Susan Lanier, Robert Houston, Martin Speer, Dee Wallace-Stone, Russ Grieve, John Steadman, James Whitwort, Virginia Vincent, Lance Gordon, Michael Berryman
The lucky ones died first ...
The Carters are an all-American family on their way to California when their car breaks down far from civilization in the remote southwestern desert. But they are not alone: Watching from the hills is a very different kind of clan, a family of marauding inbred cannibals with an unspeakable taste for human flesh and monstrous brutality. In the nightmare that follows, what depravities must this wholesome family endure to survive? And in a primal wasteland ruled by lust and rage, who will become the most shocking savages of all?
English Dolby Digital EX 5.1
English DTS ES 5.1
English Dolby 2.0
Runtime: 89 min.
Release Date: 9/23/2003
• Audio Commentary with Writer/Director Wes Craven and Producer Peter Locke
• “Looking Back on The Hills Have Eyes” Documentary
• “The Directors: The Films of Wes Craven” Documentary
• Alternate Ending
• Theatrical Trailers
• TV Spots
• Poster and Advertising  Art
• Behind the Scenes  Photos
• Original Storyboard Art
• Wes Craven Bio
Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.
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The Hills Have Eyes (1977)
Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 6, 2003)
Back before he became a brand name with flicks like A Nightmare On Elm Street and Scream, Wes Craven made some cheap “exploitation” movies. He opened with 1972’s Last House On the Left and followed that five years later with 1977’s The Hills Have Eyes. While it offers a substantial improvement over the crummy House, Hills seems only sporadically interesting.
Set in the middle of the desert in the US Southwest, we initially meet Fred (John Steadman), the elderly owner of a decrepit gas station. He wants out but we learn some vague information about a force that won’t let him, and that factor also affects a young woman named Ruby (Janus Blythe); she attempts to run away from her menacing family, but it doesn’t look like she’ll make it.
Into this setting enters the Carter family. On their way to California as part of a 25th anniversary celebration for father Bob (Russ Grieve) and mother Ethel (Virginia Vincent), the extended clan includes son Bobby (Robert Houston), daughters Brenda (Susan Lanier) and Lynn (Dee Wallace), Lynn’s husband Doug (Martin Speer), and their infant daughter Catherine (Brenda Marinoff). They want to explore an old silver mine near Fred’s station, so although he warns them away from there, they continue through the deserted territory.
Unfortunately, they get into an accident that disables their vehicle. Doug and Bob set out in different directions to locate help while the others wait. Some weird incidents ensue, but nothing major happens until after dark.
Along the way, Bob makes it to Fred’s station and gets the scoop on the area. It turns out that decades earlier Fred’s wife gave birth to a monster baby. Eventually Fred tried to kill the child and abandoned him in the desert, but Jupiter (James Whitworth) grew up, found a spouse, and produced his own freakish clan. Essentially the rest of the film follows the exploits of Jupiter and his family as they terrorize the Carters.
Part of my problem with The Last House on the Left stemmed from its atrocious production values and performances, and those same issues affect Hills. Make no mistake: this is an amateurish, low-budget flick, and it shows. Actually, the sets and locations seem fine, as they don’t require much investment. The film takes place in a dilapidated and spare setting, so it doesn’t need anything more than what we see.
Unfortunately, the lack of money means less than stellar actors, and that negatively affects the movie. Most of the actors either overplay their roles to the point of campiness or portray the characters in dull, monotonous ways. Neither approach works, and the contrast makes the two sides seem all the more extreme. The acting isn’t uniformly bad, but no one stands out as particularly effective, and the performances actively undermine the flick.
At least Craven demonstrates much stronger filmmaking abilities than during his prior effort. That one suffered from terrible pacing and shot composition, whereas Hills seems much more accomplished in both areas. Actually, Craven builds the tension quite nicely during the movie’s first act. The story meanders somewhat during the second, but it pays off reasonably well at the climax.
In addition, the movie simply looks better than did House. The latter showed terrible framing that cropped actors oddly and generally seemed awkward. Hills won’t win any plaudits for these areas, but at least it presents an acceptably well composed image that doesn’t detract from the experience.
Hills might have worked better without the freak elements. The fact that Jupiter is built up as some superhuman monster takes us away from the terror of reality. Obviously, we’re supposed to identify with the Carters, and in spite of the bad acting, we do. However, it’s tough to connect with the situation because it’s so unrealistic. Had the flick included more believably human antagonists, it’s be scarier because we could see the situation happen to us; it’d become more of a Deliverance thing instead of a horror/fantasy. Jupiter and clan are such goofy and broad villains that I find it tough to take them seriously.
Still, it’s hard to dislike a movie in which some freaks plan to eat a baby. The Hills Have Eyes seems alternately cheesy, cheap, and silly. It also sometimes comes across as a nail-biter with creative elements that give it some life. Hills isn’t a classic, and it has more than a few flaws, but it connects occasionally.
The DVD Grades: Picture C-/ Audio C+/ Bonus A-
The Hills Have Eyes appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Like Last House On the Left, it was tough to assign a grade to Eyes. The transfer seemed to replicate the source material pretty accurately, but due to its age and low budget, the results were moderately problematic.
Sharpness seemed fairly erratic. The movie never looked badly defined, but it also never portrayed great definition. The image remained reasonably detailed but a bit of the soft side throughout the film. I noticed no issues connected to jagged edges or shimmering, and the movie seemed to lack any edge enhancement. Print flaws stayed pretty minor given the flick’s age. I noticed a few specks, some small nicks and marks, and the occasional thin vertical line, but the film usually remained surprisingly clean. Grain seemed like a bigger distraction, as much of the movie demonstrated those qualities. That didn’t present a print flaw as such, since it appeared likely the grain was in the original photography, but it nonetheless created distractions.
