Girl Meets Context: Inspired by Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Wes Craven (director of 1972′s controversial grindhouse classic The Last House on the Left ) made The Hills Have Eyes both as an homage to Hooper’s movie and also an attempt to cash in on it’s success. Set in the Nevada desert, The Hills Have Eyes is about a suburban family driving a camper cross-country who are attacked by a clan of feral cannibals living out in the wilderness. The film launched the horror movie career of scream queen Dee Wallace (though she’d all ready had a bit part in 1975′s The Stepford Wives), who went on to star in Cujo, Critters, The Howling and many other genre films. It also started a string of in-movie gags between directors. There’s a ripped Jaws poster in the family’s camper in this movie, which was put there as a signal to Spielberg that his movie wasn’t scary, that this movie was “real” horror. When Sam Raimi saw that, he did the same thing: there’s a ripped Hills Have Eyes poster in the basement of the house in The Evil Dead. Craven saw that and thought it was funny, which is why Nancy is watching The Evil Dead in A Nightmare on Elm Street. Kristine and I sat down to discuss why this movie doesn’t hold up, why the beset-upon family are totally a bunch of Republicans, and of course the gender politics. Be forewarned, our discussion will include massive SPOILERS, so go watch the movie and come back!
Kristine: I think this chat should be a short one and then we can move on to other things. I don’t have tons to say about this movie, for whatever reason. It was there.
Sean: Why don’t you have much to say, do you think?
Kristine: Hmm. I don’t rightly know! It was kind of middle of the road for me. There were some scary elements – the basic premise, of being stuck in the wilderness with things hunting you, is absolutely scary – but I didn’t care about the family of victims and the cannibal clan was… not that compelling. They were no Texas Chain Saw Massacre family, let’s put it that way. The only “characters” I really cared about were Beauty and Beast. I HATED Big Bob, the father in the “normal” family.
Sean: That’s funny that you bring up Texas Chain Saw, because Wes Craven made this as a kind of homage/love letter to that movie because he loved it so much. But I agree, this movie is no Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The things that made Hooper’s movie compelling – the Texas locale, the abandoned slaughterhouse industry, the milieu of post-Vietnam Americana – have weak corollaries here. The desert location is theoretically great (I am an Arizonan after all) but I don’t think the movie does much with it. And the weird mythology that Old Man Fred lays out about Jupiter being “born wrong” and all the family backstory isn’t as powerful as the ambiguous weirdness of the Sawyer clan, who are presented without a lot of backstory (which I would argue makes them scarier). The idea of the Nevada desert being haunted by the specter of nuclear radiation, due to the government’s use of that area for bomb testing, is a great premise for a horror movie. But I agree with you that The Hills Have Eyes, despite having one of the greatest titles of any horror movie ever, isn’t really much of a horror movie. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre feels like a suckerpunch to the gut – raw, unflinching, horrifying. This movie feels campy and dated and spectacularly silly… I have a similar kind of affection for this that I have for bad old TV shows like Dukes of Hazzard or The Love Boat. By the way, my boyfriend watched this with me and he called it “boring and dumb.” When we saw Bobby in his skin-tight Ohio State t-shirt and tiny little white shorts, we were like “There’s a guy that needs a dick in his mouth.” He is such a twink!
Kristine: Oh my god, with his Richie Rich locks of gold? SUCH a twink. I also thought it was hilarious that he was named “Bobby,” after his father Big Bob, when the two were totally opposite examples of masculinity. Big Bob is the classic blustering, brutish male and Bobby is a lithe, double-handspringing ladyboy.
Sean: The character of Big Bob was a little bit too much to take. When he waxes poetic about his days on the police force and is like, “Niggers shot arrows at me, the hillbillies threw dogs off the roof at me, I been fired at by my own men…. ” I was dying. But what I really hate about the way the movie presents him is that we’re clearly supposed to feel affectionate towards him and see him as an Archie Bunker, “all-bark-no-bite” type of character. Like he BERATES his wife for “causing” the car crash (when she didn’t, it was his shitty driving) but then he gets all shamefaced and stops cursing and we’re supposed to be like, “Aw cute, that old mean racist really is just a misunderstood sweetiepie.” His wife is like, “Oh, you!” All of that grossed me out.
