Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Remembering Wes Craven: The Hills Have Eyes (1977)

There are many sides to Wes Craven's legacy: there's the personal affect, in which we remember him for a key memory of when I was 14 and alone in the house and watched so and so and was terrified...there's the cinematic, which could be broken up into various parts, but in general consists of his influence-along with folks like John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper-on creating the horror film as we know it today, and then there's the broader cultural ideas he brought to his films, expressed in a specific genre and addressing them when they were most relevant. In short, Craven managed in four decades of filmmaking to confront ideas about the American culture specific to the decade in which they were made. But why do this within the horror genre? Craven explains in a fantastic Post-Mortem video interview: "I was broke. I was getting nowhere with being anything but a horror film director. And once I did the second one, then that's who you are. So take everything that you loved about your learning and teaching and just put it in there. It doesn't have to be shallow. Anything you're capable of putting in this genre, it will take it, and there will be a smart audience that will see it." 

A few examples of Craven's cultural concerns include Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), which examined the fears and anxieties of a generation of youths growing up in a post-nuclear family, consumerist culture, and Scream (1996), which explored how adolescents a decade later had now adopted a cynical, mean-spirited attitude about their parents' generation a midst a world where the line between media and reality was growing increasingly obscure. This also continued in the 2000s with Scream 4 (2011), as Craven showed the ways in which our media obsessed culture has transitioned to the web, and how people exploit the internet for personal fame without any substantial achievements. "We all live in public now," says Emma Roberts' character at the end of the movie. "How do you think people become famous anymore?" In many ways, Craven's career (or at least his best work) has been structured around a framework that asks how the faith of progress during modernity gave way to a more skeptical perspective (which is just one facet in the ever-complicated problem of what post-modernity really is and when exactly it began). 

In honor of Craven's invaluable contribution to American horror movies, I sat down to The Hills Have Eyes, his second feature, which was released in 1977. On the surface it's a brutal and unsettling story about a suburban family vacationing out to California who stop at a gas station in the desert only to encounter the kind of horrific trouble that's the stuff of nightmares. The family consists of the father and mother, Bob and Ethel, their son Bobby, and two daughters, Brenda, and Lynne, who also has a husband, Doug, and a baby daughter. 

In short, there's another family of primitive-looking cannibals hiding in the nearby mountains who prey on travelers passing by (apparently they're inspired by Sawney Bean, a cult leader from 16th century Scotland, who, along with his clan, murdered and ate 1000 people before being caught). When Bob crashes the station wagon (there's a travel trailer attached to the back as well) while driving off road to find an old silver mine, they're left stranded and a war between the two families ensues. 

Now, Craven came from a very traditional, strict Christian fundamentalist family, and growing up his cinematic exposure was limited to innocent Disney cartoons. He talks in an interview how he snuck off to see To Kill a Mockingbird and realized "if this is considered sin, they gotta be wrong. That was my exit." Yet he also dealt with persistent fights between his parents, as well as their eventual divorce. Craven experienced first-hand early signs of the decline of the American family, and with that knowledge I found myself speculating that this is something that's at the heart of The Hills Have Eyes.

It wasn't the first horror film in the 70s to explore this idea, though. In a film class I took a few years ago, I wrote this (with reference to Kendall Phillips' book Projected Fears) about Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which came out three year's prior to Craven's film: 

In 1974, there were enormous shifts that in turn enabled Texas Chainaw to make legitimate points about American society. Phillips points out that the combination of Nixon’s presidency, the counterculture movement, and the fact that the family was no longer an end goal for people produced what could be called Hooper’s apocalyptic vision. While Hooper’s obviously not literally suggesting an apocalypse, the film does seem to make some pretty serious claims about the state of two important aspects of American life: the youths and the family. The youths are painted as classic types of the era: wanderers, rebels, and as Phillips says, determined to “drop out” (117). Yet one thing I found to be interesting is that they perhaps have some notion still of the value of family due to the fact that they’re out looking to make sure their grandfather’s grave is safe. In a way, they’re going back to family (literally stopping at their grandparents’ old house) and what they find is the Leatherface and the new family. It’s of course a symbolic representation, but nonetheless Hooper’s viewpoint seems quite bleak. Rather than developing, the suburban family has been torn apart by 1970s American society. If the Leatherface family is the new family, then Hooper is suggesting that the family is all but gone.

The Hills Have Eyes takes a similar idea in that it takes a group of people who encounter a structured family unit (the cannibals have a definite uniformity about them: the father and the two sons are named after planets, the sons refer to their parents as mama and papa, and the father isn't simply the biological father of his children, but possesses strong patriarchal qualities, too) that engages in horrific, sub-human practices. Like the Leatherface family, this comes across as a mock version of the classic American family, and a symbolic representation of its decline. 

What separates the films though is that the victims of the Leatherface family were friends and products of the hippie era, whereas here, Craven gives us an actual family. The parents are aging (Bob has just retired from the police force, and he and Ethel are about to celebrate their silver wedding anniversary, hence the visit to the silver mine) and one feels that this trip is an attempt to salvage a family that's becoming undone. Bob, using harsh language, blames Ethel for the crash, while Ethel mainly frets and relies on the grace of God to keep the family safe (one wonders if they're actually modeled somewhat after Craven's own parents--also, the last time we see the family entirely together, they're grouped as one asking for God's protection. Watching what comes next, further speculation could be made about the decline of religious practice amongst American families, but I'll leave that for another time). Meanwhile, Bobby and Brenda's bickering goes a little uncomfortably beyond innocent sibling quarreling when Brenda keeps referring to her brother as the creep

It seems a fairly legitimate claim then that Craven is dealing with, to some extent, the decline of the American family. Another important clue is the fact that the desert where the film takes place is also a nuclear testing site, and that the reason the family crashed in the first place is because some air crafts came out of the nowhere and flew dangerously close to the car, frightening the father and causing him to veer off course. Nuclear testing had been going on in America since the early forties, but in the 60s and 70s the number of tests rose exponentially, with as many as 52 performed in the 1969-1970 Operation Mandrel. While there was paranoia directly related to these tests, they were also a part of the age of paranoia in America, which was also caused by serial killers like the Zodiac and the Mansons, political scandals such as Watergate, the Vietnam war, and the threats against national security. This is also the period when the flower power generation became skeptical of traditional American values, contraception and abortion became more readily available and acceptable than ever before, and, predictably, divorce rates rose inexorably. 

The Carters are a product of 50s suburbia, yet entering this new era there are all sorts of social problems and fears that probably are having detrimental effects on their stability as a unit. Yes, they end up taking down the cannibals, but not before the core of the family is ripped apart. The parents are dead, and Doug, who gets the final shot in the film as he expresses uncontrollable rage, will be like a lot of other dads in America: single and with a kid to raise. 

Craven shows us a model of the nuclear family moving forward in time, yet by encountering and being torn apart by the cannibal family-a family that almost seems to have traveled through time from the dawn of man-he may be suggesting that in going forward the American family is really moving back to a place when values didn't matter and people could really do what they want, and do awful things. 

Yet in the end at least some of the Carters come out alive, so in no way can we call the film defeatist. 


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