If I were to rate The Hills Have Eyes (1977) on the merits of a single scene, it would rate pretty high. About 50 minutes into the movie, there is a sequence of astonishing power, brutality, and intensity, and it really is a knockout. The problem is the movie around it is tedious and for the most part uninteresting.
The Carters, a Cleveland family on its way to California, get stranded in the middle of the desert while detouring to look for an inherited silver mine, but they are not alone. A family of mutant cannibals watches their every move, waiting to pounce at the right moment, and when they do, it's an all-out war between the city slickers and the desert folks.
The Hills Have Eyes suffers from something I like to call "Time Machine Syndrome." In H.G. Wells The Time Machine, humanity had evolved into the soft, weak Eloi and the subterranean, violent Morlocks who preyed on the Eloi and ate them. The Eloi are too stupid to care about, and the reader (or viewer of any film adaptation) ends up rooting for the Morlocks to gut them. While that's morbidly entertaining in a science fiction parable, it's a kiss of death in a horror film.
The Carters just aren't interesting. They're either stereotypes (disciplinarian father, Bible-thumping mother) or just bland (the rest of them). I know Craven is going for the theme of a civilized family descending into barbarism when they're stripped of the comforts and security of home, but these people are just clueless. For the first 50 minutes, they don't really do much, and Craven's efforts to build suspense aren't successful. Then the mutants strike.
The mutants are far more compelling, especially Michael Berryman as the iconic Pluto (the guy on the cover). They're mean, aggressive, and will do what it takes to survive. When Pluto and his brother Mars make their move on the trailer, it's an intense moment. You feel helpless watching them brutalize those unlucky enough to be caught inside, and at least one of the deaths at that time comes out of nowhere. When it ends, you feel stunned along with the Carters. It's a cheat we don't get more of the mutants.
But then again... SPOILER the villainous patriarch Papa Jupiter falls for a very lame MacGuyver-esque trap, and his final showdown with the Carters feels less like a desperate fight to death and more like Home Alone in the desert. And Pluto's death, that pisses me off: the family dog mauls him! A guy who has spent his entire life in the desert and probably has had his share of fights with wild animals gets killed by a pet. Granted it is a police dog, but I expect better from a horror movie villain (a dog didn't stop Michael Myers). A cheap death for a great character. I'll give Craven credit for killing one of the Carter's dogs, but the other dog reeked of contrivance and convenience. The dog ends up killing two members of the mutant family and bringing the good guys exactly what they need at a crucial moment. It defeats the purpose of having a civilized family go savage by having the dog do it for them. END SPOILER
Disappointment is the best word I can use to describe The Hills Have Eyes. I like Wes Craven, and I've heard great things about his sophomore effort, but it just feels cheap and tedious and is riddled with cliches. There are some good parts, but overall, I was not impressed.