Kristine: Yes, that stuff (his racist rant) made me laugh. You know it’s the 1970s when you’re being asked to find racist white men “cute.” Big Bob was such a Mucho Macho dick, I was happy when the hillbillies got him. And that’s actually one of the shortcomings of the movie – I think if the movie had blurred our sense of identification between the cannibal clan and the normals more, it could have been more interesting. But I don’t think Wes Craven INTENDS for us to be happy when Big Bob gets it. He thinks we should be traumatized… That lack of self-awareness about the kinds of characters he’s trucking with, to me, is the real reason why this movie is a failure.
Sean: I cannot disagree with you. So, as per the basic premise of our blog, I’d seen this movie many times as a teenager and have not watched it in many, many years. Re-watching it now, I was SHOCKED by how the normals are a total bunch of Republicans! I didn’t realize or think about that at ALL when I was 13 or whatever. But that seems to be a fundamental part of the movie’s DNA and also, one of the movie’s most interesting ideas. The idea that a family of suburban Republicans, who are theoretically in favor of all kinds of things – pro-gun, anti-taxes – that describe the lifestyles and circumstances of the cannibals, is super interesting. They’re forced to confront their dark side; the cannibals are their own id. But again, I don’t think Craven figured that out (and, just fyi, neither does Alexandre Aja in the 2006 remake).
Kristine: Oh, they are TOTES Republican!!! When Ethel makes everyone pray? I was dying. And I am totally with you that this movie is about two different kinds of “Republicans” squaring off… Suburbanites vs. Rednecks. What did you think of our hero, Doug? He of the moustache?
Sean: You mean Doug who goes dumpster diving and then says, “It’s no wonder we’re paying higher taxes, they’re throwing this stuff away!”?
Kristine: Ha ha! I thought for a minute at the beginning that he would be the erstwhile hippie son-in-law (á la Meathead from All in the Family) but no, he’s a total fist-shaking conservative!
Sean: I do disagree with your characterization that Doug is the film’s “hero” though. I mean, I think one of the notable things about this movie is that there are no heroes, and there is nothing heroic about the climactic violence. This is about “civilized” characters being dragged, kicking and screaming, back to a pre-modern bloodlust. The movie has this purposefully abrupt ending – all of a sudden the movie just stops and the image of Doug, breathing heavily from the exertion of brutally stabbing Mars to death, turns red. We’re supposed to see Doug as someone reduced to brute violence there, right? He wins by losing; the trade-off is, you can have your ugly baby back if you trade in your civility and humanity and become an animal. That’s why the killer dog, Beast, is the patron saint of this movie. He represents the savage “nature” that the movie wants to both reject and embrace.
Kristine: Yes, I agree about that. But Doug is totally the hero! He’s the avenging husband who is saving his baby from being eaten by cannibals!
Sean: Hmmm. I guess. Do you think Wes Craven is a Republican? I think Nancy and her dad from A Nightmare on Elm Street are also Republicans.
Kristine: I don’t know, do you? We’ve discussed before how it’s easy to see a lot of horror as presenting a Republican ideology, i.e., The Other is bad and means you harm; it’s every man for himself, and society won’t help you so arm yourself, shoot first and ask questions later!
Sean: Do you want to know the moment that I realized that the family in this movie are a bunch of Republicanos? When they laugh and scoff collectively at the memory of their vicious giant dogs tearing some poodle apart.
Kristine: Oh God, that’s right.
