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THE HILLS HAVE EYES

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Susan Lanier, Robert Houston, Martin Speer, Dee Wallace, Russ Grieve, John Stedman, Michael Berryman, Virginia Vincent, James Whitworth
Director:  Wes Craven
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1 EX, DTS 6.1 ES, Dolby Surround, Dolby Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Anchor Bay
Features:  See Review
Length:  89 Minutes
Release Date:  September 23, 2003

“Where’s your family?”

“They’re all okay.”

“Like hell they are.”

Film ***1/2

Happy day for me that Wes Craven’s most brutally horrifying masterpiece The Hills Have Eyes has finally made it’s way to DVD…and via the right studio, as well.  More on that further down.

Craven’s first horror film was a low budgeted, grisly assault of terror with the enigmatic title The Last House on the Left.  The fact that a $90,000 movie garnered plenty of attention and turned a successful profit might have opened doors for the young, aspiring filmmaker.  But the picture’s dark, unflinching subject matter and revolutionary approach to screen violence seemed to close them instead.

But you can’t stop an artist from doing what he does best, and Wes Craven, despite being a quiet, thoughtful and sweet man in real life, was born to scare the hell out of us.  When he returned to the director’s chair and the genre some five years later, he was more in tune, more confident, and more singularly focused.  The resulting picture, The Hills Have Eyes, is arguably not only one of his two or three best films, but one of the all time great horror films with a deserved cult following.

Like Last House, Hills was direct and unapologetic in its depiction of the true horrors of violence.  There is gruesome bloodshed, almost always followed by tears and terror.  This isn’t violence for the sake of action, but the kind with stark realness and rippling consequences.

The film pits two families against one another in the desert:  once civilized and one feral.  One is off the beaten path, alone, and vulnerable, the other is in its element.  And when civilization meets the uncivil, its only hope for survival is to become the very thing it fears most, which is probably the underlying and most unsettling point of the picture.

When a family heading for California gets distracted from the main highway despite warnings, they end up broken down in the middle of nowhere.  Scary enough, especially given that the desert is unbearably hot during the day and nearly freezing at night.  As the father and stepson set off in different directions for help, the mother, brother and two sisters are left behind to make do against a barren, beautiful and unnerving landscape.  But what’s got that dog barking so fearfully in the direction of the hills?

The hills do indeed have eyes, and as it turns out, teeth as well.  A ferocious mountain family of murders and cannibals is watching our hapless group.  What follows isn’t always what you expect, but it is often what you’d most fear.

One of the aspects of the film that makes it such a classic for me is its inseparable marriage of content and style.  Though still a low budgeted film, Craven makes incredible use of the resources at his disposal…most notably, his location, which he takes the time to establish and contemplate, and gradually turn it in our minds from a beautiful place to a place where death could be around every rock or in any crevice. 

His camerawork is impeccable, too, taking us at uncomfortable speeds through the hills and over the rocky terrain as the danger unfolds.  He makes you feel like you’re part of the action and not just a casual observer.  Your home theater chair is a safe place to be, but for some 90 minutes, it won’t feel that way.  Even more impressive is his use of focus, which sometimes not only hints at activity going on in the deep background, but sometimes the foreground as well, as we’ll watch a medium shot of the family and something indiscernible suddenly breezes by close to the camera lens, momentarily throwing the carefully constructed scene out of balance.  Simple techniques, but extremely effective.

The violence is frequently strong and brutal, even for those who think they’re quite desensitized to this type of movie.  Family members see loved ones harshly cut down in front of them…the impact goes beyond the stylized shedding of blood.  Yet I don’t believe any of it was done gratuitously.  The entire point is to show how ‘normal’ people can only be terrorized so far before they find the only way to fight back is to become the terrorizers themselves.  It’s easy to cheer when our civilized family takes revenge against the feral one.  But Craven’s brilliant, short, final shot, which essentially leaves the movie at its point of climax with no denouement to resolve our feelings concerning what has unfolded, leaves a bitter taste.  And it’s the right taste, otherwise the shock and horror that led up to that point would have been cheapened.

This is not a picture for the weak of constitution.  It’s the kind of horror movie that will even horrify the most astute fans of the genre, which is probably why its popularity has remained so strong over the years.  I love the film, but I can’t describe the feeling of watching it as pleasurable.  It’s definitely a walk on the darker side of filmed entertainment; brilliant, uncompromising, unsettling and immediate.  I think it’s probably Wes Craven’s second best film after the under-appreciated New Nightmare, and easily his most horrifying, but you can judge for yourselves.

Video ***

Anchor Bay would have been my first and only choice for company to put The Hills Have Eyes on DVD, and the attention to quality given this release justified my faith.  I’ve never seen a version of this movie on home video before that I would have considered good looking; given the age and inexpensiveness of the shoot (lots of high contrast film stock, etc.), I don’t think a full four star rating would ever be possible.  But with an anamorphic widescreen transfer and attention to cleaning up most of the marks, scratches and spots, fans can now experience this film as never before.  Colors are good, as are image details, and the print plays free of undue grain (some, because of the stock, is unavoidable).  There’s still an instance of ‘shimmer’ now and then caused by the age of the material, but it’s very light and infrequent, and barely worth mentioning.  I can’t imagine this film looking much better than it does here; fans should be very pleased.

Audio ***1/2

Anchor Bay also remains the best studio for remastering mono horror soundtracks for 5.1 plus sound.  Choices of DTS and Dolby Digital extended digital sound are the cornerstone, but a standard surround and original mono are also available.  All channels are opened up for maximum effect, and new mix really enhances the creepiness, as you’ll hear menacing action taking place behind you from time to time, and atmospheric effects in all directions.  Dialogue is clean and clear throughout, as are the musical cues.  The subwoofer signal is bare to non-existent, but there really isn’t much in the film that calls for an extra punch of bass.  Once again, very high marks.

Features ****

With a loaded double disc set filled with goodies, horror lovers will find plenty to eat up (no pun intended) in this juicy offering.  The extras start on Disc One with a commentary track by writer/director Wes Craven and producer Peter Locke.  It’s an enjoyable listen filled with memories and little details, and a pleasant reminded that both men are actually good souls despite the mayhem they unleashed on the screen!

Disc Two starts with two terrific documentaries.  “Looking Back On The Hills Have Eyes” is a solid retrospective featuring interviews with Craven and Locke and several of the cast members and crew (Michael Berryman, whose fearsome physique became the film’s most recognizable image and poster shot, is especially a treat to listen to…despite playing one of horror’s most unsettling villains, he’s a sweet fellow in real life).  The second, “The Films of Wes Craven”, is an hour long look back at his entire career, from his most famous landmark pictures to the ones you may have never heard of.  Stars and co-workers chime in with tributes to the man who gave us some of the most indelible horror of the last quarter century.

There is also an alternate ending, which looks to have come from a videotape source.  Thank goodness Craven scrapped it; the ‘happily ever after’ sentiment would have been a gross misstep.  There are trailers from the U.S. and abroad, TV spots, galleries of art, advertising and behind-the-scenes photos, a Wes Craven bio, and DVD ROM content. 

Summary:

Anchor Bay has long been one of my favorite DVD producing studios thanks to their commitment to quality releases for fans of horror and cult pictures, but so far, 2003 is turning out to be their banner year.  The Hills Have Eyes is another top notch release of a film that deserved no less than red carpet treatment and got it.  It’s not a film that will please everyone, but for those willing to test their limits, I consider this one of the genre’s best.  Cautiously but enthusiastically recommended.