Blu-ray Review: Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes

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Wes Craven’s terrifying 1977 shocker The Hills Have Eyes comes to Blu-ray

Wes Craven – God rest him – was a talented, intelligent and kindly gentleman of the genre, as all who worked with him and knew him have cited. But I wouldn’t call him an auteur. Doubtful he would have cited himself as one either. In his near half century making movies, Craven was the epitome of the commercial horror director, a guy who was constantly trying to lock a hit. And once A Nightmare on Elm Street hit big in 1984 and launched an unyielding franchise, Craven seemed to spend most of his time trying to make more movies just like it; films with an iconic villain that could be mass-marketed and spun into a myriad media. And he had great deal of success with this search. For every Deadly Friend and Shocker, the director found himself a Scream.

But there never seemed to be any continuing obsessions or motifs that traveled from film to film. Because of this, this writer has never been a Wes Craven superfan, though I say that with apologies to all who were and are. I just never found anything particularly interesting in his work, at large. That is, outside of one particular movie, 1977’s The Hills Have Eyes. That grueling, unforgettable and unrelenting film was Craven’s attempt to out-chainsaw The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and in my opinion, he succeeded. Hills is rougher, weirder and scarier than ‘Saw’ and my feelings about its power stand firm today, especially after revisiting the picture again last night and having it work me over all over again.

The horror classic tells the tale of a brutal, inbred tribe of troglodyte cannibals that dwell in an extra isolated area of the California desert and that prey on those unlucky to end up in their sites (a la the legend of Sawney Bean). A vacationing middle class all-American family (that includes a very young Dee Wallace and Sonny Bono clone Martin Speer) does just that, driving through the terrain with their station wagon and trailer and, after a military jet distracts them, blowing their tires and skidding off the road. As the patriarch (Russ Grieve) makes the hike to a nearby gas station run by a wild-eyed old man who, we learn, is connected to the flesh-eaters, all hell begins to break loose. Dad is attacked, crucified and burned, one of the family’s dogs is slaughtered and the cannibal clan launch an all-out assault on the terrified family, murdering many, raping some and stealing an infant. With the cackling tribe (who communicate via ill-gotten walkie talkies) getting ready to eat the baby, what’s left of the family launch a counter attack and all-out, blood-spattered war is waged.

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The Hills Have Eyes is not only terrifying, it’s masterfully written and edited (both by Craven) and exceedingly well-acted. It looks like a Sergio Leone spaghetti western that was left out in the sun too long, the burning, sweltering sand becoming an oppressive force in and of itself. We literally feel trapped in this stone-aged Hell at the mercy of these human monsters. And what a gaggle of monsters they are. Poster boy Michael Berryman had his breakthrough in this film, becoming Craven’s first horror icon in the process, and he’s joined by James Whitworth, who gives a chilling performance as hatchet-faced Papa Jupiter, Cordy Clark as the vulgar “mama,” Lance Gordon as the hideous Mars and Janus Blythe as the conflicted Ruby. We know just about enough of these fiends to find them fascinating but Craven wisely keeps their origins in the shadows; it’s as if what was left of the Manson family fled to the hills and set up shop.

Arrow Video‘s Blu-ray looks as good as you’d expect a film of this vintage and budget to look, which is to say it still looks like s**t, but high-def s**t. That’s not a slam. The Hills Have Eyes SHOULD look like s**t, its primal power to upset and shock rooted in its cheapness, something that Alexandre Aja’s otherwise not-bad-at-all remake failed to re-capture (Craven co-produced that redux and its weak sequel). The supplements on the back end of the disc are primarily ported over from previous releases (so don’t worry, Craven is present in commentaries and docs to discuss the picture) with new stuff like a funny, insightful interview with Speer rounding things out. There’s also a wealth of photos, a repro-poster and you also have the option to watch the movie with an alternate ending (also available as a stand-alone feature), but we don’t advise it. The theatrical cut’s savagery is hampered by this hand-holding happy other climax and one is left thankful that Craven killed it.

While it might be a controversial statement to some, I’d say that The Hills Have Eyes is Craven’s best horror film, its power to upset undiminished by time. Watch it again or for the first time, alone, in the dark.

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Weekend: Aug. 22, 2019, Aug. 25, 2019

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