Starring 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.
- 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