Examining Don Peake’s Trail-Blazing ‘The Hills Have Eyes’ Score [Terror on the Turntable]

The Hills Have Eyes

Welcome to Terror on the Turntable! In this monthly column, join Rachel Reeves as she explores the powerful and unholy alliance between horror films and their scores. Covering only scores released on vinyl, it’s a conversation about the intersection of music theory, composer style, film history, and the art of deep listening. So, light the candles, put on your headphones, and get ready to drop that needle. The sacred ritual of listening to music on wax is about to begin. For this installment, Rachel climbs through Don Peake’s score for The Hills Have Eyes.

For horror, the 1970s were a time of monumental change. With waves of disillusionment, political unrest, social shifts, and economic insecurity sweeping through countries around the globe, horror evolved to mirror these mindsets. As a result, subject matter shifted, violence heightened, technology advanced, and loose narrative threads were intentionally left fluttering in the breeze. Not surprisingly, this dramatic modification in approach and execution also affected the music that accompanied these trailblazing films. A case in point is Don Peake’s unsettling and experimental score for Wes Craven’s 1977 American horror classic: The Hills Have Eyes.

Peake Pre-Pluto and Fam

When one begins to dig into a notable film’s history and making-of story, the odds of stumbling across fascinating and surprising information nuggets are high. And to be sure, The Hills Have Eyes contains many. However, few can compare to Don Peake’s career and his involvement with the film. Before working on The Hills Have Eyes, Peake only had three feature film credits under his belt: The Legend of Bigfoot, Moving Violation, and Black Oak Conspiracy. Though film scoring was a developing career move, Peake built upon years of incredible musical achievements and experiences. 

Peake’s professional musical career began in 1961 when he landed a gig playing lead guitar for The Everly Brothers at age 21. Peake then settled in Los Angeles after a couple of years of touring and making innumerable connections. There, he became one of the most prolific and in-demand guitar players around. He played and toured with The Ray Charles Orchestra, studied with Joe Pass, and recorded with The Mamas and the Papas, Sonny and Cher, and The Beach Boys. He then joined the most famous group of elite session musicians ever, The Wrecking Crew, and worked extensively on many Phil Spector projects. 

After that, he became a staff guitarist for Motown Records, recording for Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, The Temptations, the Commodores, and on all the Jackson Five’s original hits. Other significant credits include John Lennon, Barry White, Bobby Darin, Gloria Gaynor, Hank Williams Jr., and his production credit on Ray Parker Jr.’s smash theme song for Ghostbusters. And honestly, this is just scratching the surface. So, how the heck did someone like Peake get involved with horror icon Wes Craven? At a Hollywood meditation center, of course. 

The Craven Connection

After meeting Craven by chance, hitting it off, and swapping numbers, Peake accepted Craven’s offer to score his sophomore film; The Hills Have Eyes. With the film already complete, Peake had the luxury of scoring directly to picture with minimal direction from Craven or producer Peter Locke. Accompanied by his stacked resume, it’s understandable that Craven and Locke would fully trust Peake’s abilities. So, allowing the film to guide and inspire his creative direction, Peake started working on a score he describes as “ugly, nasty, and disturbing.” It turns out Craven and Locke agreed. 

Deeply affected by what he saw on screen, Peake found himself unable to work on the film at night. Spooked by the violence, brutality, and tense thematic undercurrents, he only operated during daylight hours and channeled that energy into his music. Using acoustic and early electronic instruments, his soundscape was unnerving, sparse, and profoundly different than expected. Craven and Locke hated it. However, to everyone’s credit, Peake explained his thinking, and the team accepted it. Rather than telling one of the most talented and prolific modern guitar players how to do his job and hiring someone else, they pushed forward. In doing so, Peake’s score for The Hills Have Eyes became an early player in an evolving approach to scoring horror.

“The music in The Hills Have Eyes was instrumental in creating this unbelievable cult following. It was new, inventive, and vibrationally creative. As with the entire film, new horizons were conquered.”

– Dee Wallace (Lynne Wood in the film)

Beams and Bones

Defining the film’s tone from the outset, Peake’s music sets the stage as the film’s opening credits begin to roll. As low notes are plodded out on the piano, staggered strings are plucked erratically. Subtly supported by electronic sound, the effect is haunting and ominous. Spacious and minimal, the physical and emotional landscape gets established before a single actor appears on the screen.

