There has, perhaps, never been a decade in which horror has flourished so consistently as the 1970s. The Seventies, of course, was an abundant decade for films – the breeding ground for many genre auteurs, who were intent on challenging the status quo not just of the Hollywood system but the wider establishment itself. But what horror achieved during this period, perhaps more directly than any other genre staple, was to exploit the pre-existing tensions that existed in America, the toxic residue emitted by Vietnam, Civil Rights, political assassination and Watergate.
Wes Craven has made his debut with 1972’s Last House On The Left – a dark meditation on the cyclical nature of violence. The Hills Have Eyes continues its psychological probing on the human condition. In this instance, Craven is interested in exploring our collective fear of the outsider and the inevitable outcome of ignoring the self-created ‘monsters’ on the fringes of society. His nightmarish creatures may well be irradiated cannibals, but they represent the dysfunctionality within us all.
The setting is the unforgiving wastes of the Californian desert, where the Carter family are en route to a mine they have inherited when they encounter their cannibal counterparts. As the Carters are besieged in their trailer, the nightmare begins: soon, they are forced to adopt the same vicious qualities as their attackers in order to survive.
There are precedents to Craven’s film. Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs similarly asked what happens when a ‘decent’ man is pushed too far. Meanwhile, Race With The Devil pitted two ordinary couples against unreasonable and restrictive forces. The Hills Have Eyes though proved remarkably robust: it spawned two sequels while a 2006 remake similarly spawned a sequel. Craven’s original, though, still has the capacity to shock.