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Hills Have Eyes, The (Blu-ray)

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Hills Have Eyes

Hills Have EyesStarring Martin Speer, Dee Wallace, Michael Berryman, Robert Houston

Directed by Wes Craven

Distributed by Arrow Video


Wes Craven’s early films were designed to produce a primal response from audiences. As a writer and director, he had a knack for tapping into central, universal fears and exploiting them for maximum effect. His first two pictures dealt exclusively in the most vicariously satisfying subgenre of them all: revenge. Both of those films were also based on olden tales. In the case of The Last House on the Left (1972), the progenitors were Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960) and the 13th-century Swedish ballad upon which that film is based, “Töres Döttrar i Wänge”. For his follow-up film, The Hills Have Eyes (1977), Craven looked to another tale – this one of questionable veracity – the legend of Sawney Bean. As Scottish folklore tells, Bean and his 40-plus-person clan were cannibalistic savages who engaged in criminal acts and incest on a regular basis back in the 13th-or-so century. Whether or not the story is true… who can say? But the depravity displayed by Bean and his brood in these stories was carried over nearly wholecloth to Craven’s film, wherein an inbred band of brutes prey upon a very typical nuclear family in the barren desert of California, forcing the good-natured people to turn primitive and attack with extreme prejudice.

Out in the scorching desert of California, reclusive hermit Fred (John Steadman) works at his gas station and minds his business, which is mostly drinking and cursing. There’s a local population of inbred folks who live up in the hills, one that may have a strong connection to the old timer, and on occasion they rely on Fred to supply them with wares. One young member of the group, Ruby (Janus Blythe), wants out but Fred warns her that Papa Jupiter (James Whitworth), the fearsome leader of her family, won’t be hearing any of that. On a particularly blazing afternoon the Carter family – Big Bob (Russ Grieve), his wife, Ethel (Virginia Vincent), and their children – roll up to the station for some gas. The family is on their way to California from Ohio and they’re looking to take the scenic route – aka the back roads – something Fred strongly advises against. But Big Bob is stubborn and he takes the road less traveled regardless… and promptly drives the family station wagon into a rut after some low-flying jets give him a big fright. Seriously, this guy was a cop?

Stranded and miles from any help, Big Bob and his brood decide the best course of action is to set out for help. Big Bob heads out in one direction, while Doug (Martin Speer), his daughter’s husband, goes off in another. Bobby (Robert Houston) stays behind to mind the women, but when one of their two German Shepherd’s, Beauty, runs off Bobby gives chase and leaves the girls. He eventually finds Beauty, dead, before tripping on a rock and knocking himself out. The family might think they’re far from anyone but the reality is they have driven right into the waiting arms of Papa Jupiter and his cretin clan, which includes his bloodthirsty sons Mars (Lance Gordon), Pluto (Michael Berryman), and Mercury (Arthur King). The ravenous marauders are out for more than just looting and terrorizing, though; they’ve been starving up in those hills, and Big Bob and co. look like an easy meal. The one thing Jupiter and his kids weren’t counting on is how hard the family will fight back.

The latter half of The Hills Have Eyes succeeds in offering up some unflinching brutality (though many scenes were trimmed, with that footage lost to time) but its greatest strength is during the first half when tension and a foreboding sense of dread permeate the atmosphere. Craven lets it be known there is something in those cavernous hills, but he only offers up bits and pieces of the hillfolk. Viewers remain in the dark as to what these pseudo-mutants look like or just how many of them there are, right until the moment when they enact a deadly plan to take out the men and brutalize the women. It’s a cold, calculated attack that would seem to be above the skill level of such brutes until you realize their aptitude is likely the result of having done this many, many times. This isn’t a case of a villain reveal removing that sense of fright, either, because these guys are tougher than they look… and they look like they have seen some shit. The make-up effects and costume design are incredibly effective, allowing these radiated freaks to seem legitimately deadly.

