly captured in his description of Brussels (and, by extension, Europe) as a “whited sepulchre,” that is, as a bright, sanitized, and shiny surface hiding a festering core of corruption and decay.
The Jupiters have other associations as well. For one thing, they can be seen as figures of the marginalized others off of whose labor and suffering families like the Carters have built comfortable lives throughout American history. After he kills Bob, Jupiter angrily berates the corpse: “You come here and stick your life in my face!” There is clearly a great deal of class-based animosity embedded in this declaration, which suggests the extent to which Jupiter resents being reminded of the comfort and security enjoyed by Bob’s family in comparison with the hardship and precarity suffered by his. The American Dream has seemingly been fulfilled for the Carters, but it has passed the Jupiters by entirely. Many critics have, in fact, been quite sympathetic to the Jupiters, while often seeing the Carters as figures of middle-class conformism and cluelessness. Carter Soles, meanwhile, suggests that some of the complexity of Hills derives from the fact that viewers are invited to identify with both of the film’s families, perhaps more, though, with the “hillbillies,” who are depicted as victims of class-based oppression—and even of race-based oppression, despite being white. As Soles puts it, the Jupiters might be white, but “they have symbolically failed at achieving ‘proper’ whiteness” (240). Citing Richard Dyer, Soles notes that whiteness has traditionally been associated stereotypically with “energy, enterprise, industriousness, and discipline,” none of which are properties that are stereotypically associated with “hillbillies” (240).
In terms of this racial angle, the nonwhite group that the Jupiters most clearly evoke is Native Americans, both because of the resonances of this film with the Western and because of certain visual elements in the film (such as the headdresses and jewelry some of them—especially Mama— wear) that clearly link the clan with Native Americans. In addition, their “savage” behavior resembles some of the worst stereotypes that have traditionally been associated with Native Americans, so that one might also see a critical/parodic aspect to this association. Meanwhile, the fact that the Carters are ultimately more destructive to the Jupiters than the other way around can be taken as a reminder that much more violence was ultimately visited by white settlers upon Native Americans than the other way around.
Of course, one reason why Hills might be seen as inviting us to identify with both families in the film is that the families are not really polar opposites after all. D. N. Rodowick sees the Carters and the Jupiters as “two sides of the same coin,“ so that the latter can be seen as the “latent image underlying the depiction” of the former (324). For Rodowick, “What the film gradually reveals is that there is no comfortable distance between the Carter family and the ‘monster’ family which threatens them. The Carters are depicted as the product of a culture where violence is an everyday fact, even a way of life” (323). Put differently, one could argue that the “civilized” Carters are civilized in a specifically American way that keeps their inherent violent tendencies repressed below the surface, but only just below the surface, so that this violence can come roaring back into full force as soon as their complacent view of the world is put under stress, as it is when they encounter the Jupiters (and the desert) in this film.
It is certainly the case that the Carters (and especially Doug Wood) shed all trappings of refinement in the course of this film, eventually resorting to brutal violence. It is not insignificant that the film ends, not with a return to peace and normality, but with the formerly nerdy and somewhat effeminate Doug still engaged in what amounts to the vicious mutilation of the corpse of Mars, whom he has just killed. Then, the screen cuts to solid red, signifier of violence, as the action is truncated at this crucial point. One might again invoke Conrad here and suggest that Doug has followed in the footsteps of the ultra-refined European Kurtz, who has seemingly reverted to savagery when confronted with the savagery of Africans and the African jungle in Heart of Darkness. On the other hand, it is equally possible to read Kurtz as having simply reverted to his true nature now that the constraints of European civilization have been removed. Per this reading, one might then argue that the confrontation with the Jupiters has not transformed Doug from mild-mannered Easterner to tough Western hombre. Instead, the experience in the desert has just removed the false veneer of New York civilization and allowed Doug to show his true colors.
From this point of view, it is significant that the Carter crew has brought violence with them to the desert, rather than simply encountering it there. The first violent moment in the film comes as Beauty and Beast, the Carters’ German shepherds, attempt to get at Fred through the window of the family travel trailer, snarling, barking, and baring their teeth like killers—as Beast will ultimately prove to be. “They just want to play,” Ethel tells Fred, but there might be a reason why Fred doesn’t seem convinced. Meanwhile, Big Bob comes to the desert with a history of violence: he openly complains in the film about the violence that has been directed against him in his career with the police, though he doesn’t detail the violence he himself might have perpetrated in the line of duty. What we do know is that, even as a retiree, he comes on this family vacation bearing multiple firearms and multiple dangerous dogs, which might seem a normal thing for an American to do, but it would certainly appear bizarre to most citizens of supposedly “advanced” countries.
Interestingly, Big Bob actually commits very little violence in the film. Indeed, while the final scene involving Doug’s killing of Mars is certainly violent, probably the most abject violence of the entire film is committed against Bob when he is crucified and burned alive by Papa Jupiter. Indeed, while Bob plays the role of hyper-masculine patriarch, the fact is that his patriarchal power is not exercised very effectively: he wrecks the trailer (defeated by a bunny), he fails to defend himself successfully even though armed, and he ends up writhing helplessly as he burns to death. His character thus can be taken as a commentary on the decline of traditional patriarchal authority in 1970s America.
In addition to addressing a number of such broad and very fundamental themes concerning American history and the entire project of Western modernity, Hills is very much a film of its time that addresses a number of very contemporary issues. For example, Soles notes the ecological themes that can be seen in Hills. Reminding us that the 1970s have often been referred to as “The Environmental Decade” due to the rise of the environmentalist movement during that time, he suggests that the blighted landscape in which the Jupiters live adds a dimension of fear of ecological collapse to the fear of revenge by oppressed others in constituting the matrix of the film’s horror. For him, “The figure of the cannibalistic hillbilly as he appears in low-budget horror films of the 1970s serves as a site whereupon (sub-)urban viewers may project their fears of environmental collapse, dwindling natural resources, and reprisals for their structural mistreatment of the working poor” (Soles 235).
