• Gabe Powers

The Hills Have Eyes LE Blu-ray Review (originally published 2016)

Taking a detour whilst en-route to Los Angeles, the Carter family run into trouble when their campervan breaks down in the middle of the desert. Stranded, the family find themselves at the mercy of a group of monstrous cannibals lurking in the surrounding hills. With their lives under threat, the Carters are forced to fight back by any means necessary. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)



A surprise hit and product of its time, Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left (1972) tapped into the cultural anxiety surrounding the 1970s. Its raw, amateur style helped connect the metaphorical cinéma vérité nightmare of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) to the oncoming urban vigilante movies, like Michael Winner’s Death Wish (1974) and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976). Despite not being a very good film, it became one of the most influential horror movies of the period. Using Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960) as a template, former college professor Craven explored the deterioration of the Baby Boomer family unit via the guise of a merciless exploitation film. Inspired in part by the Manson Family murders, Last House on the Left tells a simple story of two suburban girls who are kidnapped by a gang of thugs, taken to the woods, raped, tortured, and eventually murdered. Unbeknownst to the killers, the parents of one of their victims live across the road from the kill site and, through a series of fortuitous events, are able to reap violent revenge on their daughter’s murderers. Craven’s message seemed clear – liberal ideals were meaningless in the face of the real-life horrors of the post-hippie era. Retaliatory violence is the only logical reaction.


Craven expanded upon the basic themes of Last House on the Left with his follow-up, The Hills Have Eyes (1977). The Hills Have Eyes sticks an extended middle class family – matriarch, patriarch, children, grandchildren, and in-laws – in a survival situation that requires violence (in comparison, Last House’s upper-class liberals have the option to avoid violence, but choose bloody revenge). Craven based his story on the maybe true legend of Sawney Bean. Bean was the leader of a familial clan of inbred cannibals that ‘haunted’ the roads of Edinburgh, Scotland during the 16th century. Bean’s family supposedly murdered and ate more than one thousand people before they were finally captured. But the supposedly civilized Edinburgh authorities doomed them to execution without a trial. The men had their genitals, hands, and feet removed, while the women and children were burned alive. In Craven’s rendition of the legend, the Beans were replaced with a modern American brand of hillbilly cannibal highwaymen (clearly inspired by Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 1974) and the Scottish citizens were replaced by the Carters, a white bread family from the director’s hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. The cannibals essentially (and somewhat offensively) represent economic destitution and the lines between the classes are blurred when both groups are boiled down to their most destructive primal urges. In the end, the surviving Carters are pushed beyond the brink and they kill the hill people. Like the Scots that punished the Sawney Bean family, they lose their moral high ground by stooping to the same brutal violence as their enemies.



In contrast to the cautiously gore-free Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes was plenty graphic for its time (it took several cuts to score an R-rating over an X). Being the second maniac redneck cannibal hit of the ‘70s, it needed to cross lines that Tobe Hooper (who originally aimed for a PG rating) was not interested in crossing. The shock value of the violence endures all these years later because of Craven’s intentionally rough direction, which fuses the structural integrity of a horror movie with the immediacy of a documentary. It doesn’t quite have the faux-snuff movie qualities of Last House on the Left, but The Hills Have Eyes is the more successful and consistent of the two. That said, its themes are the source of its durability and Craven makes some pretty big mistakes in terms of pacing and flat imagery. He would make much worse movies between this one and his next big hit, A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), but he never reverted back to the lo-fi visual impulses of his first two movies. I think it’s safe to say he improved as a filmmaker over his career, even if the content of those more skillfully constructed films was rarely as incendiary or memorable as The Hills Have Eyes.



Video

Following Last House on the Left, Craven was clearly comfortable with smaller-format film, so he and cinematographer Eric Saarinen shot The Hills Have Eyes on 16mm. Here, in the US, it was a popular rental on VHS via Vestron (and later their imprint Lightning Video), as well as Beta via Harmony Vision. Various DVD versions were released throughout the world and the best tended to use/reuse Anchor Bay’s 2003 anamorphic transfer. A messy HD version of that transfer was used for Image Entertainment’s Blu-ray debut (it may have just been a straight upconvert).