Our regular folk, on the other hand, tend to act irrationally and without much thought, especially someone like Big Bob who is presented as the most collected and capable leader of the lot. Like most horror films of that era, once night falls so do IQs and there are many moments when you’ll be left wondering why in the hell a person would make such choices. But that’s de rigueur for horror, so in some ways it has to be expected. The plot needs to get the characters into certain situations and sometimes the means aren’t ideal, but at least in this case the payoff makes a few stupid moves worth it. The inanity isn’t limited to the Carter family because ol’ Fred pulls a few boners, this despite the clear fact he has lived alongside these mountain men for the better part of a few decades. But then, he is a stumbling drunk, so…

Similar to Last House…, Craven shot this film with a grainy stock that imbues a certain harshness and realism that more polished 35mm film might not have achieved so easily. While part of me wants to say the 2006 remake is equal, if not superior, to the original it is the unvarnished sense of reality that gives Craven’s original picture the edge. Not to take anything away from Aja’s remake, which is a great example of redoing a film right, but there’s a certain slickness to that production that makes it feel… safer? The 1977 version feels more dangerous, thanks to the austere but grim production design, grindhouse aesthetic and Don Peake’s atypical score done using unique instrumentation.

Arrow Video’s latest Blu-ray release includes two versions of the film: the theatrical cut and a version that has an alternate ending, which is really an extended ending. The theatrical version ends abruptly on a heavy note, whereas the alternate ending offers up a glimmer of positivity.

Image previously issued Hills on Blu-ray, featuring a transfer that was rightly blasted for being a weak upconvert. Arrow Video has taken the additional step of commissioning a new 4K restoration from the original film elements, supervised by producer Peter Locke. Don’t allow that verbiage to fool you, though; this is still a rough looking film, but what Arrow has done is still a massive improvement over any prior release. There is only so much that can be done with 16mm, but what this restoration succeeds in doing is bringing out every bit of detail and punching up colors as much as possible. Don’t expect a pristine image, as film grain is still very present and very thick, which I find to be the only way a film like this should look. Anything too pristine would strip away character. Definition can and does vary wildly, with some scenes looking far sharper than others.

On the audio front, Arrow sticks with their purist ethos by providing one option: an English LPCM 1.0 mono track. There aren’t any bells & whistles to this one, but dialogue is incredibly present & clear and there are a few moments of punctuality that offer up a sonic quality that makes the track sound larger than it is. Don Peake’s score is reproduced with strong fidelity. Subtitles are available in English SDH.

With Wes Craven gone, and existing bonus features with him available, Arrow has done the smart thing by including a few new pieces alongside the already great extras Anchor Bay produced for their own DVD edition years ago.

There are three audio commentary tracks – first, with the cast; second, with Wes Craven & peter Locke; third, with Mikel J. Koven. If you’re going to choose one, go with Wes’ because his tracks are always an educated joy.

“Looking Back on The Hills Have Eyes” is a carryover documentary from Anchor Bay, with interviews from nearly all of the cast & crew. It’s the definitive look at the film’s production history.

“Family Business” is a new interview with Martin Speer, covering the usual topics alongside some standard recollections.

“The Desert Sessions” is an interview with composer Don Peake, discussing the methods he used for creating the organic, minimal soundscape.

The film’s alternate ending is also included here as a standalone feature.

A nearly twenty-minute reel of outtakes can also be found.

A handful of trailers & TV spots, as well as an image gallery, complete the bonus features.

Additionally, the set comes in a sturdy chipboard case along with six postcards, a double-sided poster, and a booklet on the film featuring essays and archival stills. The cover artwork is also reversible.

Special Features:

  • Brand new 4K restoration from original film elements, supervised by producer Peter Locke
  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
  • Original mono audio
  • Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
  • 6 x postcards
  • Reversible fold-out poster featuring new and original artwork
  • Limited edition booklet featuring new writing on the film by critic Brad Stevens and a consideration of the Hills franchise by Ewan Cant, illustrated with original archive stills
  • Audio commentary with Wes Craven and Peter Locke
  • Looking Back on The Hills Have Eyes making-of documentary featuring interviews with Craven, Locke, actors Michael Berryman, Dee Wallace, Janus Blythe, Robert Houston, Susan Lanier and director of photography Eric Saarinen
  • The Desert Sessions brand new interview with composer Don Peake
  • Alternate ending, in HD for the first time
  • Trailers and TV Spots
  • Image Gallery
  • Original Screenplay (BD/DVD-ROM Content)
  • Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Paul Shipper

BUY IT NOW!

