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March 28-April 3, 2007

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Cult Leader

There's Candy In Them 'Hills': Hansel and Gretel vs. mutants in 1977 cult shocker

By Steve Palopoli

IN THE mid-'70s, Wes Craven was working on a children's horror flick based on the story of Hansel and Gretel. It would have reteamed him with Sean Cunningham, who had just produced Craven's break-out horror hit Last House on the Left. But it never came to anything.

Or did it? Instead, Craven found producer Peter Locke, who wanted him, basically, to make another Last House on the Left. He got what he wanted in 1977's The Hills Have Eyes, which has much the same look and feel as Last House and revisits its theme of suburbanites confronted by savagery who then turn savage themselves. The intensity of Hills has been overshadowed by Last House's vicious reputation, but it's pretty ruthless. Craven had also obviously been inspired by 1974's Texas Chainsaw Massacre for this story of vacationing suburbanites in the desert who stumble into the territory of a mutant cannibal clan who proceed to torment, kidnap and kill them off one by one. Last House plus Texas Chainsaw is a pretty extreme equation, and on the surface this film is pure exploitation—all baby tossing, tourist burning and rape.

But underneath that, it's really a twisted reimagining of the Hansel and Gretel tale Craven wanted to tell. Like the children in the fairy tale, the Carter family are lost in the wilderness. Just as Hansel and Gretel are tempted by the witch's candy house (in the original Grimm version, a house of bread and later gingerbread, but the idea is the same in any case), the Carters are drawn to the mutants' turf by the lure of silver mines. The mutants' names—Pluto, Jupiter and Mars—have overtones of the occult, and also like the witch, they plan to eat the children (who can forget the line "Baby's fat. You fat. Fat and juicy"). The climax of the movie has some similarity to the fairy tale too, with the children tricking Papa Jupiter into a trap.

"Hansel and Gretel" wasn't the only story writer-director Craven drew on for Hills. The family is based on the legendary Sawney Bean cannibal clan of Scotland and, of course, the names of the mutants suggest a link to Roman mythology. It's a similar approach to the Joseph Campbell-inspired myth blenderizing that George Lucas would become famous for the same year with Star Wars. But perhaps the most interesting aspect is the political allegory, something Craven would perfect over the years in films like The People Under the Stairs. The Hills Have Eyes is set against a backdrop of nuclear testing, the mutants apparently created in some way by the military's atomic research. Thus this particular American showdown is a civil war. Even this most grotesque of enemies is the Carters, is the normals, is us.

This theme was explored in more depth in Alexandre Aja's inferior 2006 remake of The Hills Have Eyes. Unfortunately, it was discarded by Craven himself in the 1985 sequel The Hills Have Eyes, Part II, in favor of, uh ... motocross action. C'mon, mutants on dirt bikes? No one wants to see that! Those who went anyway found themselves trapped in a movie that relied on lazy contrivances (eight people on the bus, and not one knew daylight savings time had ended on the day of their big trip?) and a sea of flashbacks, including one from Beast the dog.

A third sequel was apparently planned in the '90s, but ended up as Mind Ripper, co-written by Craven's son, Jonathan. Confusingly, the new sequel to the Hills remake, The Hills Have Eyes II, is basically a rewrite of Mind Ripper, rather than a remake of the 1985 sequel. Jonathan Craven co-wrote again, this time with his dad. The Cravens' script takes the political allegory of the original 1977 film in a different, more modern direction, revealing itself to be a fairly interesting metaphor for the U.S. occupation of Iraq. The desert mutants stand in for the insurgents and terrorists, and the National Guard troops who cross into their territory have been sent on a mission they don't understand. At one point they even joke that they're glad they can't be prosecuted for war crimes. Unfortunately, director Martin Weisz can't sustain anything substantial, and except for one powerful friendly-fire incident, the movie is mostly a series of poorly executed shock scenes and Aliens-type posturing by the soldiers.

By far, the original nuclear candy house is still the best.

Cult Leader is a weekly column about the state of cult movies and offbeat corners of pop culture. Email feedback and the name of your favorite mutant here. To check out a previous edition of Cult Leader, click to the Cult Leader archive page.

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