The legendary star of The Hill Have Eyes takes us back to the horror classic and tells us why Wes Craven was the master…
The Hills Have Eyes is truly unforgettable. Wes Craven’s sophomore horror was unleashed on audiences in 1977, and painted a terrifying picture of a family forced to discover their own survival instinct when confronted with a clan of mutant killers in the American desert. It confirmed Craven as one of horror cinema’s most exciting and provocative talents, and it’s a testament to his incredible work that it’s still a powerful and timely chiller to this day.
The film was also the launching pad for the career of character actor Michael Berryman, who became a genre icon following his role as the terrifying Pluto. The star graciously gave us some time to talk about his experiences of shooting, his memories of Wes Craven, and how a drive-in prank nearly went very wrong.
SciFiNow: How does it feel to see The Hills Have Eyes still be celebrated more than 40 years on?
Michael Berryman: It feels great, especially because of the friendships that we made. We had a cult following come about, and it just reflects on Wes’s brilliance in writing, directing, and how he put the film together. It’s just very well executed, and it holds its own. A lot of the more recent horror films go in and out with the fascination with splatter, special effects, etc., but Hills was just so well put together. It has just been a blessing to have met Wes and worked with him on numerous occasions.
How did you get involved with the film?
Well, I had worked on my second film, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest! I learned so much, and when it got done it was kind of sad, because everyone had become an extended family, so I went back to Santa Monica and I was wondering, “Wow, I wonder what my next job will be?”
Then my agent sent me to meet the producers and Wes, and he told me the back story of the Bean family and how that was somewhat factual, and they said, “We saw you in Cuckoo’s Nest, and the family perhaps has mutations from living on a bomb range,” which is kind of ironic. My father was a neurologist and brain surgeon, he went to Nagasaki and to Hiroshima after they dropped the bombs, and when he came home, I was born with some defects that were the direct cause of being irradiated, so it sort of dovetailed with the Hills story.
They said, “We’re hiring you because of your looks,” and I said, “Okay, perhaps the performance will meet your expectations,” and I believe it did.
It’s a gruelling film to watch, but what was it like to shoot?
Well, we filmed out in the desert about two hours north of Los Angeles, and it’s an area I was very familiar with. Most of the actors were from LA, so it fit well that they were the white-bread city folk and we were the wild and crazy ones! But I was comfortable. We had one little mini Winnebago that was for wardrobe, catching a break, production office. It was hot in the daytime and cold at night, and we played it for real.
We filmed the rape scene within a few nights of the production starting – with me and Suze Lanier-Bramlett as Brenda. I had just met her, she was very sweet. We would become friends for years after that, and when we were doing the first take we decided that when Mars pulls back the curtain and I’m supposed to be attacking her, we would be furiously making out for real. So they said, “Okay, action!” and we were not doing the scene like we were supposed to!
Did you have any idea of how successful it would be when you were working on it?
Not really – we all thought it would just disappear and go away. We loved working with Wes, he was the driving force, a great visionary and a great guy, and we wanted to bring his vision to fruition, but honestly we didn’t think it would go anywhere, and it did! It’s even in the New York Museum of Modern Art as a horror classic, and I got to be on the poster. One night, the film was showing at a drive-in theatre, and we decided that I should dress up like Pluto and bang on some car windows and scare people. About the second or third car, this girl screams, and this guy gets out with a baseball bat and he’s chasing me, and at that point I’m starting to realise the power of this film. I’m running between cars, yelling to Wes and Peter to start the van, and I lost track of where it was! All of a sudden I see headlights, the van pulls up and Wes is leaning out, opening the sliding door and he goes, “Jump, Michael, jump!” And I ran like hell! And we left the guy in the dust and we went to a diner, got a cup of coffee and a bite to eat, and we were all pretty quiet. Then we realised, “I think we have a hit!” At that point we realised it was really going to do something.
Why do you think it has stuck with people after all these years?
Well, it’s tight, there are no frills, and there’s nothing superfluous about it. It has everything: it’s got tension, it’s got the switch of the roles. Towards the end, the message is: how do you judge your humanity when you have to resort to violence? It doesn’t rely on special effects, splatter and a lot of gore; it’s just very gritty. You get involved with every character – the good and the bad – and it’s very honest.
Wes had his hand in all the decisions to create the mood. I’m just very grateful, and also meeting fans that are older in their years, and they share the moments when they let their children watch the movie for the first time, and those are always kind of cool to hear. You know, you build it, you produce it, you put it out there, and it has a life of its own.
The Hills Have Eyes is available to buy on Blu-ray now, distributed by Arrow Video. Get all the latest horror news with every issue of SciFiNow.