For their restored Blu-ray, Arrow tried to go back to the original 16mm negatives, but that footage has been lost, so they went to the next best thing – a 35mm blow-up color reversal intermediate (CRI) – two separate 35mm CRI blow-ups, actually, to improve their odds. The footage was scanned in 4K and graded in-house. The use of a CRI creates some issues, including boosted contrast, inconsistent color quality, and more print artifacts than the original negative might have offered. That said, this 1.78:1 (slightly reframed from the theatrical 1.85:1), 1080p transfer is still the very best The Hills Have Eyes has ever looked on home video. Grain levels are heavy, but not abnormally so for a 16mm source. The print damage is never extensive, though there are cases where the dirt streams down in sheets for a couple of seconds. Details are way sharper than any other release, especially during wide angle shots of the empty desert, but there’s only so much a 4K scan can do with a blow-up of 16mm material. Even considering the inconsistencies of colors from shot to shot (the mostly shimmer between cooler and warmer qualities), the vibrancy of the hues is impressive when compared to the muddy, over-cooled, and way too dark Image disc.



Audio

The Hills Have Eyes was mixed in mono, though many DVD versions, as well as Image’s BD, featured a wildly unnecessary 6.1 remix. For this remastered release, Arrow has forgone any remixes, instead they have returned to the original mono and presenting it in uncompressed LPCM 1.0. The sound quality is pretty erratic, but this is inherent in the original material, which was recorded on location in harsh conditions, then augmented with extensive ADR in post. Despite some hissy ‘s’ sounds and distortion when characters scream, the dialogue is all understandable and the environmental elements are distinguishable. Don Peake’s dissonant, Chainsaw Massacre-inspired music has surprising depth for an older single-channel mix. The squeaky and bassy (pseudo) synth cues demonstrate wide dynamic range, the piano and string parts are clear, and the percussion isn’t distorted at high volume levels.



Extras

  • Commentary with Wes Craven and producer Peter Locke – This archive track was recorded for Anchor Bay’s 2003 DVD. It’s still quite charming and informative, despite the director and producer spending a bit too much of their time silently watching the movie.

  • Commentary with actors Michael Berryman, Janus Blythe, Susan Lanier, and Martin Speer – The first of the two new commentaries is moderated by Red Shirt Pictures’ Michael Felsher and features the four cast members waxing nostalgic about the production experience. It’s a bit low-energy, but is charming for its retrospective nostalgia value.

  • Commentary by academic Mikel J. Koven – The second new track features the author of La Dolce Morte: Vernacular Cinema and the Italian Giallo Film and Film, Folklore and Urban Legends explaining the film’s themes, motifs, and how they relate to other horror/exploitation movies. As his second book might imply, he spends a lot of time on folklore. Specifically, he delves much further into the Sawney Bean legend than any other academic/critic I’ve ever read – perhaps even further than Craven himself while making the movie.

  • Looking Back on The Hills Have Eyes (54:33, HD) – This behind-the-scenes documentary was made for the Anchor Bay DVD. It includes interviews with Craven, Locke, director of photography Eric Saarinen, and actors Berryman, Lanier, Blythe, Robert Houston, and Dee Wallace.

  • Family Business (16:08, HD) – The first new featurette is a 2016 interview with actor Martin Speer, who appears on the new commentary, but had not been part of the original documentary.

  • The Desert Sessions (11:00, HD) – A 2016 interview with composer Don Peake, who discusses his history with Craven and writing/performing/recording the film’s “ugly” (his word) soundtrack.

  • Alternate ending (11:34, HD) – This is the first time that the alternate happy ending (where Ruby joins the surviving family members and Jupiter is killed before Mars) has been presented in HD. This disc also has the option to watch it in the context of the film as an ‘extended version.’

  • Outtakes (18:58, HD) – A raw outtake reel presented in full-frame 1.33:1. The footage is in decent shape, all things considered.

  • Trailers and TV spots

  • Image gallery

  • Original screenplay (BD/DVD-ROM PDF)




This Limited Edition release also includes extra stuff in the box – postcard reproductions of foreign posters, reversible fold-out poster featuring new & original artwork, and a booklet featuring new writing on the film by critic Brad Stevens and Ewan Cant.


The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.


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