A family has an accident out in the desert on an Air Force bombing range. That’s when the cannibals come out to play. The Hills Have Eyes is a movie in three parts based on the time of day. The first day is setup, with the coming of the Carter family to the desert, the accident that traps them there, and the splitting up of the Carters all while Papa Jupiter and his kin watch and wait. The night is when Papa Jupiter and his children attack the Carters, killing several, wounding others, and kidnapping the baby. The last section is the second day, where the Carters turn to violence and deception to rescue the baby and stop Papa Jupiter’s family.
The first day is setup to explain why the Carters are in the desert and show how foolishly out of place they are. They represent civilization, fat and flaccid, ignorant of the danger and being stalked by an unseen predator they don’t even realize exists. They argue, they mock each other, and they openly wander around and play, unaware that in the next 24 hours, half of them will be dead while the other half are savage killers. When the family splits up, they seal their fate. The coming night is hinted at with the death of one of the family dogs, Beauty, but Bobby Carter falls after finding her and doesn’t return until it is too late.
The most harrowing time of the film is definitely the night, where Jupiter has Bob Carter nailed to a tree and lit on fire to distract the family so Mars and Pluto can raid their trailer for food, rape Brenda, and kidnap the baby. The moment when the two cannibals find the baby is heartbreaking. The innocence on the infant’s face is contrasted with the hunger in the eyes of Pluto and Mars. We have just watched Mars rip the head off a bird and suck out the blood; the baby’s fate seems certain. All of this occurs while the family struggles to save Bob, whose body is so scorched that his lungs still smoke inside of him while his wife, Ethel, goes into hysterics. When Lynne and Ethel return to the trailer to find Mars, he shoots them and then flees with Pluto, leaving the surviving Carters to find Lynne’s corpse and watch Ethel slowly bleed to death to the tune of Brenda’s violated screams and sobs. Civilization fails in the wake of barbarism. But hope is not lost, and the violent retribution of the coming day is foreshadowed by the surviving family dog, Beast, killing the youngest of Papa Jupiter’s boys, Mercury.
The following day is when the surviving and broken Carters give up their civilization and fight back, showing that civility must be thrown out when faced with barbarism. They hunt with the help of Beast, they booby trap their own mother’s corpse, they frantically hack and stab their enemies through whatever means necessary to annihilate them. Peace and love, the recurring themes of popular culture that built up the 1960s, fail utterly in the jaded 1970s.
And while all of this goes on, Ruby, the one daughter of Jupiter, dreams of leaving for civilization and ends up siding with the Carters but still has to commit brutality to help them. In the final moments, she takes a rattlesnake and attacks Mars with it, using the skills she gathered in the desert to help Doug kill her brother. Even she cannot escape, no matter how much she yearns for it.
My favorite author, Robert E. Howard, wrote in one of his stories, “Barbarism is the natural state of mankind. Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.” The Hills Have Eyes agrees. The Carters become the barbarians to beat them.