Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (1977) was the recently-deceased horror auteur’s third feature film (counting The Fireworks Woman, which he directed as “Abe Snake”). Its then-edgy plot borrowed its clan of incestuous cannibals from the Scottish legend of Sawney Bean. Craven’s story involves a stereotypical 1970s middle-class white family that becomes stranded in a forsaken area of the Nevada desert. Unfortunately for them, it’s the territory of a family of savages who rob and eat people who come their way.
The initial reception of The Hills Have Eyes illuminates public attitudes towards serious horror in the late 1970s. The MPAA gave the original cut an “X” rating, so its producers had it edited down to an “R.” Judging by the cuts that they made, it appears that the cannibalistic theme was too much for the MPAA (particularly where it concerns an infant), but some of the violence between adults was also edited out. Even so, the redacted film was a hit with audiences, although some critics still didn’t like it. Roger Ebert, for example, called it “depraved.”
Today many consider The Hills Have Eyes a cult classic. But it’s likely that it doesn’t qualify as “depraved” or “extreme” today, at least in the judgment of serious horror fans. That’s likely due to a trend that started in the 1960s, when a few horror auteurs began to push the envelope. Their movies included 1963’s Blood Feast , more artistically-envisioned works like Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) and Rosemary’s Baby (1967), and later films like George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968).
These movies paved the way for the emergence of the slasher films of the 1970s. As audiences became used to the new boundaries (both in violence and in sex) established in the 70s, writers and directors had to break them to keep horror audiences’ attention. This progression continued (with some breaks) through the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s.
Nowadays, it takes a lot more than the gory killings and suggestions of cannibalism of The Hills Have Eyes‘ original theatrical version to shock viewers. The emergence of films like Cannibal Holocaust (1980) through A Serbian Film (2010) highlights how far “extreme” has gone in horror.
But mere shock value alone is not enough to qualify a horror flick as “extreme” or “disturbing.” For one thing, an “extreme” film must cause a gut emotional reaction, often involving disgust. But that visceral response has to come from a sense that what one is seeing on the screen could actually happen in real life or is plausible within the world of the story. So there has to be a well-acted, believable story, not just an unscripted collection of gruesome images, to qualify a horror movie as “extreme.”
Although there is a good argument for granting “extreme” status to The Hills Have Eyes, the film is so dated that parts of it appear hokey or ridiculous today. Still, it retains a core “disturbing” quality. Director Alexandre Aja recognized this when he remade the film in 2006, with Craven onboard as a producer. Some critics — including Jonny Numb, a co-host of The Last Knock podcast and a writer for this website — believe that the remake is better than the original.
So the label “extreme horror” means not only shocking content, a plausible story, and good acting. It also involves a contemporary feel that allows a horror film to bypass modern audiences’ disbelief and target their primitive fears. The Hills Have Eyes and its remake are good examples of how horror needs to challenge the moving targets of norms and boundaries to remain relevant and effective.