Following the furore that greeted his directorial debut, the disturbing Last House On The Left, Wes Craven fell quiet for five years. His return to the screen with The Hills Have Eyes was greeted with a mixture of approbation at the general quality of the filmmaking and relief that it wasn’t quite as gruelling as his first feature. It was a big hit around the world and Craven briefly became, along with John Carpenter and George Romero, one of the holy trinity of American horror. Twenty five years on, The Hills Have Eyes looks like one of the great genre films of its time and succeeds in being exciting, funny and, sometimes, deeply unsettling.
The following review contains spoilers which may affect your enjoyment of the film. If you feel this is the case, please scroll down to the review of the disc
The set-up is brutally simple. An extended family are on a vacation trip to California with their trailer. The father, Big Bob (Grieve) decides to take a detour through the desert to see an old silver mine, ignoring the protests of his family and the dire warnings of Fred (Steadman), a gas station owner with a dark secret. Soon, the family have wrecked their car and are stranded in the middle of the desert, not realising that another family is already there and watching them. This other family, a group of cannibals led by the patriarch Jupiter (Whitworth), is determined to add the intruders to their menu and they begin an onslaught which begins at sunset and lasts through a freezing desert night into the next morning. Only by throwing off the trappings of sophisticated civilisation can the family, gradually being culled one by one, find a way to survive.
In essence, The Hills Have Eyes can be placed in the ‘backwoods’ sub-genre which essentially dates back to the stories of H.P.Lovecraft and, to a certain extent, Edgar Allen Poe. The success of John Boorman Deliverance in 1972 sparked off a lengthy series of films in which town meets country and what begins as mutual dislike results in violence. Naturally, Boorman’s interest in myth and male psychology tends to have been muted in favour of more graphic violence, although it’s arguable that none of the films which followed have anything quite as unwatchably horrible as the scene in which Ned Beatty’s character is raped. But the basic concerns of that film can be seen in most of those which followed – urban versus rural, civilisation breaking down, human nature reverting to animalistic urges, the cultural ocean between ‘civilised’ city folk and ‘primitive’ country folk, the need to establish and defend one’s territory and so on. Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre added satirical comments on the American family while his later Death Trap took the genre into pure horror comic territory. Walter Hill’s subdued and intelligent Southern Comfort even added Vietnam parallels to the mix. The sub-genre is still thriving, as the success of Jeepers Creepers and the excellent, surprisingly vicious Wrong Turn demonstrates.
But The Hills Have Eyes is the most exciting and exhilarating of them all. It has plenty of nicely observed ironies to offer and some effective shocks but it’s as an action movie that it works best. Basically, we have two opposing teams and the film is at its most enjoyable when it allows them to go head to head. The action scenes are directed with kinetic glee by Craven who is obviously having a lot of fun with material which is considerably less dark than that which he explored in Last House. Indeed, the film edges towards pure Spielberg territory at times, notably in the second-half moments involving one of the most shamelessly audience-pleasing dogs in movie history. Unfortunately, the Spielberg comparison also holds true for some of the stickier moments of sentimentality – not many I grant you, but the whole subplot of the cannibal daughter and the baby is a little too rich for my blood. These moments are rare though and the action is kept fast and brutal. Too brutal for some audiences, although the film has since been surpassed in terms of on-screen violence by considerably more mainstream films – Craven’s own Scream for one. The violence is interesting in comparison to Last House. In the earlier film, the violence is gloating and sadistic, as befits the subject matter of the film and the emotional intensity of all involved makes the film very hard to watch. Hills on the other hand is certainly gory but somehow less intense and rarely lingered over. A perfect example is the difference between the rape scenes in the two films. In Craven’s debut, the sexual assault is merciless and unbearably long. In Hills, the scene discreetly fades out and allows the girl’s screams to give us the picture. This may have been one of the moments edited in order to win the film an ‘R’ rating but it’s very representative of how Craven has moved away from the outright sadism of his first film during his career. Essentially, Hills is bloody and gruesome but no more so than most modern action movies which is probably some indicator of the influence that these 1970s horror movies have had on the mainstream.
