At a run-down gas station in the desert of Nevada, somewhere near the Nellis Air Force Base, an old man named Fred (John Steadman) is packing his truck when a ragged and somewhat feral teenage girl named Ruby (Janus Blythe) approaches him. She offers to trade what she has in her bag for food, but the old man refuses. They walk into a small cabin and Fred scolds her for what "they" have done. Ruby says that her family ambushed a nearby airfield because they were hungry and that no one any longer passes by where they live. She pleads with Fred to take her with him, but he refuses and warns Ruby that she could be in danger if "the pack", in particular someone named Jupiter learns what she's doing. She replies that his life will be in danger as well if Jupiter finds out that he's trying to leave. A noise distracts them and Fred orders Ruby to hide.
The Carter family is traveling on vacation towing a travel trailer from Ohio to Los Angeles. Parents Bob (Russ Grieve) and Ethel (Virginia Vincent) are driving, accompanied by their teenage children Bobby (Robert Houston) Brenda (Susan Lanier), eldest daughter Lynne (Dee Wallace), Lynne's husband Doug (Martin Speer), their baby daughter Katie, and their dogs, Beauty and Beast. They stop at Fred's Oasis for fuel and Fred urges them to stay on the main road as they leave. Fred's truck suddenly explodes, preventing him from leaving. Ignoring Fred's warning, the Carters skid off a desert road and crash. Bob walks back to Fred's Oasis to get help. The dogs become very panicky and start barking at the hills. Beauty then runs off into the hills, where she's slaughtered by someone. Bobby chases after her and finds her mutilated body. Frightened, he runs, falls and knocks himself unconscious.
As night falls, Bob reaches the gas station, where he finds Fred, who has tried to hang himself. Fred tells him about his son's family of deranged cannibals who live in the hills through which the Carters have traveled. They are commanded by Papa Jupiter (James Whitworth) who had killed his mother, Fred's wife, during childbirth. As a child, he killed the livestock on his father's farm and later murdered his sister. Fred attacked his son with a tire iron and left him in the hills to die. However, Jupiter survived and had children with a depraved, alcoholic prostitute known as Mama (Cordy Clark). Together, they had three sons - Mars (Lance Gordon), Pluto (Michael Berryman) and Mercury (Arthur King) - and an abused daughter, Ruby. They survive by stealing and cannibalizing travelers. Papa Jupiter suddenly crashes his hands through a window, kills Fred with a tire iron and takes Bob prisoner.
Brenda finds Bobby, who is shaken up about Beauty and returns to the trailer but doesn't mention Beauty's death, not wanting to frighten the rest of the family. He then gets locked out of the trailer and asks Doug for his keys, but is unaware the trailer is locked because Pluto is looking through their valuables while Ethel and Brenda are asleep. Before Bobby enters the trailer, Pluto signals Papa Jupiter to set Bob on fire on a stake as an explosion is heard in the distance. Ethel, Lynne, Doug, and Bobby rush out to save Bob while Brenda stays in the trailer with the baby. As they extinguish the fire, Pluto and Mars ransack the camper and Mars promptly rapes Brenda. The Carters eventually extinguish the fire, but Bob dies shortly afterwards. When Ethel and Lynne return to the trailer, Lynne is attacked by Mars, and Ethel hits him with a broom. After Mars shoots Ethel and Lynne, he attempts to shoot Brenda as well but has run out of bullets. Pluto abducts the baby and the brothers flee, intending for the family to eat the baby. Hearing their screams, Doug and Bobby rush in the camper only to find Lynne dead and Ethel mortally wounded.
Mars and Pluto return to the cave, but Beast pushes Mercury off a hilltop to his death. Ruby is then chained outside the cave with Mama tormenting her, and is forced to eat Beauty as punishment for her betrayal. The family then cook and eat Bob's body. The next morning, shortly after Ethel dies, Doug sets out to find his baby while Papa Jupiter and Pluto set out to kill the remaining family members. Beast tears Pluto's throat out, and Papa Jupiter is killed by a trap set by Brenda and Bobby that uses their mother's corpse. Doug sees Ruby knock out Mama and escape with Katie into the hills.
Doug catches up with Ruby and the baby, but Mars follows them. Mars initially manages to tackle and knife-struggle with Doug, but Ruby interferes by putting a rattlesnake on Mars' neck, enabling Doug to overpower him. Doug then repeatedly stabs Mars to death while Ruby weeps over her brother's body before the screen fades to red.
According to Wes Craven the film was shot on cameras rented from a famous California pornographer. In fact, according to Robert Houston the audition process depended a lot on whether or not the actors could cry on cue.
The dead dog used as a stand-in for the family's slaughtered Alsatian 'Beauty', widely believed to be a dummy dog, was in fact a real (already dead) dog that director Wes Craven and producer Peter Locke had bought from the county sheriff's department. The desert locations for the film were extremely rough on the crew. Not only was the rocky terrain difficult to walk, let alone run through, but the temperature would reach up to 120 degrees during the day. After sunset though it would drop to a cold 30 degrees in a matter of minutes.
The film was conceived as a modern retelling of the Sawney Bean story. In the script, titled Blood Relations: The Sun War, the clan consisted of dozens of incestuous family members, similar to the Sawney Bean family that inspired the story. In addition, the film was set in 1994, took place in a forest, rather than a desert, and most of the major cannibals (such as Mars, Pluto and Mercury) were adolescents. The baby was stolen not for food, but for a perverted religious ritual. This conception is referenced in the essay included in the Arrow Blu-Ray release, as well as discussed in the commentaries.
The film was given an X rating by the MPAA. The Umbrella DVD contains a commentary with Director Wes Craven, and Producer Peter Locke in which they discuss the censorship problems. Following scenes were cut for R rating;Scene where Fred is beaten to death by Jupiter was cut down a lot.
Scene where Mars and Pluto kidnap the baby was also cut down.
Originally while eating Big Bob's arm, Jupiter thrust it into Big Bob's face and stuck its finger into Bob's eye. More of this scene was also cut down.
Scene where Brenda hits Jupiter in back with ax.
Scene where Doug repeatedly stabs Mars was cut down but apparently all the cuts were snuck back in.
The deleted footage is believed to be lost, though the alternative ending was included on the 2003 Anchor Bay DVD.
The October 3, 2016 Arrow Films release (AV065) features an HD transfer of the alternative ending, multiple commentaries, and additional material exclusive to their release.
The film did reasonably well in its initial release and today enjoys a large cult following. The film currently has an approval rating of 64% on review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, based on 22 reviews, and is certified "fresh". Austin Chronicle wrote, "Inventive story ideas and humorous touches give this horror picture an enduring relevancy and stylistic flourish." Roger Ebert criticized the film for being "decadent."
The Hills Have Eyes was ranked No. 41 on Bravo's 100 Scariest Movie Moments for the scene where Mars and Pluto attack the trailer and try to steal the baby. The film was nominated for AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills.
The Hills Have Eyes started a series of intertextual references between horror film directors. In the scene where the protagonists return to the looted trailer, a poster of the 1975 movie Jaws ripped in half is visible on one wall. Commenting on this Sam Raimi placed a poster of The Hills Have Eyes ripped in half in his 1981 movie The Evil Dead. Wes Craven then portrayed his characters watching Evil Dead on television in his 1984 movie A Nightmare on Elm Street. Raimi responded once again by placing the iconic razor-fingered glove of Nightmare's antagonist, Freddy Krueger, in the basement in his film Evil Dead II. Raimi explained the intertextual exchanges in the 1989 documentary Stephen King's This is Horror:
One of the things they see is a picture of a Jaws poster, the monster, that's been like ripped in half. So I took it to mean that Wes Craven, the director of the movie, was saying: "Jaws was just pop horror. What I have here is real horror. It's rip that baby in half."
So as a joke and as an homage to Wes Craven I took a Hills Have Eyes poster and in Evil Dead I put it in the cellar in one of the sets. And I ripped it in half, to say "No Wes, your picture is pop horror, this is real horror." But just as a joke of course.
Now, Wes Craven has responded in his picture by putting a clip of Evil Dead 1 as a horror movie in a scene that a character is watching in his movie Nightmare on Elm Street. I guess it's to say: "No, your movie Evil Dead is just a horror movie. Nightmare on Elm Street is the real horror".
Craven made a sequel, The Hills Have Eyes Part II, in 1985, which he later disowned. Alexandre Aja directed a remake of The Hills Have Eyes in 2006. Craven and his son Jonathan wrote the sequel to the remake in 2007.
The film's soundtrack was written and performed by Don Peake. The extensive score containing a total of 41 cues was released in 2009 on CD by Hitchcock Media Records. In 2014 it was re-released on vinyl and cassette by One Way Static Records. The vinyl edition contains extensive liner notes by Don Peake and the film's cast and crew.