Wes Craven's original 1977 classic is one of the great counter-culture horror films of its time, as well as being a true highpoint in the late director's career.
It opens with a family, headed by grumpy retired cop Bob (Russ Grieve) and his matriarchal wife Ethel (Virginia Vincent), travelling across country in the former's camper van. Along for the ride are their teenage kids Bobby (Robert Houston) and Brenda (Susan Lanier), older daughter Lynne (Dee Wallace) and her family: husband (Martin Speer) and their infant daughter. A pet budgerigar and the family Alsatian dogs, Beauty and Beast, are also in attendance.
Against the advice of attendant Fred (John Steadman) at a remote gas station, Bob decides to drive his family through an abandoned army air-testing range. A largely uneventful journey takes a turn for the worse when Bob swerves to avoid hitting a passing rabbit - and runs his vehicle off the road. Everyone is okay, thankfully, but the van's jiggered. Oh dear.
Bob volunteers to return to the gas station on foot. In the meantime, the group agree to wait and scout their surroundings in the hope of finding life. This seems unlikely, as they're in the middle of the desert and haven't seen another vehicle in hours.
Little do they know, however, that they're being watched from the hills surrounding them, by a family of cannibalistic mutants led by the feral Jupiter (James Whitworth).
Which is never a good thing.
Surely in need of no introduction to SGM regulars, THE HILLS HAVE EYES is Craven at his most abrasive. The exposition is lean, the story keeps itself from straying into unnecessary sub-plot territory and the tension rarely subsides as a consequence. Performances are generally strong - Wallace shows signs of becoming the star she would in the 80s, in fare such as CUJO and E.T.: THE EXTRA TERRESTRIAL; Michael Berryman arguably owes his entire career to his unforgettable turn as flesh-eating clan member Pluto.
An agreeable tone is established early on, Craven's script achieving a balance of quirky humour and subversive horror that his preceding THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT had struggled to find. Here, the comedy comes through very real human interactions - petty squabbles, Bob and Ethel becoming exasperated by each other's foibles, etc - while these astute observations help us truly feel the terror this family experience once the shit hits the fan. Alexander Aja's 2006 remake may have considerably upped the gore but it totally forsook dedication to emotionally engaging the viewer while doing so.
Complete with nice exterior photography (the California desert location is simultaneously breath-taking and sinister) and Don Peake's wonderfully discordant score - reminiscent of the disjointed sounds which helped make THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE so unsettling - add to the film's overall power.
There are flaws. We never really get to know enough about Jupiter's mutant family: they are violent caricatures and little more. Their sole purpose, other than to terrorise their visitors, appears to be so Craven can pit one family against each other and ultimately ask which ones are the real barbarians. But he never really explores either in enough depth to convincingly answer his own question.
Other than that, the film's perfect pace is derailed somewhat by a rushed finale.
Still, along the way we get some truly iconic set-pieces to enjoy. These include a couple of "did they really go there?" moments - no spoilers! - which made the film seems incredibly brutal at its time of release. It's a lot tamer in modern times, of course, but still packs a punch.
THE HILLS HAVE EYES was treated to a 2-disc special edition DVD several years back courtesy of Anchor Bay Entertainment. It stood for some time as the definitive version of the film. Even a US blu-ray, from Image Entertainment, didn't change that, Indeed, all that did was port across most of the DVD's extras and a shitty transfer which used noise reduction like it was going out of fashion. A German blu-ray came shortly afterwards, unfortunately employing the exact same transfer.
All of that changes now with Arrow Video's new release.
The film is being released in separate blu-ray and DVD editions. We were sent a copy of the latter to review. Even in standard definition, upscaled on my blu-ray player, I can say in all confidence that THE HILLS HAVE EYES has never looked better.
Don't get me wrong, it still looks gritty and grainy. And so it should, this was shot in the 1970s on 16mm, on a budget of around $200,000.00. The great thing about this 4K restoration is that it boasts a clean, sharp, bright quality to it - the colours are often remarkable in day scenes - while retaining the texture and look of its lo-fi origins. No more waxy flesh tones like on the previous blu-ray releases: this is as accurate as I can imagine THE HILLS HAVE EYES ever looking on home video. With deep, true blacks and a sense of depth I've not previously experienced with this film, I was deeply impressed with this uncut (86 minutes and 18 seconds including the original VRI intro), 16x9 presentation.
English mono audio is cleaned up and clear as a result. It has its limitation, sounds a little flat at times, but there are no problems to report of during playback. Optional English subtitles for the hard-of-hearing are easily readable at all times.
This disc opens to an animated main menu page. From there, a static scene selection menu allows access to the film via 12 chapters.
Bonus features start with Craven's archive audio commentary track, in conversation with producer Peter Locke. It's a typically laidback, erudite affair, the late filmmaker offering an easy blend of intelligent philosophising, gentle humour and fond reminisces. Locke trades off Craven well and, between them, there's a lot of information and self-effacing quips to be enjoyed here.
Michael Felscher moderates a snappy, enjoyably commentary from co-stars Speer, Lanier, Janus Blythe and Berryman. From how each of them got into dramatics to their own takes on what was clearly at times an arduous shoot, this is a great addition to the disc.
A final commentary track from film scholar Mikel J Koven explores the film's themes, and in particular the folklore surrounding the legend of Scottish cannibal Sawney Bean. Koven astutely points out that the film is primarily about two things: "rural poverty in America" and "isolation". He later ties these themes into the Bean story during key points of the film. Just when you think a third audio commentary was really stretching things (well, that's what I was thinking - I'll be honest), Koven proffers a fun, enlightening and often thought-provoking essay on Craven's film ... suggesting it has many more layers than its ostensibly simple storyline suggests.
Ported across from the old Anchor Bay release, we get the excellent "Looking Back on The Hills Have Eyes": a 53-minute documentary featuring contributions from Craven, Locke, Berryman, Wallace, Houston, Lanier, co-star Janus Blythe and cinematographer Eric Saarinen. It's as good a retrospective as you're ever likely to find - slickly edited, endlessly interesting and full of valid insights into the shoot.
New interviews with Speer and Peake are good-natured, attractively shot affairs. Both fellas look well as they look back fondly on their time spent on the film. These two new featurettes, joint productions from Arrow Video and Red Shirt Pictures, run for 15 and 10 minutes respectively.
An alternate ending offers an intriguing proposition, tying up the story better than the abrupt finish of the final cut. Happily, there's also an option to watch the film with the alternate ending in place. Personally I prefer it this way. As its own entity, this extra plays out at 10 minutes in length.
18 minutes of pillar-boxed outtakes exist for completists, while the expected trailers, TV spots and image gallery all make a welcome appearance.
You want the original screenplay via DVD-ROM connection? You've also got that here.
Per the press release, this DVD release also comes with double-sided reversible cover artwork. Its blu-ray counterpart also contains 6 postcards, a reversible fold-out poster and a booklet with new essays by Ewan Cant and Brad Stevens.
THE HILLS HAVE EYES remains a vital part of the Craven canon, a pivotal film in the annals of 1970s horror cinema, and one of the finest examples of "Hell comes to your own home" movies out there. The home here is a camper van, of course, but that just makes the terror even more claustrophobic.
A stone-cold classic, finally given the home video treatment it so richly deserves.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by Arrow Video|
|see main review|