Sean: For me, that was the moment when I thought that Craven was trying to make a point with this movie – that folks who appear “civilized” on the surface still have this core brutality to them. That moments of violence and bloodlust get turned into amusing anecdotes for these people. Ethel is all, “Big Bob was so mad he had to pay vet bills for a dead poodle!” and everyone goes, “Har-de-har-har.” So again, it all comes back to money for them – everything is judged by how much it will cost them. Violence’s only real impact is on their pocketbook. But I do think that the movie exalts Beast as some kind of platonic ideal of masculinity and power, though, in a gross way.
Kristine: This may all be true, but I still liked Beauty & Beast, and I was sad when Beauty was killed. I didn’t care at all about that dumb baby.
Sean: I wanted them to eat the baby.
Kristine: I can’t believe the cannibals wanted to eat the baby over that delicious looking piglet!
Sean: Ha-ha! When you saw the piglet were you like, ‘Where are the potatoes?! Let’s make this a meal!’
Kristine: I was!
Sean: Were you surprised by which family members died and which ones lived?
Sean: You are a heartless cannibal!
Kristine: I never said I wasn’t. What did you think about Bobby and Brenda using their mother’s corpse as bait?
Sean: I was happy.
Kristine: Me, too, though I did not love the symbolic “sacrificing” of the mother figure that felt like a tale as old as time. A “good mother” is one who sacrifices herself for her children, right? Ugh. But overall I thought Ethel was a bore. What did you think about her nervous breakdown when they found Big Bob roasted and toasted on the cactus? I would have been happy that my abusive dick of a husband was dead! But she like, fell apart.
Sean: “That’s not my Bob!” I felt like Ethel’s response was part of the Republican message of the movie.
Kristine: That she couldn’t survive without her man?
Sean: Sure. Just the basic fixed nature of gender and the roles of “Mother” and “Father.” This movie’s got a very conservative idea about all of that, in my mind. Female hysteria is a constant thread in this movie, from Ethel’s “That’s not my Bob!” moment to Brenda’s post-rape madness. But I do think that the movie also presents us with two significant alternatives: Lynn, the eldest Republican daughter, and Ruby, the reluctant cannibal. But let’s start with Lynn. The movie presents her and Ethel up as two different models of what a mother looks like and how she behaves.
Kristine: True, because remember when Lynn finds that huge tarantula crawling on the clothes in the trailer? She kills it herself, and then doesn’t mention it to her sister. She’s kind of a badass. Unlike Ethel, who is a frail little granny.
Sean: And then later they have the scene where Lynn knows how to work the CB radio, but Ethel cannot. That actually leads to one of the movie’s few creepy moments, the freakish breathing they hear over the CB radio (total shades of Black Christmas, no?). But that moment with the CB radio underscores that we’re dealing with two very different types of women here: the inept mother of the older generation vs. the totally capable mother of the new generation. And Lynn recognizes the creepy breathing as a possible threat, while Ethel lives in denial and refuses to acknowledge that danger is present. Also, Ethel is totally submissive and desexualized in her marriage to Big Bob, whereas Lynn’s got a sexy marriage, even if her husband, Doug, is an uggy.
Kristine: I was shocked that Lynn and Doug did it in the back of the station wagon. Can I just say that their family vacation looked HELLISH even before the hillbillies arrived?
Sean: Why were you shocked they did it in the station wagon?
Kristine: Because… I would have preferred to do it out in the wilderness rather then in the car a foot away from my entire family!
Sean: In my experience, that’s how straight people are, all entitling themselves to making a spectacle of their breedlove.
Kristine: Not this straight lady!
Sean: Okay but I’m actually not kidding. I think the level of comfort that Lynn and Doug feel has a lot to do with their status as a “normal” husband and wife, making their holy and government-sanctioned love in the STATION WAGON (what better symbol of suburban normality and middle class heteronormativity than that?) And then we’ve got Queer Bobby, no dicks in his mouth at all, locked out in the cold, knocking on the window to interrupt their righteous copulation.
Kristine: You are killing me with this.