It is also worth noting that Hills was released only two years after the American withdrawal from Vietnam, ending one of the longest, most costly, most controversial, and most morally problematic episodes in the history of American foreign policy. Not surprisingly, echoes of this experience can be found in the film as well, with the Carter contingent playing the role of the American invaders and the Jupiters standing as the defenders of their homeland from foreign invasion, much in the mode of the Viet Cong. As Williams notes, the Jupiter family’s “tribal structure and stubborn existence within a nuclear testing site recall a people [the Vietnamese] General Curtis LeMay [an American commander in Vietnam] threatened to bomb ‘into the Stone Age.’ It also echoes Viet Cong tenacity in using guerilla tactics against a technologically superior enemy” (144–45).
Such echoes are no doubt intentional. Indeed, many American films in a variety of genres (including horror) of this period were clearly designed to be read at least on some level as allegories of the Vietnam experience. This was perhaps especially the case with Westerns, as the American invasion of Vietnam resembled the conquest of the Western frontier in numerous ways. Indeed, Westerns that overtly commented on Vietnam—such as Little Big Man (1970), Soldier Blue (1970), or Ulzana’s Raid (1972)—while the war was still going on were probably Hollywood’s most effective engagement with Vietnam at a time when it was still problematic to make films about the war directly. The fact that Hills has so many points of contact with the Western thus probably enhances the ability of the film to evoke the then-recent Vietnam war.
This ability to comment on such diverse phenomena as Vietnam and environmentalism, as well as nuclear arms testing, the settling of the West, and colonialism in general—plus a thorough critical examination of the American Dream, class inequality, and the bourgeois family—makes The Hills Have Eyes far more than the simple exploitation horror film it might otherwise have been. Meanwhile, the fact that all of these issues resonate with the opposition between the Carters and the Jupiters in ways that complicate that opposition also adds depth and complexity to a film that might otherwise have been little more than an opportunity to display graphic and gratuitous violence on screen.
In 1985, Craven himself directed a poorly received sequel to The Hills Have Eyes. Then, amid a barrage of remakes of classic horror films from earlier eras, The Hills Have Eyes was remade in 2006, with twenty-eight-year-old French Wunderkind Alexandre Aja (who rose to fame in 2003 with the film Haute Tension)at the helm and Craven as a co-producer. The basic scenario of the remake is quite similar to the original, though many details are changed, mostly in the interest of creating additional violent action. The remake is faster-paced than the original, with better special effects used to create even more extreme violence. Aja’s film also makes especially clear the fact that the Jupiters have arrived at their mutated condition as a result of radiation from U.S. atomic weapons testing in the New Mexico desert where they live. Perhaps the film’s most clever idea is the fact that the Jupiters live in a fake town that was built to test the impact of nuclear bombs but was for some reason never bombed. It thus still stands intact, as do the numerous mannequins that “inhabit” the town, sharing it with the Jupiters and creating what might have been an effectively eerie setting. Unfortunately, Aja’s film seems pretty much uninterested in this potential, eschewing the building of eerie atmospheres in favor of nonstop ultra-violence—with pickaxes through the forehead seeming to be the film’s favorite money shot. The biggest problem with the remake, though, is that, while the Carters might still (barely) pass as a typical bourgeois family, the Jupiters have lost all complexity. With the exception of Ruby, who is presented as sympathetic and as sacrificing herself to save the baby, the Jupiters are all little more than murderous monsters, depicted with so little depth that the fact that they are victims of nuclear testing wins them virtually no sympathy. As a result, this film is almost totally lacking in the kind of social and political commentary that made the original film special.
Made with a budget of $15 million (roughly thirty times that of the original), the remake took in $70 million in worldwide box office, which was enough to justify its own 2007 sequel, The Hills Have Eyes 2, directed by German director Martin Weisz and co-written by Craven and his son Jonathan. That sequel was also critically panned, and the franchise has been dormant since that time.
Carlin, Matt. “Through the Eyes of America: Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes.” MUBI, 30 October 2020, https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/through-the-eyes-of-america-wes-craven-s-the-hills-have-eyes. Accessed November 4, 2021.
Dyer, Richard. White. Routledge, 1997.
Phillips, Kendall R. Dark Directions: Romero, Craven, Carpenter, and the Modern Horror Film. Southern Illinois University Press, 2012.
Rodowick, D. N. “The Enemy Within: The Economy of Violence in The Hills Have Eyes.” Planks of Reason: Essays on the Horror Film, edited by Barry K. Grant, Scarecrow Press, 1984, pp. 321–30.
Slotkin, Richard. Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America. 1992. University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.
Smith, Allan Lloyd. American Gothic Fiction: An Introduction. Continuum, 2004.
Soles, Carter. “Sympathy for the Devil: The Cannibalistic Hillbilly in 1970s Rural Slasher Films.” Ecocinema: Theory and Practice. Edited by Stephen Rust, Salma Monani, and Sean Cubitt, Routledge, 2013, pp. 233–50.
Williams, Tony. Hearths of Darkness: The Family in the American Horror Film. Updated Edition, University Press of Mississippi, 2014.
 There is a widespread misconception that The Hills Have Eyes takes place in New Mexico. However, a map clearly seen in the film shows that the Carters are in Nevada and that the bombing range is associated with Nellis Air Force Base, near Las Vegas. Nevada was also the site of the most intensive nuclear weapons testing of the Cold War. The film was actually shot, though, in the Mojave Desert, near Victorville, California.