Arrow Video digs its sharp talons into Wes Craven’s dirt ‘n’ Bowie Knife slaughter-fest horror picture, yet another strange travel advisory not to go anywhere, ’cause strangers might be cannibals. But hey, the movie works, and like much of Craven’s filmography, it sticks its neck way out into dangerous territory.
The Hills Have Eyes
Arrow Video (US)
1977 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 89 min. / Street Date October 11, 2016 / 39.95
Starring Susan Lanier, Robert Houston, Martin Speer, Dee Wallace, Russ Grieve, John Steadman, Michael Berryman, Virginia Vincent, James Whitworth
Cinematography Eric Saarinen
Art Direction Robert Burns
Film Editor Wes Craven
Original Music Don Peake
Special Effects Greg Auer, John Frazier
Produced by Peter Locke
Written and Directed by Wes Craven
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
With Wes Craven now passed on, we’re left with the situation of a modern American horror director with an extremely successful body of work for analysis. Both an educator and a sometime adult filmmaker, Craven struck a fruitful compromise with commercial necessity. Will his lasting legacy be his Freddy and Scream franchises, or his less palatable slaughter-horrors?
Craven worked his way up from the exploitation depths, through the intense but ragged Last House on the Left and the later, slick The Serpent and the Rainbow. He developed into a fine director, shepherding his two major horror franchises. He eventually proved his versatility by directing a mainstream success, a Meryl Streep movie about a dedicated music teacher.
The Hills Have Eyes is Craven’s second outing from the middle seventies. His cast and crew ran themselves ragged in the Mojave Desert for a few weeks to tell a horror tale that combines the savage carnage of Last House with more original elements. The defending-the-family revenge saga of Straw Dogs plays a hand, as does the struggle with inbred sub-humans in Deliverance. Ex- college teacher Craven based his tale of terror on a true incident from Scottish history, and adds a few mythical touches of his own. Nowhere near as bleak or ugly as Last House, Hills finds transgressive themes of its own to exploit for its effective, raw shock scenes.
We’re essentially back in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre territory once again. The American frontier is closed, opportunities have dried up, and some desert dwellers have taken to savagery to get by. Not helping is the hint that their strange mutations may be the result of radiation from atom tests, although no large ants are in evidence. The family of feral deplorables is no longer part of society, and has instead become another danger of the savage wilderness.
Horror movie rule #1 … stay off the back roads. The Carter family’s trailer is disabled en route to California, and they fall prey to a clan of inbred cannibals that slaughter and rob passersby to survive. This feral ‘alternate family’ is ruled by Jupiter (James Whitworth), a crazed savage. Using one victim to trick the rest, the desert dwellers seem intent on wiping out the family as horribly as possible. They rape the daughter (Susan Lanier) and steal the other daughter’s baby. How long can the surviving Carters remain alive?
Savant remembers a very scary afternoon in an East L.A. theater watching this notable shocker, a far-fetched story that succeeds by being reasonably intelligent and logical. When savages are slaughtering your family, there’s no time to contemplate Why or How, or to debate fine points of philosophy. Craven’s script quickly puts the Carters into a believable jam, their only sin being to wander ‘off the beaten path’ where maniacs have awaited victims since horror movies were invented. ‘Big Bob’ Dad (Russ Grieve) is a police detective from a rough town. He’s not one to be intimidated by the incoherent warnings of old Fred (John Steadman), a gas station guy and estranged father to the monster family in the hills. Through no fault of their own, the Carters are put through a gauntlet of blood and horror.
The Carters are anything but ready for trouble. Big Bob’s complacent wife Ethel (Virginia Vincent, coincidentally of The Return of Dracula, made twenty years before) is way out of her depth, and reacts to the brutality leveled at her family with an uncomprehending denial. The rest of the Carters fall prey to bad communication and mistakes in judgment. The clan’s first attack occurs when Dad and son-in-law Doug Wood (Martin Speer) go for help, leaving the trailer protected only by son Bobby (Robert Houston). Two Carters are soon killed horribly and another mortally wounded. Daughter Susan (Lanier) collapses into one of those useless catatonic states favored by horror movies after the groundbreaking Night of the Living Dead of a decade earlier.
Those still functioning must formulate a plan of survival. They only have one wild card in their favor — their German shepherd dog named Beast. Just as all seems hopeless, Beast leads a counterattack and the audience jumps to its feet rooting for the underdog defenders. The Grand Guignol horrorshow is unhindered by the intellectual and literary baggage of the Sam Peckinpah and John Boorman siege movies. Craven generously allows the Carters a fighting chance.
As proven in hundreds of inept straight-to-video productions made after Hills, anybody can make this kind of movie. Craven and producer Locke didn’t have that many models to imitate. Their story relies on some desperate booby traps, including one likely inspired by the improvised killing of the shark in Jaws. But the characters always seem to function, even when they’re not well acted. Craven puts us in shock by eliminating some of the most interesting folk early on, in traumatic ways. It’s yet another story of a family forced to re-form after the loss of its normal leader, the father figure. The kids and son-in-law that must continue the fight don’t communicate worth beans. But the brother and sister muster the ruthlessness needed to prevail, and the son-in-law has good luck and some unexpected help on his side.
The concept of a feral family of cannibals has long since been eclipsed in subsequent gross ‘n’ nasty horror thrillers – I haven’t seen the remake that was produced by Wes Craven. But the Jupiter clan circa 1977 still sets us back a step or two. Papa Jupiter’s face has been horribly scarred since his childhood. He’s stolen a family for himself by kidnapping prostitutes and raising three strong sons, named after planets. Pluto is portrayed by horror icon Michael Berryman, a good actor using his congenital deformation to play a monster. Berryman’s domed skull and protruding brow became the movie’s iconic image.