For this track and throughout the film, Peake utilized an exciting array of instruments and techniques to bring that extra spooky vibe to The Hills Have Eyes. One was called “The Beam.” Developed in the early 70s, The Beam was a long metal beam strung with a single wire. Under the wire, electric guitar pickups capture the distinctive low and sinister tone. Then, a long glissando effect was achieved by sliding a piece of steel across the wire. Eerie and unusual, The Beam would soon rise to prominence in the science fiction world thanks to its use in projects like Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Battle Beyond the Stars, The Black Hole, Forbidden World, and Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones

Peake’s experimental use of early electronic technology and The Beam adds a crucial subtextual layer to the film. As the Carter family enters the desolate landscape home to Jupiter (James Whitworth) and his family, short electronic cues underscore and accompany their evasive presence. Not yet fully revealed, this sonic association imparts a not-of-this-world connection to the clan. Like rural sci-fi aliens, these deliberate instrumentation choices clue audiences into the fact that Jupiter, Pluto (Michael Berryman), Mars (Lance Gordon), and even Ruby (Janus Blythe) do not operate in ways typically deemed socially acceptable. 

More a series of short cues than longer, melodic tracks, The Beam is only the beginning of Peake’s The Hills Have Eyes score experimentation. For example, the Quarter Tone String technique, common in traditional Middle Eastern music and made famous in the Western world by composers like Penderecki and Ginastera, is used to give many moments disconcerting atonality that keeps the audience on the edge of their seats. Likewise, a Stroh viola imparts an atmospheric and ghostly reverberating element that’s hard to pin down. And a lightly prepared piano with a few broken keys seals the uncomfortable deal without being too obnoxiously obvious. 

Now, for Big Bob Carter (Russ Grieve) and his picturesque family, portrayed by Dee Wallace, Robert Houston, Martin Speer, Susan Lanier, and Virginia Vincent, their ignorance is embodied by silence. Even after Bob runs the family car and camper off the road, the lack of score subtly highlights their fish out of water situation. They are the outsiders here. Even when surrounded by miles of harsh terrain and no nearby help, their misplaced trust in God and guns keeps them unreasonably calm. Only when a threat is placed right before them does the music kick back in. 

Once the Jupiter family’s existence has been fully revealed, the score begins to function in a more typical, traditional way. Cleverly introduced in full when Bobby pushes play on the family tape player, sad-sounding woodwinds and strings meld with nervous electronic interruptions. Mirroring the cultural collision of the two families, this layered musical moment signifies the merging of the two family’s seemingly disparate paths. From here on out, there is no proper distinction between them. In the same way that Craven plays with civility and morality narratively, Peake musically blurs that line as well. 

As the action and violence heighten, Peake employs some carefully orchestrated jazz-influenced passages with drums, piano, guitar, strings, and electronics. Slightly off-kilter, the lack of sustained traditional rhythmic predictability accentuates the frantic nature of the situation. In many of these scenes, Peake even used the exact bone and teeth necklaces worn by Jupiter, Pluto, Mars, and Mercury as shakers. The light primal touch it imparts on tense chase scenes is a small but influential detail that supports the increasingly fuzzy moral line dividing the two families.

In the end, it was an approach that served Peake well. After The Hills Have Eyes, he continued scoring successfully with credits that include The Prey, Delusion, and the Knight Rider TV series. And even though Wes Craven wasn’t initially satisfied with Peake’s score, he must have come around on it at some point as he returned to Peake to score his 1991 film, The People Under the Stairs

Though the influence of Bernard Herrmann and John Williams’ score for Jaws is abundantly clear, the creativity of Peake’s music should not be overlooked. In lieu of a more traditional, thematic, and melodic score, Peake instead chose to trust his gut and channel the film’s message and brazen brutality. Along with 70s movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Alien, Black Christmas, and Halloween, a new wave of minimal, dissonant, and electronic film scoring was rising to prominence. By pushing boundaries and embracing new technologies, Peake and his like-minded contemporaries established new musical genre hallmarks and kick-started trends that resonate to this very day. 

Crate Digging

While Peake’s score for The Hills Have Eyes is a fascinating listen, it’s not necessarily pleasant. 

As previously mentioned, most cues are short and range from 30-90 seconds on average. So rather than perhaps a score to kick back and chill to, it’s more an exciting example of horror film score history. And, for years, it was missing. Thankfully, Don Peake miraculously found the lost tapes in storage and made a release possible. 

Initially released on CD in 2009 on Hitchcock Media Records, it was One Way Static Records that finally brought Peake’s music to the turntable in 2014. With a heavy-duty gatefold jacket, obi strip, and exclusive liner notes from multiple cast and crew members, it’s a striking release. Though definitely not for everyone, it is worth tracking down. And for those who might be a bit nervous about dropping the needle on this one, just keep telling yourself, “It’s only a movie. Only a movie. Only a movie….”   


Sign up for The Harbinger a Dread Central Newsletter