For the longest time, Wes Craven's 'The Hills Have Eyes' had a strange stigma in my family as being too extreme and horrifying for kids. I still remember my older cousins convincing me that I wouldn't be able to sleep for weeks and that it would freak me out too much because people like those in the movie really do exist. Seeing Michael Berryman's face plastered all over posters and on VHS covers didn't help any. The guy's naturally freaky-looking. In fact, it convinced me and other kids that the rumors might actually be true. So for years, I refrained from ever watching it, but my curiosity never really went away until one day I finally broke down and watched it. To my embarrassment and disappointment, the movie failed to scare. Yet, I enjoyed it quite a bit.
It would be another few more years — and several more viewings — 'til I could appreciate what Wes Craven was going after. For his second low-budget horror thriller, the former English professor and brief adult-film director touches on similar themes expressed in his earlier movie, 'The Last House on the Left.' Only this time, the average American family calling forth their repressed violent instincts is set on the home turf of the animals wishing to see the destruction of their civilized order. Traveling on vacation across the U.S., the Carters are typical middle-class folks with a protective mom, tough dad. and bickering siblings. After crashing their station wagon and trailer on a desert road in the middle of nowhere, they soon discover they are being hunted by a disturbed clan of cannibals.
Even in such a small film with few production values, it's easy to appreciate Craven's interesting approach at building suspense. He's patient and methodical as he moves the point of view back and forth from the modern, civilized family and a perspective atop the rocky hills. We don't know it yet, but his modus operandi is similar to that of the deranged people living in the desert, the ostensibly savage and barbaric inhabitants who turn out to be disciplined, skilled hunters. As the story finally develops into a battle between clans, we see Craven's "survival of the fittest" theme unfold. When primitive creatures fight with cruel, dispassionate violence — they eat human flesh, for crying out loud — the survivors must learn to defend themselves with the same unrestrained brutality.
The names of characters also seem to participate in Craven's thinking and planning of the plot. The Carters come with normal, customary identifiers, like Bobby, Lynne, Doug, and Brenda. By contrast, Craven makes the cannibal family appear more complex than we would think them to be by the way they call to each other, labels which represent both their personality and their hierarchical status within the family. Being the largest and the patriarch, Jupiter rules over his brood with an iron fist, followed by Mars who can be extremely vicious and unforgiving. Then there's Berryman's Pluto, whose name suits his rough, brutish exterior well, and the smallest of the bunch is Mercury. Lastly, we have Ruby, the young woman who stands out from the rest as the hidden, unpolished gem.
Today, 'The Hills Have Eyes' enjoys a substantial cult following, which has somehow maintained the film within the cultural memory banks of many horror fans. Looking back at it, the movie is pretty unspectacular and only mildly suspenseful in the first half of the story. But given its limited budget, the 1977 drive-in feature is surprisingly well-made, with some smarts in the narrative and the camerawork. Wes Craven did what he could with what he was given, and the results are better than expected. The acting may be substandard, but it's also part of its charm and trashy entertainment because the characters themselves are so over-the-top. It's a fun and silly little film, memorable mostly because of how moviegoers initially reacted to it.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Image Entertainment releases the original 'The Hills Have Eyes (1977)' on a Region A locked, BD25 disc inside a blue eco-vortex keepcase. At startup, viewers are greeted by a series of vintage horror-movie trailers before switching to the usual main menu selection with music, clips and a still of Michael Berryman.
Coming from a very small budget and shot on Super 16mm film, there is only so much that can be done with a movie like 'The Hills Have Eyes,' but a few years back, the movie was cleaned up and remastered for a two-disc release from Anchor Bay which was somewhat impressive for the format and considering the condition of the print used at that time. Comparatively speaking, this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (1.85:1) appears to have been made from that same remaster and shows a very slight, mostly negligible, upgrade. Still, given the original source elements, this high-def picture is quite good.
The transfer displays strong definition and clarity for most of the movie's runtime. Although DNR was clearly used in order to give it a new lease on life, the application is not intrusive, and a thin layer of grain remains visible throughout. For its age and production value, the video shows plenty of fine lines on faces, on the clothes of the cannibal clan and inside the family's trailer. Shadow details are rather excellent for a movie of this type, with appreciable resolution levels. Blacks are also deep and accurate, while contrast provides a well-balanced presentation with crisp whites. Colors show the biggest improvement with bright, cleanly-rendered reds and greens.
One oddity worth noting is the sudden appearance of a white spot in the upper left hand corner at around the one-hour mark, which lasts for a good fifteen minutes. It's as if a small dust-speck landed on the print during the remastering process and no one ever noticed. It's quite distracting and annoying. But all in all, Wes Craven's cult favorite looks pretty good on Blu-ray.
In the audio department, Image Entertainment does well with fans of this cannibal classic by providing two audio options. First choice is the original uncompressed PCM monaural soundtrack, which is actually quite good and definitely worth a listen for those preferring it. Then there's the newer remixed version in DTS-HD MA 6.1, which was also taken from the two-disc Anchor Bay DVD release. For the purposes of this review, the focus is on the latter track.
Engineers have done the right thing in using the original sound elements to open and extend the soundfield rather than adding more noise and background effects. Rear activity comes with a few atmospherics and strong directionality, generating some decent moments of envelopment. It also provides a wider sense of the desert's vastness that's convincing and satisfying. The front soundstage also exhibits an expansive image with nicely balanced channel separation and excellent dialogue reproduction. The mid-range isn't pushed extensively, but displays good clarity detail with an appreciable acoustic presence. There's not much in terms of low bass, but certain action sequences come with a bit of depth and weight.
In the end, this lossless mix is admirable and satisfying.
Image Entertainment ports over the same assortment of bonuses seen on the two-disc DVD release from Anchor Bay.
'The Hills Have Eyes' is a cult classic from legendary horror-film director Wes Craven. It remains an entertainingly stylish picture about a deranged family of cannibals. The movie understandably comes with a few rough patches due to its limited budget, but it's interesting to see Craven's style and eye to detail provide the silly horror tale with some smarts. The Blu-ray arrives with a good video transfer considering the little that can be done to improve on the original elements, but the audio is an appreciably marked improvement to its DVD counterpart. The supplemental collection is the same as the previous release, making this package a reasonable purchase for fans.