On a true-crime level, Jupiter’s crimes resonate with Charlie Manson’s functionally similar ranch cult out in Death Valley. Craven’s storytelling also alludes to fairytale forms. The twin dogs Beauty and Beast figure boldly in the Carters’ defense. Not only does Beast attack with Lassie-like intelligence, he takes on a spectral function: the superstitious Pluto becomes spooked when he imagines that the second dog is the ghost of the former. It’s perhaps this story twist that redeems Hills from the usual dull-edged nihilism of modern horror: man’s best friend helps to even the odds.
The kidnapping of the Carters’ baby grandchild strays beyond the bounds of mainstream good taste. It also touches on more fairy tale references. Its attempted rescued makes use of a pig as a momentary substitute. This alludes both to Alice in Wonderland and earlier terror-fairytales about gypsies or trolls stealing infants and replacing them with suckling pigs. Wes Craven shows his English Lit background here just as he did in his cribbing of the myth behind Bergman’s The Virgin Spring for Last House. Always looking for high-toned reasons to champion otherwise un-credentialed horror films, film critics eat up on literary references: a crude gut-ripper can become a ‘Dark Statement of Our Times.’
Arrow Video’s Blu-ray of The Hills Have Eyes is a refinement of existing DVD special editions. The producer Peter Locke has taken charge of a new 4K scan. As the source material is Super-16 film the show is still grainy, especially for the night scenes, but the old NTSC added noise is gone. It looks sharper, even if the colors are still limited by the 16mm film stock of 1977. Only a few flaws show through and they’re surely part of the original cinematography… in other words, the picture looks darn good,
The mono audio is as good as ever, but Don Peake’s music is brighter and its function more evident (or did I just not notice how good it was before?). An alternate ending with the group hug and cast re-cap is present in HD as a standalone extra, or the whole movie can be played with it.
Repeating from the old Anchor Bay discs is a commentary with Wes Craven and producer Locke. Arrow adds two more new commentaries. The first is a cast round-up with Michael Berryman, Janus Blythe, Susan Lanier and Martin Speer, and the second an analytical track with critic Mikel J.Koven. Actor Martin Speer, his 70s haircut and mustache long gone, has his own interview featurette, Family Business. What does he remember? It was hot in the day and freezing by night.
Arrow has also retained Anchor Bay’s 2003 Looking Back on The Hills Have Eyes, an excellent hour-long feature docu produced by Perry Martin. Craven is his unprepossessing self as he explains that on this second film he still barely knew what he was doing in the directing department. The others convincingly contradict him. Cameraman Eric Saarinen explains the commercial triangle of ‘fast, good and cheap’: a producer can have two but never three. Delightful actress Dee Wallace of The Howling and E.T. tells us that it was her first professional gig. She and her fellow players Lanier, Houston and Berryman amplify the producer’s observation that the show was a grueling labor of love by beginners that wanted desperately to be in the business. Some of them did continue. Saarinen became a regular cameraman for Albert Brooks. Wallace spent most of her time in the horror film trenches but got her bid for immortality playing opposite a pasty alien with baby-doll eyes. None of these people think The Hills Have Eyes is Shakespeare, but they are rightfully proud of it as a ripping good horror show.
A second new interview featurette is an interesting talk with composer Don Peake, who tells us that no synthesizer was used, and describes the unusual instruments that he orchestrated into a ‘controlled cacophony.’
Besides the video’s trailer and still galleries, disc producer Ewan Cant’s special edition contains a 36-page, well-designed booklet with essays by Brad Stevens and Ewan Cant. And lovers of extra goodies are provided with a folding two-sided poster, a reversible sleeve, and a pack of postcard-sized international poster and still ad artwork. If that’s not enough, the original screenplay is readable through a DVD-Rom file.
The other docu is a basic AFI ‘directors series’ profile that sees Wes Craven from the viewpoint of a dozen of his fawning actors. Along with the expected galleries of stills, posters, trailers and TV spots is an audio commentary with Craven and producer Locke. An alternate ending re-orders the final scenes and tacks on an unnecessary group hug finish. The final ending is much better, although I’ll bet the actors prefer the alternate’s cast reprise.
Even as Grand Guignol, Hills has its limitations. The Carter family only becomes sympathetic after they start being killed off; they’re really ciphers for our own self-defense instincts. The slaughter is the content here, and judging by Craven’s later work, he tried hard to move into more creatively rewarding themes. The show in which Craven first won my respect is Wordplay, a half-hour episode of the second Twilight Zone TV series with Robert Klein as a man stuck in a warped world where ordinary words change their meaning. The terror of being unable to communicate or relate to people feels as ‘real’ as any fantasy monster or terror situation. The episode evoked strong feelings of isolation and panic.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Hills Have Eyes Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: Audio commentary with Wes Craven and Peter Locke; commentary with cast members and a third with academic Mikel J. Koven; long-form docu Looking Back on The Hills Have Eyes, with Craven, Locke, Michael Berryman, Dee Wallace, Janus Blythe, Robert Houston, Susan Lanier and director of photography Eric Saarinen; New interview featurette The Desert Sessions 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; two sided artwork poster; Limited edition illustrated booklet featuring essays by Brad Stevens and Ewan Cant.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: October 24, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson