My first exposure to Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes was through the intertextual nod by Sam Raimi in The Evil Dead. And after hearing Bruce Campbell’s commentary elaborating about the ripped poster for The Hills Have Eyes, and the camper scene, I was sold. I managed to grab a DVD copy of the film, and while the film had its problems, there was definitely something about this gritty little exploitation that had me smiling. The last “definitive” edition of the film on home media was on Anchor Bay’s 2003 2-disc DVD set, which had given the film an excellent (for the time) restoration, and a great feature length documentary to go along with it. Over a decade later, Arrow Video snagged the rights, as well as put together a new 4K transfer from the original 16mm stock. The result? Something longtime fans will definitely enjoy.
The Carter family is on vacation, going from Ohio to Los Angeles. Parents Bob (Russ Grieve) and Ethel (Virginia Vincent) are joined by their teenage children Bobby (Robert Houston) Brenda (Susan Lanier), their eldest daughter Lynne (Dee Wallace), Lynne’s husband Doug (Martin Speer), Lynne and Doug’s baby daughter Katie, and their dogs, Beauty and Beast. When stopping for fuel, the gas station attendant (John Steadman) advises the family to stick to the main road. Ignoring the advice, Bob later drives onto a desert road, and after being spooked by a passing jet, crashes the car and strands the family. Things get worse when a family of cannibals living in the hills take an interest in the Carters.
Often referred to as a cousin of Tobe Hooper’s classic Texas Chainsaw Massacre, there are similarities with both films. Apart from the cannibalistic and kooky families and in the middle-of-nowhere settings, there’s a ferocity in the violence that, while Hills is more in-your-face about it, it’s no less frightening. The Hills Have Eyes pulls no punches when it comes to courting certain taboos in films: Violence against animals, and violence against mothers. The aforementioned camper scene is akin to the dinner scene in Chainsaw, in that it encapsulates the horror and deranged behaviour found within both films. Tone and mood are absolutely king in The Hills Have Eyes. Craven plays it smart when only giving hints of the sinister characters lurking in the hills at the beginning, steadily building things up for the viewer. Once things get really hectic, the viewer rallies around the Carter family as they react and fight back against the cannibals, using unorthodox and desperate methods to survive. This “tooth and nail” feeling reaches its peak, of course, after members of the family meet their grisly demise at the hands of Papa Jupiter (James Whitworth), Mars (Lance Gordon) and Pluto (Michael Berryman).
Amongst the violence and depravity, Craven makes an interesting point to show parallels between the two families, which ends up helping to flesh out character development. It all comes from the research of the Sawney Bean family Craven did while coming up with the story for The Hills Have Eyes. The family dynamic in the film is shown from both sides, as the families communicate and relate, as well as just try to survive doing what they do. There are the outsiders from both families who aren’t entirely embraced by the rest of the clan, but are still integral in their own way. Members of both families also lament the loss of one of their own in their own way. On the other end of the scale, both families are also capable of savagery, which they indulge in at different points in the film. It’s an added layer to the film that isn’t touched on by many viewers, but it’s fascinating when you think about it.
Of course, this exploration of the family dynamic exposes some blatant flaws in the film, namely in the logic of some of the characters. Virginia Vincent’s Ethel drove me nuts with her reaction to the death of a critical character. I understand the whole denial thing, but it went overboard with the hysterics. Another aggravation was Bobby (Robert Houston) and his refusal to tell the rest of his family what happened when he went off looking for one of the dogs. Frankly, the Carters would’ve been on alert had Bobby said something, and deaths could’ve been prevented. Still, would we have had a movie like The Hills Have Eyes if Bobby had said something? Probably not. Lastly, one could make the argument that the film is dated (which it is) and rough around the edges (which again, it is). The pacing is pretty slow going (even with the purpose of heightening dread), and the exposition by John Steadman’s character is clumsily executed (even if I enjoyed the “I hit ’em with a tire iron and split his face wide open!” line). Still, the roughness adds to the down-and-dirty exploitation, and it all comes back to the tone Craven has set up that mostly masks the shortcomings.
While Craven’s film hasn’t aged as well some of his bigger successes, there is still some great horror to glean from The Hills Have Eyes. The exploration of how the civilized can become savage and the savage can act civilized still stands out for the film, as well as the sinister tone accompanies it. The exploitation factor is still very much there, and the violence can be just as impactful now as it was back in 1977. It’s rough, but that’s also part of its charm. While it’s nowhere near the success that A Nightmare On Elm Street became, the film stands as a great example of a storyteller developing their craft before unleashing the masterpieces that were to come.