A major concept in the ‘backwoods’ sub-genre is the way in which the lines between ‘civilised’ and ‘primitive’ are gradually blurred during the story. The ending of Last House On The Left sees the supposedly civilised parents allowing their grief to erupt into a horrifying orgy of revenge violence which seems to completely take them over. At the end of Deliverance, Jon Voight’s gently reflective Ed is haunted by the deeds he has done in the name of survival and the climax of Peckinpah’s English backwoods movie, Straw Dogs, questions how far any of us have come from our animalistic roots. Needless to say, The Hills Have Eyes places this issue at the centre of the story as the two families battle and gradually seem to become mirrors of each other. At first, our sympathies are uncomplicatedly with the all-American family celebrating their parents’ wedding anniversary with a trip to California which goes horribly wrong. The cannibal family, led by Jupiter who isn’t much more obnoxious than the decidedly pompous Big Bob albeit more partial to human flesh, begin as stereotyped killers and then gradually gain character and, most importantly, humour. The central scene where Jupiter eats Big Bob while ranting at his corpse offers us one very suggestive line – “Don’t you come here pushing your life in my face”. Why, the film asks, do we think we have the monopoly on morality and why is our ‘civilisation’ the only one which we are capable of understanding? If we blunder blindly into a situation which we don’t understand with a culture we aren’t even interested in understanding, why should we be surprised that we come a cropper? By the end of the film, the extremes to which the ‘normal’ family have gone to wipe out the ‘primitive’ family are as vicious as anything which is done to them. Admittedly it’s in self-defence but the final freeze-frame seems to say, “Yeah, but even so….”
What makes Hills so impressive to watch a quarter of a century later is that it’s extremely well directed. Wes Craven directs the action scenes well but most important is his absolute command of atmosphere and location. The opening twenty minutes capture a sense of sunlit horror as a vacation gradually goes wrong in beautifully spartan, sun baked desert and they compare well with the similar beginning scenes of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The setting, Apple Valley in the middle of the Mojave Desert, is brilliantly exploited during this opening as a collection of stones, hills and miles of empty desert and this sets it up perfectly for the remainder of the film, largely set at night. Craven isn’t shy about graphic horror but he also pulls off some effective moments of half-seen creepiness as the cannibal family begins to close in on their prey. Strange sounds and rustlings at the edge of the frame are particularly well utilised in the unforgettable moment when Big Bob finds Grandpa’s corpse. In classic style, the shock moments are all the more effective coming after scenes of minutely built tension. The latter part of the film does lose this to some extent and is less disturbing as a consequence. But, long after the film is over, you will remember the location, as much a central character in the film as is the river in Deliverance or the house in Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Much credit for this must go to the cinematographer Eric Saarinen, a graduate of AIP who later did memorable work on Albert Brooks’ Lost In America.
The cast is surprisingly good. One has to bear in mind the low budget nature of the film and the almost purgatorial conditions in which it was made, but the actors strike me as more than adequate. In Last House, only David Hess seemed to be trying to give a performance but Hills Have Eyes is considerably stronger in this department. Some of the cast were relative newcomers, including Robert Houston and Susan Lanier, both of whom are particularly effective. Among the more experienced actors, James Whitworth – veteran of such splendid schlock as The Black Angels and Terminal Island - is extraordinarily unnerving as Jupiter, a marvellously vivid monster, and John Steadman is compelling as Grandpa Fred, notably in his lengthy speech about how all the trouble began. I must also mention Michael Berryman, a most delightful and gentle man in real life, who began a whole career of horror movie cultdom with his role as Pluto. Dee Wallace-Stone, of course, went on to the brink of stardom with major roles in The Howling, Cujo and E.T. but then sank back into relative, but productive, obscurity.
As with those two other classic horror movies of the period, Texas Chainsaw and Halloween, there is nothing po-faced about this film. It’s relentless and scary but it’s also witty and often deliberately funny. Gallows humour naturally, but has anyone not had a wicked grin on their face when Mars bites the head off the cute budgie? Or when Mother tries to fend him off with a broom? How about the stand-up-and-cheer moment when the dog gets his own revenge for the murder of his mate? Wes Craven, like Carpenter and Hooper, knows that humour is doubly effective when the horror element has been played for all its worth. They aren’t afraid to mix black comedy with horror because they are completely confident in what they’re doing. There is no need for obvious comic relief because the absurdity of the situation is acknowledged by the filmmakers. When the cannibals are discussing how nice it will be to eat the baby – “Baby Fat ….hehehe” – its in the knowledge that this is so horrible that, on a very sick level, it’s rather funny. Yet there is also genuine power in the concept of the two families finding more in common than they might have wished and when Craven decides to go for broke, as in the scene where Mars and Pluto lay siege to the trailer, he doesn’t pull his punches. He also knows when to add a note of pathos, as in the discovery of Big Bob’s body or the death of the mother. Except in the narrative misjudgement, when the cannibal girl rebels and saves the baby (largely in order for the filmmakers to allow the baby to survive) Craven never make a wrong step. Nothing in his later career, with the possible exception of the superb and undervalued New Nightmare, can match The Hills Have Eyes for sheer power and the film remains exciting, funny and strangely disturbing. It’s certainly a fitting companion to the many other films which make the years 1968 to 1979 a second Golden Age for the American horror film.