Sean: But doesn’t Lynn seem like an equal partner in her marriage to Doug? I like the way the movie portrays their relationship as sexually invigorated – doing it in the back seat like teenagers. The fact that Lynn is strong and capable AND a mother AND still a sexual being might be the most radical thing about this movie. But I feel like, for all these reasons, the movie HAS to exterminate her and that pisses me off. In fact, the moment Lynn gets shot I was over it, back when I was 13 and first saw the movie and still today. But you HAVE to remove the “civilizing” forces of the mothers in order to unleash primal savagery in the survivors. Doug finds his manhood and becomes the “Beast” (remember how similarly they stage the sequences of Beast tearing Pluto’s throat out and Doug stabbing Mars to death) BECAUSE Lynn is dead. She was tough and sexy and awesome, and then all she winds up being is another sacrificial mother. I hate it! All the women in this movie are just pawns in the overarching male psychodramas anyway.
Kristine: I agree with your point. Like, even Ruby just runs around holding a baby for most of the last act. Brenda is also treated as Bobby’s “woman” by the movie, too, someone he must protect (and he totally fails) but then they come together to enact their vengeance in the end.
Sean: I am SHOCKED by how much this movie really just boils down to a grimy male revenge fantasy, with the possible exception of Brenda’s rape/revenge subplot. In fact, together Bobby and Brenda form a little queer dyad together – the raped woman and the twinky queerling who must join forces to destroy the Evil Patriarch of the cannibals.
Kristine: Ah, yes. And don’t forget that the death of the female dog (named Beauty, significantly) foreshadows that femininity will be under assault in the movie and that only REAL MEN (a.k.a. Beast) can combat the assault. So I guess, in the psychosexual universe of this movie, one queerling and one raped woman = masculinity. By themselves, both Bobby and Brenda wouldn’t pass muster. Remember how all the men in the family were so annoyed with Brenda wailing and carrying on until they realize she has been raped?
Sean: Yeah, that rape plotline is mostly subtext. I know that when Wes Craven first submitted this movie to the MPAA they gave it an “X” rating and he had to drastically cut it to get an “R.” I think the rape of Brenda is something that wound up on the cutting room floor, because the way the movie stands now it is implied rather than depicted. For once, I feel grateful to the MPAA.
Kristine: Agreed! But I think the movie is barely interested in the psychological impact of the rape on Brenda herself. Like I said earlier, her rape only “matters” to the movie in terms of how it impacts the male characters – Bobby and Doug’s horror at knowing about her rape is more crucial to the movie than Brenda’s own feelings about it. And I don’t like that.
Sean: You are totally right. In fact, Brenda doesn’t really avenge herself. She sort of assists Bobby in killing Papa Jupiter, but her actual rapist (Pluto) is killed by Beast – the avenging angel of masculinity. And her other attacker, Mars, is killed by Doug. With some assistance from Ruby.
Kristine: Okay, we need to discuss Ruby and how, despite being raised in this family with NO conventional morality, she has this maternal instinct to protect the baby and help the family. Did you buy her character at all?
Sean: I don’t know what to make of her character. All she does is run around with a baby!
Kristine: In a loin cloth. Sean, she’s a woman so it is just IN HER DNA to care for babies. Don’t you get it!? That’s just nature!
Sean: She is sexist window-dressing wearing pigtails like Maryann from Gilligan’s Island. She is cavewoman softcore.
Kristine: Clan of the Cave Bear.
Sean: If Bobby put on her loincloth it would be Clan of the Cave Bareback.
Kristine: Stop it!
Sean: It’s true. Ruby is the other possible alternative to the submissive femininity that serves as the foundation of this movie’s worldview, but as you point out it is totally undercut by her uncanny maternal instinct and her dirty loincloth. But she’s at least NOT a hysteric. She handles herself capably and comports herself like a person, not a shrieking banshee (á la Brenda and Ethel). Plus, she’s a rebellious daughter who doesn’t want to listen to her father.