The booklet that comes with this set states that this AVC-encoded 1080p 1.78:1 transfer was culled from two separate CRI 35mm elements that were struck from the 16mm AB negatives (which have unfortunately now been lost). The result is a transfer that, while not perfect, is the best that the film has ever looked on home video release. Those who have never seen the film will probably be saying “yuck!” the first minute into the film with the heavy grain, but considering that this is a blow-up from 16mm, and the conditions of the shoot, this isn’t a shocker. Details are much better than they were on the upscaled Image Blu-Ray release (from the original 2003 Anchor Bay transfer), and the overall image is much more vibrant. There’s still some print damage and some inconsistencies in colour (probably as a result from using two sources), but when you compare it to previous releases, the quality is a significant improvement.
As for the audio, we’re given a Linear PCM 1.0 track culled from original 35mm print elements. Compared to the 6.1 DTS and 5.1 Dolby EX tracks Anchor Bay put out, this might seem like a step backwards. Yes, there’s a bit of distortion with characters screaming, some hissing going on in the background and some change in quality throuhgout the runtime, but that’s what was in the original material (again, those working conditions). The mono track isn’t anything to sneeze at, either. It provides good dynamic range, and the dialogue is very much discernible.
For starters, Arrow has brought back the 2003 Audio Commentary by Wes Craven and Peter Locke. While the duo do get caught being silent while watching the film, they offer up a great wealth of information on the production that more than makes up for the dead parts. Definitely one to listen to if you’re up for feeding your brain. Two new Audio Commentaries are included as well. The first has actors Michael Berryman, Janus Blythe, Susan Lanier, and Martin Speer. This one is moderated by Red Shirt Pictures’ Michael Felsher, and is a more laid-back affair with the cast taking a nostalgia trip. The other commentary has academic Mikel J. Koven, author of ‘La Dolce Morte: Vernacular Cinema and the Italian Giallo Film’, and ‘Film, Folklore and Urban Legends’. Koven does the analysis thing, explaining the themes and motifs of the film, and how they relate to other films in the horror/exploitation genre. A fascinating track if you’re into delving into folklore and the Bean family, this is another track that will feed your brain some more if you’re into a more expansive look at where Craven’s film falls in the genre.
Following that, Arrow have ported over Anchor Bay’s excellent 2003 retrospective documentary, ‘Looking Back On The Hills Have Eyes’. This 54-minute doc features interviews with Craven, Locke, director of photography Eric Saarinen, and actors Berryman, Lanier, Blythe, Robert Houston, and Dee Wallace. It covers everything about the production of the film, from its genesis, to casting and location, filming from beginning to end, dealing with the MPAA, reaction, and more. It’s exhaustive in its coverage, and still holds up to other more recent making-of documentaries for films. Definitely worth it.
Also ported over from the Anchor Bay disc are the Alternate Ending, now with the option to watch it in the context of the film as a sort of ‘extended cut’, and the Outtakes (presented in 1.33:1 full-frame), which are the usual flubbing of lines or actions by the actors.
New from Arrow is a 16-minute interview with actor Martin Speer entitled ‘Family Business’. Speer talks about his audition, his reaction to the script, stories from the shoot, his thoughts on Wes, doing his own stunts and more. It’s a fun and informative piece that nicely compliments the main documentary.
Composer Dan Peake gets his say in ‘The Desert Sessions’. Peake talks about his experience working with Craven (who he knew from a meditation group) and his work on the film’s score. Another fun and interesting interview, interesting bits include how the score was done without synthesizers, the techniques used with the instruments, how the props came into play (pun intended) when it came to the percussion, and the “ugly” sound of the soundtrack.
Rounding up the extras is an Image Gallery, Trailers and TV Spots, and the original Screenplay available as a PDF file on the Blu-Ray.
Now the inevitable question of what’s missing from the original Anchor Bay release. Well, the biggest omission is ‘The Directors – The Films of Wes Craven’, an AMC-style doc that takes an hour-long look at Wes Craven’s career (up to that point in 2003), and includes actors who had worked with Craven discussing the director’s work. It’s was an interesting documentary, but not as in-depth as the other documentary, nor is it directly related to The Hills Have Eyes. Also missing are some items from Arrow’s Image Gallery (mostly storyboards and behind-the-scenes photos) that are included in Anchor Bay’s disc, as well as a Restoration featurette and screensavers (?!). Unless you’re a completionist, you’re not going to be missing much.
Plus, since this is the Limited Edition release from Arrow, we get a few more goodies. Included is a two-sided poster, a 40-page booklet that includes essays from critic Brad Stevens and disc producer Ewan Cant, 6 postcards that replicate some of the lobbycards found in the gallery, reversible sleeve for the case that features the original artwork for the film, and a hardcover slipcase to house everything. Overall, this is a packed set that definitely is worth the price and upgrade from the original DVD and Blu-Ray. For those who still have the 2003 set, you might want to hang onto it for the few missing extras, but it’s not necessary for those who don’t have it.