  • The Hills Have Eyes
  • Special Features
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Edge of Isolation Review – A Movie with a Simple Message: Don’t Trust Anyone

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Starring Michael Marcel, Marem Hassler, Alexandra Peters

Directed by Jeff Houkal


Sometimes, relying on the kindness of strangers is the thing that’ll do your gullible asses in – kindness? Strangers? Come on – think about it! Even further proof of said warning comes in the form of director Jeff Houkal’s brutally blatant film, Edge Of Isolation – won’t you come inside and grab a seat? You see! You fell right into another trap – jeezus, people…don’t trust just anyone, will ya?

Set up in a simplistic format, we’ve got a traveling couple (Lance and Kendra) whose Jeep, conveniently enough decides to shit the bed along a desolate stretch of roadway, leaving them at the mercy of the Polifer family, a slightly odd bunch of backwoods residents. This particular clan isn’t exactly wrapped too tightly, and they’re not afraid to let their freak flags fly, that’s for sure. You see, the family has been deeply-rooted in these here woods, and their “hospitality” has kept them fed for quite some time, and with a fresh supply of unsuspecting commuters stopping in at varying spells, their stomachs never truly seem to growl out of sustained hunger…oh, that kindness will bite you in the ass every single waking moment.

As I mentioned earlier, the film is constructed fairly simple, yet effective in its barbarism, and those who dig survivalist-horror will be wringing their mitts in anticipation for this one. While some editing does look a bit hokey, the practical effects more than make up for an at-times bit of strewn-about plot navigation, but who’s keeping score? Certainly not me, that’s for sure. I absolutely revel in low-budgeted films that don’t necessarily have the looks and feels of such, and Edge Of Isolation is one of those presentations that is certainly worth its weight in blood and guts – do yourself a solid and give this one a look when it becomes available to the masses, and for f**k’s sake, don’t take up anyone’s offer to chill at their place when your ride breaks down – get AAA and save your life (the previous statement was in no way affiliated or endorsed by the Triple A Automotive group – just sayin’).

  • Film
3.5

Summary

Edge Of Isolation doesn’t need a full-blown allocation to keep future stranded motorists from losing their heads – all they have to do is push “play.”

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Threads Blu-ray Review – The Horror of Nuclear War Hits Home Video

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Starring Death, Destruction, Famine, Unimaginable Suffering

Directed by Mick Jackson

Distributed by Severin Films


Although not quite reaching the tense heights felt during the Cold War, talk of nuclear annihilation has nonetheless been on the tips of tongues following a recent public spat between President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un. The difference being that unlike the decades-long stalemate between America and Russia, this kerfuffle feels more like two boys breaking out the ruler to measure package size. Regardless, the truth remains that as long as nuclear weapons are held by any country the risk of a catastrophic event is always on the table – and their use should never be used as a casual threat. The world has seen firsthand the level of devastation that can be wrought with their use; a reminder none want to endure again. This seems as fitting a time as any for Severin Films to breathe new life on home video into Threads (1984), a frightening portrayal of what could happen in the U.K. following nuclear war. Similar in concept to America’s The Day After (1983), Threads is a chilling, bleak vision that showcases the breakdown of society prior to, and after, the detonation of nuclear weaponry. Nothing is glamorized; there are no heroics. By the time the credits roll viewers will be left chilled to the core, having witnessed so much destruction that should never be allowed to occur in a modern society.

The action is centered in Sheffield, U.K. where we follow the lives of a few distinct families and citizens who represent different sectors of the populace. The events leading up to nuclear war are depicted via television and radio broadcasts, with anchors reporting on increasing tensions in Iran following a coup allegedly backed by the U.S. In response, the Soviet Union moves troops into northern Iran to protect their own interests. The standoff becomes increasingly strained when the U.S. reports the submarine USS Los Angeles has gone missing in the Persian Gulf. Soon after, a collision between Soviet and American battle cruisers forces the U.S. President to issue a warning to the Soviets that any further action may lead to armed confrontation.

As all of this is occurring the citizens of Sheffield are attempting to go about their normal lives… until a melee involving nuclear-tipped weaponry prompts the government to assemble emergency operations groups. With the U.K. now completely gripped by fear, the threads of society begin to rapidly unspool, with citizens divided over local government response while runs on grocery stores and looting become widespread. Finally, in the early morning a few weeks after this skirmish began air raid sirens are sounded and within minutes a nuclear warhead is detonated over the North Sea, emitting an EMP and knocking out all communication in the country. The attack wreaks havoc, decimating the country and wiping out millions of lives in one swift blow. Those are the lucky ones.

