The Hills Have Eyes is a classic 1977 horror film by writer/director Wes Craven that tells the story of a normal American family—mom, dad, kids, and dogs—who are traveling through the Southwestern desert en route to LA when they take a shortcut through a Nevada air testing range and have an accident that leaves them stranded. They are then slowly preyed upon by a family of savage, inbred cannibals from the nearby mountains. They must fight or die—and even if they fight, it’s likely they will die, anyway.
The trope of normal city-dwellers who find madness out in the rural desert is a common one in folk horror, and it taps into a broader literary and cultural theme of city urbanity versus the untamed countryside, of present versus past, of modernity versus tradition. The theme would play out in other horror films such as Psycho, Spider Baby, Motor Psycho, and No Country for Old Men, but few have done it as memorably or as terrifyingly as The Hills Have Eyes.
Here are thirty facts about Wes Craven’s story of a family that must fight for its life against a pack of demented desert cannibals.
The Folk Scottish Cannibals
1. After directing The Last House on the Left in 1972, director Wes Craven tried making non-horror films with no success. Desperately in need of money, he agreed to producer Peter Locke’s request to write a horror film. Locke’s wife was performing in Las Vegas at the time, and he encouraged Craven to develop a horror movie based in the desert.
2. Craven says that his screenplay was at least partly inspired by an incident that occurred while he and his wife were motorcycling through a small Nevada town. After three locals shot an arrow past his head and insulted him, Craven threatened a lawsuit. They mocked him and said they could kill him, toss his cadaver in a nearby salt mine, and no one would know or care. He decided to write a movie based on that feeling of helplessness.
3. While researching “terrible things” at the New York Public Library, Craven came across the legend of Sawney Bean, who was the patriarch of a wild clan of Scottish cannibals who murdered people throughout the early 1400s.
4. Craven was fascinated by the fact that when Scotland’s King James ordered the capture, torture, and execution of Sawney Bean and his clan, the crown’s violence was at least as cruel and brutal as that of the Bean clan. This is why, in the film, the Carter family becomes just as vicious as their tormenters.
5. The film was originally going to be set in a forest in 1994, and most of the cannibals were teenagers. In the original script, the baby was stolen for a religious ritual instead of being eaten.
6. Craven’s original title was Blood Relations: The Sun Wars. The producer disliked the title. The movie tested best with the title The Hills Have Eyes, a title that Craven disliked at first.
7. Alternately released as: Hill of Terror (Mexico and Venezuela), The Hill of Cursed Eyes (Argentina), Gang of Sadists (Brazil), The Eyes of the Night (Finland), Hill of Bloody Eyes (Germany), The Beasts (Greece), Eyes in the Night (Sweden), Beasts Must Die (Norway), Wild and Deadly (Romania).
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre Influence
8. As with Tobe Hooper’s 1974 horror classic, The Hills Have Eyes involves a normal group of people who get sidetracked in the desert Southwest and are then forced to endure unimaginable horrors from a group of deranged locals.
9. Craven was a huge fan of Texas Chain Saw Massacre and said that his movie was in part a homage to it.
10. Many of the props in the family’s cave were from art director Robert A. Burns’s props he’d designed for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
11. Wes Craven says that The Hills Have Eyes was shot on cameras rented from a notorious California pornographer.
12. The film was mostly shot in the Nevada desert, where temperatures could reach 120 in the day and plunge to the 30s at night. Crew members repeatedly fainted and fell ill during production.
13. Actress Janus Blythe says that Craven thought she was too pretty to have grown up under harsh desert conditions, so he insisted she keep rubbing dirt on her face throughout filming.
The Bald Creature!
14. The character of Pluto is played by actor Michael Berryman, who claims to have been born with dozens of birth defects, chief among them hypohidrotic ectodermal dysplasia, a hereditary disorder that makes him incapable of growing hair, nails, or teeth.
15. Berryman’s condition also makes him unable to grow sweat glands, which means that long days filming in the Nevada desert heat were acutely dangerous for him. “We always had to cover him up as soon as we finished those scenes,” Wes Craven said.
16. Berryman became an iconic horror legend because of this film. This was a dream come true for him, since he was a huge fan of Universal Horror movies.
17. When Berryman refused to do a scene in which Papa Jupiter cannibalized baby Katy, Craven deleted the scene.
18. To break the on-set tension before filming the scene where Pluto rapes Brenda, Berryman and actor Susan Lanier decided to start making out in front of the entire crew, which led to gales of laughter and broke the ice.
19. After The Hills Have Eyes was released, Berryman says he was at a movie theater during a screening when a woman sitting in front of him shrieked, “This movie is sick and depraved!” He joked that he considered leaning forward and whispering, “You’re damn right, lady, this movie is sick!”
No Animal Abuse
20. At around 15 minutes in, there’s a scene where Lynne Wood (Dee Wallace) discovers a live tarantula in the family trailer. This was not in the script. Filmmakers found the spider on the road, placed it in a terrarium, and decided to add it to the film. Dee Wallace says she wanted everyone to know that she didn’t actually stomp the spider to death in the scene.
21. The rattlesnake that was used in the film briefly escaped during a scene that was being filmed in a narrow mountain crevasse. The moment the snake escaped, the entire crew fled.
22. At around 22 minutes, Doug (Martin Speer) finds the murdered body of the family’s dog, Beauty. A real dog corpse was used for the scene. Wes Craven says they bought it from the county sheriff’s department.
Miscellaneous Facts and Trivia
23. Because films depicting cannibalism are illegal in Germany, the dubbed German version refers to the mutants as “aliens” rather than deranged humans and points to their names—Mars, Jupiter, and Pluto—as proof that they are not from this planet.
24. In the scene where the cannibal family is eating Bob, the actors were actually munching down on a roasted leg of lamb.
25. The budget was so minuscule that actors did their own makeup and were paid minimum wage.
26. Actress Suze Lanier had briefly gained attention as the girlfriend of Vinnie Barbarino (John Travolta) on TV sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter. Her agent warned her that starring in a horror movie would kill her career, but she took the part anyway. After filming, she was cast as the original Chrissy Snow on the breakaway comedy hit Three’s Company but was replaced by Suzanne Somers before the first episode was filmed.
27. Due to its graphic violence, the film originally earned an “X” rating (NC-17 by modern standards), which would have doomed it to the porno-theater circuit. Several scenes were cut in order to have the rating changed to an “R.”
28. The original ending was much happier—the surviving family members reunite near the trailer and look forward to a peaceful feature. Instead, it ends with Doug stabbing Mars while Ruby looks on in terror, which was a role reversal that appealed to Craven.
29. As homage to The Hills Have Eyes, horror director Sam Raimi placed a ripped poster for the film in his 1981 movie The Evil Dead. Three years later, Craven returned the favor by placing a clip from Evil Dead in his movie A Nightmare on Elm Street.
30. Regarding the sequel, The Hills Have Eyes 2, which was released thirty years after the original and universally disliked, Craven apologized and said, “I was broke, and really needed the work. I would have made Godzilla Goes to Paris.”