Hang tight, everyone. Judge Clark Douglas is going to pull over and ask for directions.
The lucky ones died first.
"We're gonna be French fries! Human French fries!"
Facts of the Case
The Carter family is on their way to California, that magical wonderland of fast cars, movie stars, milk and honey. Unfortunately, they seem to have gotten a bit sidetracked along the way, and before long they find themselves stranded near a nuclear testing site in the middle of the desert. After family patriarch Big Bob Carter (Russ Grieve, Foxy Brown) wanders off to find help, the Carters make an unpleasant discovery: they are not alone. Some strange, violent figures are lurking in the hills, and soon Big Bob, Ethel (Virginia Vincent, The Black Orchid), Lynne (Dee Wallace, The Howling), Brenda (Susan Lanier, The Night the Bridge Fell Down), Bobby (Robert Houston, Shogun Assassin), and Doug (Martin Speer, Coma) find themselves forced to fight for their lives.
Wes Craven will always be associated with the horror genre, but these days he's often thought of as the man behind the slightly campy, fantasy-driven A Nightmare on Elm Street series and the cheerfully ironic, tongue-in-cheek Scream franchise. It's easy to forget that Craven was once known for a more cold-blooded brand of horror, roaring into the world of cinema with his nightmarish debut The Last House on the Left. While his 1977 feature The Hills Have Eyes isn't quite that unrelentingly bleak (and offers faint traces of the playfulness which would inform his later work), it's still a pretty bone-chilling slice of primal terror.
For whatever reason, the 1970s produced a generous supply of films that fused fish-out-of-water horror (in which a group of relatively dignified city folk found themselves under attack from debased hillbillies of one sort or another) with more substantive commentary on the violent, animalistic impulses lurking within the souls of even the most "civilized" individuals. Not to suggest that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Deliverance, Straw Dogs, and The Hills Have Eyes are all identical films (indeed, the execution of each contrasts dramatically), but it's intriguing to consider that a decade that spent much of its time reveling in previously forbidden gratuities also spent so much time nervously questioning our somewhat troubling bloodlust.
Craven's The Hills Have Eyes came after the other aforementioned films, but it certainly brings enough of its own personality to the table to prevent it from feeling like a recycled concept. For one thing, it's perhaps the most unrelentingly savage of such films, frequently crossing boundaries of good taste which ensure that the film never feels too much like a formulaic exercise (never mind the fact that, like so many horror films, it could essentially be described as, "a movie in which a group of people get picked off one by one by something horrible"). One scene involves two characters using a dead family member as bait for cannibals, while other sequences break a cardinal rule of the movies by throwing a baby into horrific peril without blinking.
The social commentary is handled particularly well, as Craven rarely forces the point home. He allows the characters to celebrate just a bit too wildly after slaughtering their foes; undercutting moments of cinematic heroism with an unsettling current of orgasmic jubilation. Craven only swings a thematic hammer with his final freeze-frame, and the moment is well-earned. It might catch those simply regarding the film as nothing more than a surface-level "us vs. them" horror/thriller as peculiar, but it certainly rings true. Additionally, Craven never goes so far as wagging a finger at his audience for enjoying what has come before; he performs a tricky juggling act of delivering sick entertainment, using the genre to explore larger ideas with and carefully skirting potential accusations of hypocrisy.
Though The Hills Have Eyes certainly has a grimy, low-budget look, the film benefits from above-average craftsmanship and performances. Craven's directorial creativity extends well beyond the actual kills (some of which are a shade too Rube Goldberg-esque, honestly), as the film is briskly paced and benefits from energetically-helmed action sequences. From the early off-road spill to the concluding chase through the hills, Craven keeps things tight and involving. The performances never feel too amateurish, which is generally an unexpected plus in an ensemble horror flick. Granted, we're not dealing with any Oscar-worthy stuff, but each actor handles his or her role quite satisfactorily. The unquestionable stand-out is Michael Berryman as the unforgettable "Pluto," who has both the acting chops and the physical presence required to ensure his status as a cult icon. I also quite like John Steadman's work as the fretful gas station owner who appears during the film's opening sequence.
Frankly, The Hills Have Eyes is a film so rough-looking that it almost doesn't need a Blu-ray release. This 1080p/1.85:1 transfer does offer slightly more texture and detail than a standard-def release might, but honestly it looks an awful lot like a DVD upconversion. That's not necessarily the fault of the folks at Image Entertainment, as the source material looks rather shoddy and was never going to sparkle in hi-def. Still, I can't imagine many people getting too excited about getting the opportunity to own an HD version of this film. The sound is similarly mixed, as the sound design is a little rough-sounding at times and some of the louder moments (screams in particular) can be pretty distorted. Still, the surround mix is reasonably active given the film's age. Supplements from the previous special edition DVD are recycled here: a commentary with Craven and producer Peter Locke, the lengthy, substantial featurettes "The Making of The Hills Have Eyes" (55 minutes) and "The Directors: The Films of West Craven" (58 minutes), an alternate ending (10 minutes), some trailers, stills galleries, a Craven text bio and a restoration demo.
No offense to Freddy Krueger or Sidney Prescott, but arguably nothing else on Craven's resume matches the assured direction, thematic depth and raw horror of the original The Hills Have Eyes. The Blu-ray release doesn't offer much incentive to upgrade from the special edition DVD, but this is the way to go if you don't already own the film.
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