Release Date(s)1977 (October 11, 2016)
Studio(s)Vanguard (Arrow Video)
- Film/Program Grade: B-
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: A
Taking inspiration from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes is more intriguing than its title might suggest. It tells the story of a family traveling across the country in an R.V., only to be thwarted by bloodthirsty, cannibalistic maniacs who thrive on attacking and killing the innocent. With no way to contact the authorities, it’s up to them to survive or not. Featuring early performances by Dee Wallace and character actor Michael Berryman, in the role that would define his career, The Hills Have Eyes stands today as an exploitation classic.
Wes Craven’s early output as a filmmaker is probably his most interesting, as it consisted of pornography and later morphed into horror films. He was never the typical experimental film student, who made that one early project with something to say about society through interesting characters and visuals. Yet, one can’t help but argue that he did indeed channel such ideas through his work, no matter how dark or disgusting it got. By the time he made The Hills Have Eyes, Craven had already been established as a complete madman that would do anything to shock an audience. In reality, he was a very soft-spoken man, more like a college professor with a wicked sense of humor, which made him almost unfit for making motion pictures.
It’s always been apparent that Craven was better with ideas than their actual execution, sometimes turning in clunky material that might or might not land, depending on what kind of crew he was working with. Following Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes was another brutal piece of work. It’s not overloaded with social satire, but its examination of humans being pushed to their absolute limit is a recurring theme in Craven’s work, though never as over the top as in Hills. Its gritty, no-holds-barred nature gives it more of an edge than similar films of recent vintage. It was also a big money maker in its day. Unfortunately, the 2006 remake has all but overshadowed the original in popularity and awareness.
Arrow Video’s Region A release of The Hills Have Eyes features a brand new 4K restoration from 35mm color reversal intermediate film elements (as the original 16mm AB negative film elements couldn’t be located), supervised by producer Peter Locke. Like all movies shot on 16mm and blown up to 35mm, the image has coarse and obvious grain. But there’s a strong organic appearance too, with excellent fine detailing, especially in skin textures and clothing. Colors can be bold at times when tans and greens are not present, and skin tones are surprisingly accurate. Black levels are deep, with good shadow detailing, and both brightness and contrast levels are perfect. Other than the grain, it’s a clean presentation, though slight instability issues, light flickering, and minor speckling appear occasionally. What’s important here is that the film looks as it probably would have when it was originally released in 1977. For the audio, a single English 1.0 LPCM track has been included. It’s a bit uneven, full in some respects but flat in others, though dialogue reproduction is good. Sound effects and score also have good clarity and depth, with no distortion or hiss audible. Optional subtitles are included in English SDH for those who might need them.
Arrow Video has packed this release with a lot of bonus material. There are two new audio commentaries, one with actors Michael Berryman, Janus Blythe, Susan Lanier, and Martin Speer, and the other with academic Mikel J. Koven. Carried over from previous releases is an audio commentary, with Craven and producer Peter Locke, and the terrific making-of documentary Looking Back on The Hills Have Eyes. There’s also a couple of new interviews, including Family Business with actor Martin Speer and The Desert Sessions with composer Don Peake; an alternate ending, with the option to watch the film with it; twenty minutes worth of outtakes; U.S. and German theatrical trailers; 4 TV spots; an image gallery; the original screenplay accessible via BD/DVD-ROM; a set of 6 postcards; a reversible fold-out poster; and a 38-page insert booklet featuring an essay on the film by critic Brad Stevens, as well as a look at The Hills Have Eyes franchise by Ewan Cant. Sadly missing from the Anchor DVD release is The Directors: The Films of Wes Craven documentary and the screensavers from its DVD-ROM content. The latter isn’t missed much, but it’s a shame to lose the documentary, which likely wasn’t included due to disc space and/or rights issues.
The Hills Have Eyes isn’t Wes Craven’s best film by any stretch of the imagination, but it has plenty of staying power and, like many vintage horror films, deserves to be discussed more often than it actually is. Arrow Video’s Blu-ray release is damn near perfect, and definitely one you’ll want to own if you’re a Craven fan. Highly recommended.
- Tim Salmons