Welcome to the other side of hell.
Wes Craven may be remembered for only one thing in his life, but it's a doozey: the creation of cinematic teen slasher Freddy Krueger. But did you know that Craven is also the man behind a dozen other horror movie villains and scares? Well, of course you did—why else would you be reading this review? From the chillingly funny 1990s Scream trilogy to the realism of 1972's The Last House On The Left, Craven constantly has his finger on the pulse of American horror. In 1977, Craven directed his follow-up to Last House On The Left, the family friendly cannibal tale The Hills Have Eyes. Starring Dee Wallace Stone (E.T.) and everyone's favorite baldheaded baddie Michael Berryman (Weird Science), The Hills Have Eyes makes its way onto a two-DVD edition care of the good folks at Anchor Bay Entertainment.
Facts of the Case
Planted firmly in the "It Could Be Worse, But Not by Much" club, the Carter family is about to discover what real terror is when their car breaks down in the middle of nowhere (well, it's somewhere, because if it were nowhere then the movie wouldn't technically exist, but that's a different review). While on their way to sunny Hollywood, California, the Carters take a detour to visit an old abandoned silver mine. After their RV swerves into a ditch (mental note: avoid ditches in the desert), they're bombarded by a family of inbred yahoos (including Michael Berryman) who want only two things: A.) to eat the Carter's livers and B.) find a good dentist, though it's never spoken but subliminally implied. Then one of the youngest members, an infant, is taken by the bloodthirsty clan. This leads to a cat and mouse chase as family members are picked off, roasted, and served up with a side of lima beans and white zinfandel. Soon the remaining Carter family members strike back in a scramble to survive in a place where The Hills Have Eyes!
There are only two things that scare me in life. One is being stuck in a room with only murky Mexican water and a TV playing 24/7 reruns of Family Matters. The other is having red-hot needles shoved into my armpits. What does this have to do with The Hills Have Eyes? Absolutely nothing. I just wanted you to get to know me a bit more before I continued with this review.
Okay, I'll admit it—I would be a bit terrified if I ended up stuck in the hot desert surrounded by mountain men who make the folks from Deliverance look like F. Scott Fitzgerald socialites. The hot desert is bad enough, but then to be stuck inside of a trailer the size of a tin can with not only my family but my extended family?!? If this situation also gives you the chills, The Hills Have Eyes may be your cup of human chum.
But first let's go back a few years to Craven's Last House On The Left, a movie that I was not very happy to see yet is considered a minor cult classic among horror fans because of its horrific, realistic depiction of man's inhumanity to man. Icky. In the same vein as that film is The Hills Have Eyes, written and directed by Craven in the same pseudo-documentary style as Last House On The Left. Heads roll. Arms roll. Babies roll. Trailers are blown up. Grandparents are eaten. For a movie teetering on the budget of a Mars candy bar, Craven attempts to throw everything in but the kitchen sink (oh wait, that's in there as well…nevermind).
I've made no secret that I wasn't thrilled with Last House On The Left. I do think that The Hills Have Eyes is a vast improvement, even if I wouldn't consider it to be a modern day horror classic. Gore fans will most certainly feel differently—it's a truly grueling experience of horror and suspense. In just this one effort, Craven proves that he's a master of edge-of-your-seat terror.
The performances in The Hills Have Eyes are all about on par with the low budget material. The Carter family starts out as a typical American family on vacation: bickering and arguing. Then everything goes to hell in a hand basket as the cannibal family attacks the Carters and, in one of Craven's less subtle points, we're posed the question, "when push comes to shove, will docile citizens become what they most fear?" In other words, are the cannibals really just us on a bad hair day?
Horror icon Dee Wallace Stone (Cujo, The Frighteners) fares the best in a role that requires her to scream a lot, though the deformed and obvious good sport Michael Berryman gives her a run for her money as the guy making her scream. Yes, nothing says "über-creepy" like a tall bald guy with beady eyes and dead animal parts around his neck trying to turn you into his personal Thanksgiving dinner.
The Hills Have Eyes is a tight, taut little flick that would certainly be the perfect drive-in classic if there were any drive-in theaters left to show it in. Then again, in a drive-in there wouldn't have been a 5.1 mix and DVD transfer quality images. Settle for your living room and enjoy the show.
The Hills Have Eyes is presented in a matted 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. As most fans know, The Hills Have Eyes has always been a grainy film that is about as low budget as one can get. That being said, Anchor Bay has really produced a nice transfer with the source materials they were working with. The colors are usually solid (some bleeding) and the black levels dark (though graying does occur). There is also a fair amount of dirt in the transfer, though when you look at the provided restoration demonstration it's obvious that the folks at Anchor Bay put a lot of work into making this film look as good as humanly possible. This isn't a perfect transfer, but it is pretty dang nice, all things considered.
Fans will have not one, not two, not three but four audio tracks to choose from on this release of The Hills Have Eyes. Included on this disc is a DTS ES 6.1 mix, a Dolby Digital 5.1 EX mix in English, a Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround track, and a Dolby Mono track, all presented in English. These are all mostly front heavy soundtracks with few directional effects and just a small amount of distortion that aren't much to write home about. No alternate subtitles have been included on this set.
Anchor Bay has done right by DVD with this new two-disc DVD edition of The Hills Have Eyes. Fans of the film will be thrilled with this feast of extra features, starting with a commentary track by director Wes Craven and producer Peter Locke. Overall this is a fascinating commentary with plenty of info on the casting, production, background of the film, where the story ideas came from, and other tidbits Hills fans will savor.
On disc two, fans will find "Looking Back at The Hills Have Eyes," a nearly hour-long retrospective on the film featuring interviews with director Wes Craven, director of photography Eric Saarinen, and stars Susan Lanier, Dee Wallace-Stone, Robert Houston, Janus Blythe, and Michael Berryman. This is a fine retrospective of the film that includes some history on Craven as a director (everyone who meets him often is surprised he is articulate and not Charlie Manson-ish), the history of the film's production, what it was like working in the desert, and other interesting facts about the film. This is a must watch for fans of the film.
"The Directors: The Films of Wes Craven" is another hour-long documentary, often played on cable, that focuses solely on Craven's life and films, including A Nightmare on Elm Street, Shocker, The Serpent and the Rainbow, the Scream series, and his many other horror favorites. Various participants are interviewed, including Ray Wise, Kristy Swanson, Neve Campbell, Meryl Streep, Adrienne Barbeau (wait, I thought she was John Carpenter's girl…), Courteney Cox, Bill Pullman, David Arquette, Robert Englund, and many others. Once again, this is a worthwhile viewing for those who are true Cravenites.
Next up is a goofy alternate ending gives the film a happy conclusion that isn't in keeping with the film's tone. This ending is presented in a very rough looking 1.33:1 transfer with weak dubbing. Promotional fans will be thrilled to see a vast array of trailers (a US version and German version) and TV spots (two UK and two US spots) as well as a still gallery, behind-the-scenes photo gallery, and a few storyboards from the film.
Finally, there is a lengthy bio on Wes Craven, as well as some DVD-ROM content for a personal computer.
Fans of The Hills Have Eyes will most certainly enjoy this two-disc set, constructed in a nice package by Anchor Bay. The movie may be low budget, but it's certainly high in tension and thrills.
The Hills Have Eyes…and your DVD player will scream!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Commentary Track by Director Wes Craven and Producer Peter Locke
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