Kristine: I guess, but I didn’t like her. She was too much Pebbles, not enough Bam-Bam. Okay, can I tell you one thing I liked about this movie? I thought the story about how the cannibal hillbilly freaks came into existence was a pretty strong piece of anti-right wing commentary. It’s clear they are the outcome of pollution by nuclear waste, right? So the defense industry and the military industrial complex is responsible for their existence in this place where nothing grows and nothing can live but these warped freaks.
Sean: Hmmm. I am surprised that you, as a former Arizonan, would feel comfortable characterizing the desert as “a place where nothing grows and nothing can live.”
Kristine: You know what I mean.
Sean: But I actually think that very idea is at the heart of what’s wrong with this movie: that Nature is some abject, alien force. I was so annoyed by the suburban family’s attitudes towards nature, especially Brenda being SOOOO creeped out by the desert when they first break down. That schism in their relationship to the natural world is one of the things that makes them the perverts and the cannibals more “normal.” Lynn’s reaction to the spider is, of course, totally primal and “normal” – the spider is this alien presence invading the “civilized” space of the trailer (again, presaging the invasion of the hillbillies and again, I would argue marking Lynn as the true protagonist of the movie since she’s present at both this moment and the heavy breathing over the CB radio). This movie deflates the idea that we can pack our shit into a trailer and bring civilization with us into the wild. But the movie can’t imagine anything in between Lord of the Flies-style depravity (the cannibal clan) and buttoned-up, de-natured modernity (the suburbanites).
Kristine: True, the desert of course is crawling with life (like the spider), but it’s a hostile environment and it doesn’t reflect what we consider to be “human” sensibilities back to us. In a forest, for example, there are things that are soft and lush, things we can pick up and interact with. In the desert, everything is hot and pointed and poisonous. Part of what makes the cannibal family “perverse” is that they’ve become LIKE that environment. They are hot and pointed and poisonous, like the landscape. But back to what I was saying: I like that there’s an anti-establishment, anti-military subtext to the movie. Did you notice how the cannibal family had incorporated some of the paraphernalia from the former army base (or whatever it was) into their freak lives, like the transmitter radios, etc. The perversity and backwardness of the cannibals is subtly linked to militarization. I dug that.
Sean: Yes. Nuclear technology is the thing that drives the horror, but I wish the movie had doubled down on that connection. I did get a huge kick out of that absurdly melodramatic family history that Old Man Fred tells to Big Bob, how “something went wrong” with Jupiter, how he “came out sideways” and was “so big” and was “hairy as a monkey” and grown as big as a man by 10. All the incidents with killing animals and how he burned down the house with his sister in it and then Old Man Fred split the kid’s head open with a tire iron and ditched him in the desert… Very Greek mythology (which accounts for the naming scheme for the cannibals).
Kristine: It was so gross how Old Man Fred said, “I can’t believe my wife GAVE me that thing” about giving birth to Papa Jupiter, like it was her fault that she had a mutant!
Sean: Remember when Papa Jupiter is berating the burned corpse Big Bob (as the whole family is eating it) and he yells, “You wanted to stick your finger in my pie, did ya?! Well, there you go!”
Kristine: Gross!!!! I wonder if the movie is also suspicious of the suburban family’s class status. Because the dramatic situation is also about the vast chasm between the haves and have-nots, right? I mean, the cannibal clan (including Old Man Fred) are starving…. Guys like Big Bob used up the land, left this big mess, then just took off and didn’t think that the consequences would ever affect them… but this time, they did!
Sean: And remember that Big Bob and his family are there in the first place because he and Ethel got a silver mine as a 25th anniversary present from some wealthy relative. For them, this is supposed to be some little diversion from their journey west (which is mythic in and of itself) so they can chortle over their silver fortune. It also underscores that to Big Bob and family, this landscape is some just picturesque feather in their cap, while for the cannibal clan the landscape is a place of desperation and Darwinian survivalism.
