When Wes Craven passed away in 2015, there was a huge rush to re-affirm his place in the cinematic pantheon of horror directors. His last film was a sequel to his long-running series Scream, and he hadn’t sat in the director’s chair for four years when he passed. The combination of his late-career quiet and his penchant for sequels meant the world was taking him for granted. It’s pretty easy to do in Craven’s case, because few American horror directors have been as prolific as Craven, whose highs were the highest, but whose lows were also the lowest. But he gave us two iconic franchises that pushed back the boundaries of what sequels could do — both in terms of story and in terms of making a studio (in this case the late, lamented New Line) tons of cash. By the time of Scream 4’s polished techniques and star-heavy cast, it was easy to forget that Craven got his start in blood ’n’ guts cinema of the 1970s. Now we have a new, Limited Edition version of The Hills Have Eyes to remind us of how gung-ho Craven could be.
The Carter family are travelling through Nevada’s desert when they are warned to stay on the main road. When an accident forces them and their camper off the main drag, the Carters are menaced by another family, one that puts the “nuclear” in “nuclear family.” It becomes a brutal fight for survival in the desert.
If I had to make an argument, Wes Craven doesn’t really come into his own as a writer/director until A Nightmare on Elm Street. Before that, he was getting his feet underneath him, and that shows most especially in his first two features. The Last House on the Left is explicitly a remake of Bergman’s Virgin Spring combined with contemporary exploitation filmmaking techniques. The Hills Have Eyes is a similarly combinatory film. It plays out like Tobe Hooper remaking an atom-age 50’s sci-fi film.
The film’s slightly shopworn vibe actually helps it along. We know from the opening moments, when we’re introduced to some of Jupiter’s family that things are not going to be normal in Nevada. Then once we see the Carter family caravan, we know it’s on. The parallels to Texas Chainsaw Massacre are both obvious and subtle. Like Hooper’s masterpiece, Hill starts out on the road, with a weird looking young woman contrasted with a less-weird group on the road. The brilliant move of Hills, however, is to go slightly more extreme than TCM. That film contrasted a forgotten family of butchers, left behind by industrialization, with a rag-tag bunch of young, hippie types. Hills goes further and makes the protagonists an honest-to-goodness family, while the antagonist are freakier, with the connection to Nevada suggesting nuclear fallout and isolation more extreme than in Texas.
Though it would take Craven a few more tries to really strike out on his own, what sets Hills apart is the strong sense of mood and tone. Because we don’t have the associations for Nevada that we do of some place like Appalachia, Craven has bit more room to maneuver. Jupiter’s family is intense and scary, and the Carter family’s overt “goodness” puts viewers in an off-kilter position. Rooting for the killer wasn’t yet a mainstay of horror films (the way it would become with slashers in the years following Hills), but I suspect that the film has become a cult favorite because it’s possible to root for the Carter’s as a wholesome family in contrast to Jupiter’s. But it’s equally possible to watch the film rooting for Jupiter and his clan to wipe out the Carter’s for their logic-defying behavior.
The film’s appeal almost four decades after release comes down to Craven’s willingness to look unflinchingly at the plot he has devised. Though his work would grow more bloodless as he grew older, as a younger man Craven was part of the renaissance of practical effects and low budget horror filmmaking. The Hills Have Eyes delivers the goods in terms of late-70s horror, even if it doesn’t rise about its cult status.
This Limited Edition Blu-ray is pretty great, though not quite perfect. The films’ 1.78:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer is sourced from 35mm elements taken from lost 16mm originals. What’s here looks pretty good, and short of a return of the lost 16mm elements, this is as good as the film is likely to look. Color saturation is most impressive, with plenty of gamut in the skies and the clothing. Detail is okay – this is a second-generation source from 16mm – especially in close-ups. But the overall look is a bit softer than is ideal. Longtime viewers will appreciate what’s been done to enhance the film for hi-def, but new viewers should prepare themselves for a pretty rough experience.
The film’s DTS-HD 1.0 mono track fares a bit better. Dialogue is always clean and clear, with no serious hiss or distortion. There’s no directionality, but effects are well mixed, as is the film’s score.
Extras start with a trio of commentaries. One includes the cast, another Wes Craven and producer Peter Locke, with a final one by critic Mikel J. Koven. Between the three we get a really good sense of how Hills came to be, what it was like working on it, and how it fits into the cultural landscape of the late 1970s, especially horror cinema. There’s also a 55 minute retrospective documentary that talks to all the expected participants. We get separate interviews with star Martin Speer and composer Don Peake. If you want more Hills we get an 11 minute alternate ending and 19 minutes of outtakes. For promotion, there’s two trailers, some TV spots, and an image gallery. If you put the disc in your computer, you can access the film’s screenplay. The release comes in a thick cardboard case that houses a regular Blu-ray case and a thick booklet featuring essays and stills. There’s a poster and postcards included as well, with reversible cover art. It’s a worthy-feeling package for a classic.
The Hills Have Eyes hasn’t aged quite as well as Craven classics like Last House and Nightmare on Elm Street. But it’s head-and-shoulders above forgettable dreck like Swamp Thing. For the film’s fans, this is probably the definitive version to own. The presentation isn’t perfect, but it’s unlikely to be bettered anytime soon, and the extras are both extensive an informative.