Those who survive the initial blast are met with highly-radioactive fallout, disease, famine, radiation sickness, crumbling infrastructure and streets littered with rotting corpses. Society has suffered a complete breakdown. Money no longer holds any value. Nuclear winter brings about a dearth of crops and a massive drop in temperatures. Food is the only commodity with any value – and it is long before any can be produced. Population levels reach those of the medieval times. Even a decade after the blast, the areas devastated by nuclear war have only rebuilt to a level on par with the Industrial Revolution. Children are still born. Language is limited, due to the lack of proper schooling. Little hope looms on the horizon as those left alive scrounge and scavenge, eking out a miserable existence.

Director Mick Jackson made a smart decision by shooting Threads using a neorealist lens, employing unknowns in place of familiar faces. This gives the picture a documentarian feel while also scuttling the notion of seeing famous faces either survive the catastrophe or become heroes. There is no silver lining to be found. The initial blast rocks the U.K. on a grand scale, brought to visceral life by Jackson’s use of miniatures and montage to convey a massive scale of destruction. Fires rage, Sheffield is in ruins, charred corpses line the streets, and radiation poisoning leaves survivors roiling in pain and vomiting endlessly. The brutal verisimilitude is gut-wrenching; Jackson ensures every bit of pain and perseverance is palpable.

Threads should be mandatory viewing, serving as a warning of the very real potential outcome should civilized nations resort to using nuclear weaponry on a global scale. No good can come of mutually assured destruction. All of the posturing and battling between the U.S. and Russia pales in comparison to the annihilation of millions of lives and decades of industry, all wiped out in the blink of an eye. This is true horror.

Given its low budget and television roots, it should come as no surprise that Threads looks on a rougher side of HD. Severin touts the 1.33:1 1080p image as being a “new 2K remaster”, though the provenance of the elements used is not mentioned. Truthfully, the grainy, rough-hewn picture is a perfect complement to the gritty imagery seen throughout and anything more polished might have lessened the impact. The film was shot on 16mm and blown-up to 35mm; again, a smart aesthetic decision given the documentarian feel Jackson wanted. The cinematography reminded me of Harlan County U.S.A. (1976), an American documentary on coal workers. Damage can be seen throughout, as well as plenty of flecks and debris but, again, none of this was particularly irksome because it feels organic to this decaying world.

Audio comes in the form of a simple English DTS-HD MA 2.0 track. First off, I highly recommend turning on the subtitles because the English accents are thick and plenty of U.K.-specific colloquialisms are used; it helps – a lot. This is a thin track without much direction, employing a workmanlike sound design to get the point across. Explosions have a bit of roar and oomph, but the biggest impact is made by a scene of total silence post-attack. Dialogue is clean and well set within the mix. Subtitles are available in English.

An audio commentary track is included, featuring director Mick Jackson, moderated by film writer Kier La Janisse & Severin Films’ David Gregory.

“Audition for the Apocalypse” is an interview with actress Karen Meagher.

“Shooting the Annihilation” is an interview with director of photography Andrew Dunn.

“Destruction Designer” is an interview with production designer Christopher Robilliard.

“Stephen Thrower on THREADS” finds the author and film historian discussing the production history and impact of the film.

A “U.S. trailer” as well as a “Re-release trailer” are included.

Special Features:

  • NEW 2K REMASTER of the film prepared for this release
  • Audio Commentary with Director Mick Jackson, Moderated by Film Writer Kier–La Janisse and Severin Films’ David Gregory
  • Audition For the Apocalypse: Interview with Actress, Karen Meagher
  • Shooting the Annihilation: Interview with Director of Photography, Andrew Dunn
  • Destruction Designer: Interview with Production Designer, Christopher Robilliard
  • Interview with Film Writer, Stephen Thrower
  • U.S. Trailer
  • Threads
  • Special Features
3.5

Summary

Brutal and unflinching in its desire to convey a story true to reality, Threads is a difficult and necessary viewing experience that shows firsthand the level of terror wrought by man’s hand.

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Annihilation Review – A Fascinating, Gorgeous New Take on Body Horror

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Starring Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny, Tessa Thompson, Oscar Isaac

Written and directed by Alex Garland


Have you ever walked out of a theater and thought to yourself, “That was more than just a movie. That was an experience!“? It’s only happened to me a handful of times, the last one I remember being Mad Max: Fury Road. Last night that sensation washed over me as the credits for Annihilation began their crawl after a near two-hour runtime. I remained in my seat until every name slipped by before I found it within myself to stand up and leave the theater. All I could think was, “I’ve just witnessed something incredible.

An adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s first book in his The Southern Reach trilogy, Annihilation follows Lena (Portman), an ex-soldier-turned-biologist professor at Johns Hopkins whose husband, Kane (Isaac), has been missing for a year after leaving on a covert mission about which Lena has been able to get zero information. When Kane mysteriously returns and almost immediately falls gravely ill, Lena finds herself in a secret government facility that is monitoring a strange and potentially cataclysmic phenomenon: a strange shimmering dome that appeared in a remote region after a meteorite landing, a dome that grows larger with each passing day. Realizing that the answer to her husband’s malady may very well lie within that area, Lena joins four other women as they embark on an expedition into what is called “Area X.” However, it’s quickly realized that nothing is quite what it seems to be and that the laws of nature no longer apply.

The majesty of Annihilation is the time it takes to build the story and to ramp up the tension. While it has no problem with frenetic scenes, the film moves at an almost poetic pace, every moment adding something to the overarching narrative. From showing the relationship between Lena and Kane to the interactions among the five women who venture into “Area X” to the action sequences, every part of the movie feels necessary. This is even seen in the climax of the film, which is a 10-minute scene that features almost zero dialogue and yet feels fraught with danger.

Visually, the movie is absolutely gorgeous. The jungle that takes up most of Area X is lush and beautiful. Crepuscular rays break through the leaves and tease a rainbow iridescence thanks to the “shimmer.” A wide variety of flowers impossibly blossom from the same source, a result of the genetic mutations occurring within the dome. Strange fungal patterns explode across the walls of abandoned buildings, their patterns a tumorous cornucopia of colors and textures. Even when the movie brings gore into the equation, it does so with an artist’s gaze. Without ruining the moment, there is a scene where the team comes across the body of a man from a previous expedition. For as macabre as the visual was, it was equally entrancing, calling to mind the strangely beautiful designs of the “clickers” from The Last of Us.

Each setting in the story has a visual style that sets it apart from one another but still feels connected. The governmental facility feels cold and sterile while the jungles of Area X are warm and verdant. As the team ventures further into the contaminated zone, we are taken to the beach next to the lighthouse that acts as “ground zero” for the mysterious event. Here we see trees made of crystal and bone-white roots clinging to the nautical beacon. In this third act, we’re taken into the basement of the lighthouse, which can only be described as Giger-esque, with strange ribbed walls that feel like they pulsate with a life of their own.

The characters of Annihilation feel real, and the exposition given doesn’t feel forced. When Lena is rowing a boat with Cass, the sharing of information feels like camaraderie, not awkward plot reveals. Additionally, no character is without his/her flaws. Even Lena has her own issues that burden her with guilt, making her journey into Area X all the more understandable. As the stress of the mission wears on these women, the seeds of distrust begin germinating into deadly situations that have very real consequences, including the appearance of a bear that would be right at home in the Silent Hill universe. Also, kudos to Garland for writing the film in such a way where the gender roles not only feel natural but are never focused on in a disingenuous manner.

Musically, Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow, who scored Garland’s previous film Ex Machina, create a soundtrack that is atmospheric, haunting, and hypnotizing. The music elevates the dreamy phantasmagoria of the film without overpowering any scene. Meanwhile, cinematographer Rob Hardy, who also worked on Ex Machina, helps create a film where nearly every frame is a work of art.

Those entering Annihilation expecting a clearly defined sci-fi/horror offering will be disappointed. There is certainly a great deal of both to be had, but the movie doesn’t want to offer something fleeting. Instead, it uses those genres as a foundation to create a film that will stay with viewers long after they leave the theater. When you get to the core of Annihilation, it’s a body horror film that pays homage to the work of David Cronenberg while carving an entirely new path of its own. Just don’t expect it to hold your hand and answer all of its mysteries. Some questions are left for you to see through on your own.

I do not say this lightly, but I truly believe that Alex Garland has offered audiences one of the best genre films in recent years.

  • Annihilation
5.0

Summary

Annihilation is a bold, gorgeous, and stunning melting pot of horror, sci-fi, and drama, culminating in one of the most fascinating films I’ve seen this decade.

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