The Hills Have Eyes deserves the best presentation and Anchor Bay have done it proud in this 25th Anniversary Special Edition. The film looks and sounds as good as it ever has done and the bonus materials are excellent. It’s certainly one of the best DVD releases I’ve seen this year.
The film was made in 16MM, despite the efforts of the cinematographer to persuade Craven to use 35MM, and it demonstrates all the defects of a low budget 16MM production. In other words, no amount of restoration is going to make it look great. However, this version blows every other version of the film I’ve seen out of the water. Digitally remastered, this anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer is extremely impressive. Although matted to 1.85:1 from fullscreen, this is essentially what was seen in cinemas and I think it looks fine. The picture is sharp and detailed without obvious edge enhancement and the colours are extremely striking. It still looks extremely grainy but the restoration comparison on the second disc shows what the materials were like and the print damage and excessive grain have been cleaned up. The film is meant to look raw and grainy and this DVD presents it very well.
The soundtrack isn’t quite so impressive. Cheaply recorded, the film sounds muddy and sometimes distorted. Anchor Bay have offered us three soundtrack options. My own preference, and feel free to send me abusive mail care of DVD Times, is for the restored Mono track. This is my usual choice simply because I like hearing a film as it was originally presented and I don’t like the messing about that usually results in a track which sounds phoney. The DD 5.1 EX and DTS ES remixes simply offer slightly better fidelity at the expense of artificially created surround with a few discrete effects from the rear channel. I found the Mono track more than acceptable, especially when played good and loud. As ever, thanks to Mark Rafferty for the use of his DTS equipment.
Where this disc really scores, however, is in the package of extras which has been assembled.
On the first disc, we get an excellent audio commentary featuring Wes Craven and the producer Peter Locke. The two men watch the film with great affection, recalling events during the shooting and discussing the ways in which the film was toned down to appease the MPAA. It's a relaxed and funny track which is very engaging to listen to.
The bulk of the extras are on the second disc and I have to begin with the magnificent documentary The American Nightmare, made by Adam Simon in 2000. This isn't specific to The Hills Have Eyes, although it does feature an interview with Wes Craven. Instead, it's an intelligent and provocative examination of the American horror film from Night of the Living Dead to Dawn of the Dead, bringing out a direct link between the troubled history of the period and the content of horror films. Most telling are the moments when gory scenes from the movies are contrasted with equally horrible footage from news broadcasts. There are substantial interviews with the key players - George A. Romero, Tobe Hooper, John Carpenter, Wes Craven, David Cronenberg and Tom Savini. All of these men come over as highly intelligent filmmakers who are very aware of both genre history and the sociological issues which their films obliquely (or not so obliquely) examine. Plenty of clips from the films in question and an intelligent narration make The American Nightmare a documentary to savour. It's presented in the original fullscreen format and the clips are letterboxed where appropriate. The sound format is straightforward stereo. Please note that the BBFC have taken 14 seconds out of this documentary to delete the 'pant wetting' scene from Last House.
The inclusion of Adam Simon's film would be enough on its own to make this DVD worth buying. But we also get a meaty 55 minute featurette on the making of The Hills Have Eyes. This covers some of the same ground as the commentary but also includes good interviews with cast members and the cinematographer. Again, the impression you get is one of great warmth towards the film despite the hellish conditions under which it was made. The documentary is presented in anamorphic 1.85:1 with a Dolby 2.0 soundtrack.
The disc also contains an alternative ending to the film which is much the same as the one eventually used but then ruins the climax with a note of sentimentality so sugary as to give you pains in your teeth. This is shown in extremely ropey fullscreen and goes to demonstrate how good the remastering of the main feature is. A comparative restoration example is also included. We also get English and German trailers, 4 TV Spots (including 2 from England), a detailed biography of Wes Craven and an extensive gallery of production stills, storyboards and advertising materials.
There are no subtitles included, either for the film or the extra features. This really is an area where Anchor Bay are letting us down and I can't believe the cost of providing them would be prohibitive - especially in this case where closed captions were provided on the R1 disc.
Please note that the Filmmakers documentary about Wes Craven which is on the region 1 release is not present on the region 2. However, I think The American Nightmare is a far more interesting piece and this is only on the region 2. If you're a rabid Craven fan then I guess you'll have to get both.
On the whole however, this special edition of The Hills Have Eyes really is special. A fascinating film has been given a hugely impressive collection of bonus materials. Horror fans will already have this ordered but the inclusion of The American Nightmare makes this a must-buy for everyone else - or at least everyone with a reasonably strong constitution.
As of the 29th September, the BBFC waived all previous cuts made to this film and the version on this disc is the same one released in the US.
Many thanks to 42nd Street Freak for his enthusiasm and information. It really is much appreciated.