Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Hate Outdoors

The following article originally appeared in a book of essays on slasher films, but the publisher went under and the book is now out of print. I thought it might be nice to publish the piece here.
Wes Craven’s the Hills Have Eyes: The Hate Outdoors
When I was a boy we couldn’t afford the foreign holidays a lot of other families seemed to take for granted, so every summer we went camping instead. Some of my fondest childhood memories involve pitching a tent on a cheap camp site in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, and exploring the local cave system. My worst nightmares involved something living in that cave system, perhaps a family of troglodytes who would come out at night to carry me away deep into the caves…

Then I saw Wes Craven’s 1977 paranoid masterwork The Hills Have Eyes advertised in Hammer House of Horror – a magazine whose title alone is still enough to fill me with a teary-eyed sense of nostalgia. The simple poster featuring Michael Berryman’s somewhat scary face against a backdrop of looming brown mountains instilled within me a sense of dread that I’ve never been able to recapture. The tagline was, of course, a classic: “The lucky ones died first”.

When I finally got to see Craven’s film, I was not disappointed – in fact, it terrified me. It was the usual set-up: a grainy third-generation VHS watched with a group of like-minded friends late one dark Friday night. I’d loved the first two Friday the 13th films, but knew, just knew, that this one was going to be even better.

The plot is an object lesson in simplicity: the bickering Carter family are on a cross-country trip to California in their father’s camper van. They go off the road, get lost on an old nuclear testing site in the barren Mojave desert. The van breaks down. Something attacks. The Carters are forced to fight for their survival, casting aside their modernity and using primitive skills to fight a primitive enemy.

It is at this point in the film that familial archetypes are carefully deconstructed: the strong patriarch figure is despatched surprisingly early on, the supposed male hero is actually portrayed as a weak liberal initially at odds with his father-in-law’s aggressive reactionary attitudes, the teenagers wander off on their own and prove themselves ultimately self-reliant, eschewing typical slasher movie conventions which dictate that anyone under the age of twenty-one must die (usually after smoking a joint and having casual sex).

Unusually for the sub-genre, there are no heroes here; only a flawed family. Two flawed families, in fact; and one of them wants to consume the other (again, this can be seen as a deeply paranoid allegory: the lower caste family of outsiders attempting to literally absorb the more affluent and privileged Carter clan, who represent Middle America).

The sheer brutality of the film still amazes me: the wonderfully choreographed kidnapping of the baby makes me wince, Big Bob Carter’s death scene is among the most chilling I’ve ever seen, and the ending, where Ethel Carter’s corpse is used as bait in a trap devised by two of her own desperate children, is simply jaw-dropping. In scenes like these the film breaks the barriers of its genre, stepping across an imaginary line to become more than a pulp horror film, more than mere allegory, and invokes something utterly primal within the viewer. We respond to these masterfully orchestrated scenes not as comfortable civilized people, but as animals, baying for revenge. That thirst for vengeance is, of course, satisfied, but not necessarily in a way that provides much comfort.

Craven’s feelings on the film are well documented. It was an angry piece of work directed by an angry young man – much like Last House on the Left, the film was a tirade against middle-class complacency and the state of the U.S. political foreign policy at the time. But all that stuff aside, the film works not because it’s an allegory for America’s involvement in Vietnam, but because it is terrifying. After all, that’s the bottom line for any self-respecting horror film. It must scare us.

Here Craven plays with a typical city dweller’s fears of the countryside and the people who live in it, using the wide-open spaces to suggest something otherworldly. The look of the film is that of a western – muted browns and sunset shades, and the subject matter is in fact a little like a modern Hollywood western, with the Carter family cast as pioneers and the mutant cannibal family taking on the role of the Native Indians. The mutants remain off-screen for most of the running time, and even when they step out of the protective hills to show themselves, they are different, almost alien in their very actions and thought processes.

The dynamic of the Carter family is refreshingly unconventional for the era: they don’t really get on that well, squabble a lot, and when things start to go wrong they split up into factions rather than pulling together to form a united front. In a climax that also bucks against cliché, the long-suffering teenagers save themselves, becoming the tight family unit their father always wanted them to be.

The cast all acquit themselves well, but Russ Grieve as the patriarch of the Carter family stands out, despite his relatively brief screen time.

James Whitworth, as Papa Jupiter, reflects Big Bob Carter’s immense presence at the head of a large family, but it is his ultimate lack of genuine influence over his unruly brood that leads to his downfall. Big Bob, on the other hand, has trained his clan well (despite their protests). They utilise his obsessive lessons of self-reliance and teamwork to survive, releasing a Jungian primal consciousness and allowing it to run amok.

But at what cost is that survival?

The typical family unit is destroyed, they have sacrificed their humanity, and all they are left with is the flat, hot face of the desert. Nobody in the outside world knows these people have fought a vicious battle to the death; there is no help in sight. The war has only just begun.

I haven’t been camping in years, but whenever I am surrounded by vaguely threatening hills and miles of dark and unknowable countryside, I can’t help remembering Michael Berryman’s face on that poster and thinking to myself “The lucky ones died first”.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Great post, Gary. I'm no fan of slasher films, not because of the violence, but because of how formulaic they are. You're right about this one, though---it busts the formulas and "steps across the line" to touch some really primal things. (My favorite scene, though, is at the beginning where the guy is telling the local legend of the cannibal family, the guys he's telling the story to looks down at some objects on the floor and asks, "What's that?" The guy who's telling the story looks down too and says, "Oh, it's just some stuff.." and BAM!!! The cannibal family smash through the window and drag him out. Classic, shameless, perfect shock-by-distraction!) Again, great post.