The lucky ones died first....
If you live in the UK, and you’re of a certain age - you’ll no doubt remember the video nasties furore of the eighties. Basically, due to the lack of censorship legislation on movie content available on video, it was a lunatic free for all and just about everything was released with no regulation to keep matters in check. Good times, I tell you. Good times.
When regulation came, it was swift and draconian. Some films were banned outright and prosecutions were are relentless as persecutions. For example - it was illegal....illegal, mind - for Fangoria to be sold openly or put on display because its horror content landed Fango on the obscene publications list. A list of magazines which if displayed, would land the store proprietor in court. There were reports, and I remember them well, of innocent newsagents being raided by the police and having magazines like Fangoria confiscated as evidence. My stockist took an enormous chance in the eighties actually pre-ordering and selling the magazine to me.
Encouraged by the UK tabloid press, videos not even on the banned list would be seized by the police. (Actually, the first time I ever saw Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it was on video accompanied by two police officers I was quite friendly with, who invited me to watch a confiscated copy with them).
A regular wrongful confiscation and "guilty by association" movie at this time was The Hills Have Eyes. It may well have been because it was another Wes Craven movie, his follow-up to the infamous Last House on the Left which WAS on the banned list. Or, it may have been because of Michael Berryman’s face on the cover. Berryman somehow, unwittingly became the poster boy for video nasties despite this film never having been on the official list, but there we go. When the tabloids ran articles about the nasties, Berryman’s face would usually accompany the article somewhere. Certainly to me, he became synonymous with the forbidden fruit of the movies the government didn’t want me to see.
Berryman looks pretty freaky to be honest. He was born with a rare genetic condition which prevents him from developing fingernails, hair or sweat glands, and has made a career out of horror & sci-fi movies, cleverly turning what some people might dismiss as a disadvantage into an advantage. I have two personally inscribed and signed photos of him on the walls on my study - both lobby cards from Hills Have Eyes, naturally.
As for the film itself - it’s a powerful, raw, urban horror movie - relentlessly unflinching for its time. The storyline is credible from the point of view that there's nothing supernatural going on, the horrors are all too plausible given the set of circumstances.
The Carter family is travelling in a station wagon, hauling a caravan, on vacation heading for California. They decide to go off the beaten path - which let’s face it is NEVER a good idea - in search of a silver mine. They’re warned, but they don’t listen. Naturally, they break down, having hit a pothole, or a rock - I’m not sure which, and damaging their vehicle’s axle.
Bad news - they’re practically on a gunnery range used by the U.S. Air Force.
Bad news - some other testing been going on there as well, over the years. Not the good kind of testing, the testing that makes you mutate and maybe glow in the dark.
Bad news - there’s a family of cannibals close by.
Bad news - they’re hungry
Good news - uh...there actually isn’t any good news for the family. They’re screwed.
The father is a retired tough guy cop, the mother is a simpering religious fruitcake, the son is ineffectual, eldest daughter is the strong, sane one, youngest daughter is a pain in the ass. Son in law tries hard to please. All in all, they’re like an ordinary family. This helps us identify with them - no big stars of the day, and the only one to make a lasting impact on the industry is the actress playing the eldest daughter - Dee Wallace, later to appear in the Howling, The Frighteners - and be forever known as the "mom" in E.T.
The family of cannibals on the other hand are a feral, though well organised group. The film was made in 1977, so no cell phones - CB radio is the option used here. The family is named after various planets, Papa Jupiter, Mars, and Michael Berryman’s Pluto.
So, basic plot - stranded family, somewhere in the New Mexico desert, they’re being watched by the crazy hillbilly cannibals. All American family males head off in different directions looking for help while the cannibals bide their time and start picking the family off one by one, starting with one of the German Shepherds. (I hate when dogs get killed in movies).
It’s a low budget film, shot entirely on location and plays heavily on the feeling of sanctuary in the caravan, and unease at what’s waiting for them "out there" with no hope of help.
It’s brutal and it’s disturbing. Moreso when the cannibals get hold of the eldest daughter’s baby. (Apparently baby meat is the best, which is really more information than I wanted to know.) As their numbers dwindle, it becomes necessary to play by the cannibals own rules and a reliance on primitive survival instincts comes into play.
This is straight-up storytelling by Craven, with no finesse - but that wouldn’t be appropriate here. The ending is a bleak one, and there isn’t a tacked on "other ending" that muddies the waters cleared up by the ending you’ve just seen - and I’m citing "Nightmare" and "Deadly Blessing" as guilty parties here.
In short, this is as nasty as nasty gets without being on the nasties list, but in retrospect, is actually nastier than many of those nasties.
Next time, I’m looking at Vampire in Brooklyn.
Copyright © 2010 - 2011 Robin Pierce. All Rights reserved.