Sean: I want to at least address that big fat Mama hill troll.
Kristine: OMG! She was… Mama June from Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.
Sean: She was Edith Massey’s kid sister. And isn’t the story that she was a whore that Jupiter stole? Back to what I said earlier about women just being pawns in the stories of male psychodrama.
Kristine: Yep! Anyway, what is up with the remake of this movie?
Sean: The remake of this movie was made by… the director of High Tension.
Kristine: REALLY? Hmmm. Is it scary? Is it good?
Sean: It is considered one of the better examples from the recent spate of remakes. It is fine. The cannibals are more mutanty in it, and there’s this whole sequence set in an old nuclear testing village, some fake American neighborhood set up by the military. That stuff is pretty good. I liked it fine. I mean, I thought I liked the original until we re-watched it and now I think it is dumb! Though the gender politics of the movie do fascinate me. I also thought it was weird that both this and A Nightmare on Elm Street are about intergenerational conflict and it made me wonder if that is Wes Craven’s hang-up.
Kristine: Maybe. I wasn’t that impressed by this movie. My rating is “This is a horror movie classic because…why exactly?”
Sean: Mine is “I remembered this as being good but….” I have a final question: What is up with all the sex talk in Big Bob’s family?
Kristine: Refresh my memory.
Sean: Bobby the Twink says, “You know what Freud would say about your obsession with rattlesnakes, Ma?”
Kristine: Oh God, that’s right.
Sean: And then later Lynn says to Bobby: “You better worry about what Big Bob will do to the rattlesnakes” and she says it VERY provocatively and it is obvious that she is talking about dicks for some reason. Why all the rattlesnake/dick talk?
Kristine: Also… just… BIG BOB . Who calls their Dad/husband that?
Sean: That’s such a Republican thing to do, like in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Kristine: Oh, I don’t know why the family is obsessed with phallic symbols. It is weird. Primal fears, I suppose.
Sean: Then at the end Ruby PRESSES an angry rattlesnake onto her own brother’s body. Which EJACULATES poison into him!
Kristine: Maybe all the sex talk is to show that the “normal” family is also twisted and vaguely incestuous like the hillbilly family? And both have a fucked up, dominating patriarch who puts them in danger?
Sean: Right, and they’re also BRUTAL (they laugh over their dogs murdering a poodle). I still think the whole movie is to put Doug (who is the Wes Craven proxy) back in touch with his animal masculinity.
Kristine: Big Bob’s family is predicated on dominating their women, who they “own.”
Sean: Though Lynn is the rogue capable non-dependent woman, so she has to die! I want to solve the rape dilemma. Why do you think it is important to the movie that Brenda is raped?
Kristine: Well, because by raping her the hillbillies have “taken” one of Big Bob’s women. That is a big deal. She could be inseminated and be “part of the family.”
Sean: OMG right! She could be pregnant at the end, we don’t know.
Kristine: Also remember that there is the warning that she will be raped again and possibly brought into the cannibal clan, when Mars goes, “I’ll be back for you, girlie!”
Sean: I thought it was gross how the one surviving woman has been raped and humiliated.
Kristine: Yeah, I think Bobby should have also been raped.
Sean: Bend him over an ocotillo and have at it.
Kristine: They would have raped Bobby if they had caught him, for sure.
Sean: I do think that having the victims in this movie be a family, not a bunch of partying teens, raises the stakes on everything and makes it all seem more allegorical than it otherwise might.
Kristine: I agree.
Sean: They would rape Bobby because he is an honorary woman.
Sean: And he can’t control his “Beast.”
Sean: Or his Beauty for that matter.
Kristine: Is his Beauty his rosebud?
Sean: Yup, that’s his pet name for his little rosebud.
Kristine: Ew, shut up. We are sick in the brains.
The Girl’s Rating: This is a horror movie classic because… why exactly?
The Freak’s Rating: I remembered this as being good but….