In theory, Eyes should have presented a pretty broad palette, especially via the daytime shots that appeared at the movie’s opening. However, the colors generally looked pretty bland. The tones lacked much dimensionality, and they seemed thin and flat. Black levels also tended toward inkiness and didn’t display much depth. They were stronger than the colors, but they still didn’t demonstrate expected density. Shadows occasionally came across as acceptably defined, but they usually were moderately opaque. A few nighttime shots made it virtually impossible to see the focus of the action. When I considered the age and budget of Eyes, I thought the image seemed acceptable, but objectively, it didn’t look too good.
As is their wont, the folks at Anchor Bay remixed the original monaural soundtrack of The Hills Have Eyes into both Dolby Digital EX 5.1 and DTS ES 6.1 versions. While this worked surprisingly well for flicks like Day of the Dead, the results for Eyes seemed more mediocre. I discerned absolutely no differences between the DTS and Dolby mixes. The pair sounded identical, which didn’t come as a surprise given the limitations of the source material. (Note that the original mono track also appeared on the DVD along with a 2.0 Dolby Surround take.)
The tracks remained fairly monaural overall. Elements occasionally spread to the sides and rear, but the focus stayed in the front center. Some directional dialogue presented the most prominent movement from the middle. Voices occasionally popped up from the front sides and separately from the rear speakers. Otherwise, the track tended toward general ambience. Even elements like an explosion didn’t manifest material from the other channels. A few uses of effects in the sides created some awkward moments. For example, at one point, the action moved to the front left, which meant that it clumsily took the dialogue with it. Despite a few such occasions, the mix usually created an acceptably neatly integrated soundfield. It lacked much ambition, but that was fine.
Audio quality showed its age. Speech generally sounded thin and hollow. The lines remained intelligible and lacked edginess, but they nonetheless seemed a little rough. Effects were slightly distorted at louder moments, they failed to display much range, and they occasionally came across as somewhat shrill. Still, they were acceptably concise given their age. Music demonstrated moderately stronger dynamics but still was fairly restricted and lackluster. Not much about the audio of Eyes impressed me, but it seemed perfectly acceptable for a cheapie flick from 1977.
This two-DVD release of The Hills Have Eyes packs plenty of extras, most of which appear on the second disc. On DVD One, however, we do get an audio commentary from writer/director Wes Craven and producer Peter Locke. The pair sit together for their running, screen-specific track. For the most part, they present a fairly average discussion. They touch on a mix of topics such as the inspiration for the story and alterations from the original script, locations, the challenges caused by the film’s very low budget, demands made by the MPAA to get Hills an “R” rating, and notes about the actors and crew. They give us a reasonable amount of information connected to the flick, but they just watch the movie and crack on some of its cheesier moments much of the time. The commentary sags periodically, as it includes more than a few dead spots. Craven and Locke enjoy a good enough chemistry to make this a fairly enjoyable piece, but it rarely becomes above average.
As we move to DVD Two, we find many more components. In a domain entitled “Featurettes”, we open with a new documentary called Looking Back on The Hills Have Eyes. This 54-minute and 33-second program combines shots from the film, production stills, and interviews with Craven, Locke, director of photography Eric Saarinen, and actors Robert Houston, Dee Wallace, Susan Lanier, Janus Blythe, and Michael Berryman. “Looking Back” starts with a discussion of Craven’s background, how he decided to make a second horror flick, the story’s genesis, location scouts, and casting. It then delves into many elements of the production, with an emphasis on anecdotes from the set. The program concludes with issues related to the film’s rating, its reception and its legacy. Though a little slow paced at times, “Looking Back” tells its tale fairly concisely and efficiently. It goes through all the appropriate aspects of the production and does so cleanly. It’s not the most scintillating documentary I’ve seen, but it does its job fairly well.
Another documentary arrives next via The Directors: The Films of Wes Craven. It lasts 58 minutes and 33 seconds as it covers Craven’s career. We find snippets from many of his flicks, some stills, and interviews with Craven as well as actors David Arquette, Adrienne Barbeau, Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox, Robert Englund, Mitch Pileggi, Bill Pullman, Meryl Streep, Kristi Swanson, and Ray Wise. The program starts with Craven’s background and progresses chronologically through his career from Last House on the Left up to 2000’s Scream 3. The actors add some nice insights into working with Craven, but the director’s remarks dominate the show. He gives us generally quick comments about most of his flicks and provides notes about various aspects of them. Craven seems nicely frank as he goes over his past. The format appears somewhat dry, but “Directors” presents a reasonably solid overview of Craven’s career.
The final component of “The Featurettes” presents a four-minute and 24-second Restoration Demonstration. This uses a splitscreen format that displays the opening credits and the first scene of the movie. As with most of these programs, it seems fairly self-congratulatory, but it’s mildly interesting to see the amount of clean-up work done on the film.
Next we find two trailers. We discover a US ad as well as a German clip. It’s a trip to see some of the material dubbed in Deutsch. In addition, we locate four TV Spots: two from the US and two from the UK.
No other deleted scenes appear, but we do find an Alternate Ending. Presented fullframe, it lasts 10 minutes and 18 seconds. It doesn’t seem substantially different from the actual conclusion, but it makes for a decent addition to the DVD nonetheless.
In the Still Galleries we locate three subdomains: “Behind-the-Scenes” (77 images), “Posters and Advertising” (28 frames), and “Storyboards” (35 drawings). The latter are the most interesting, mainly due to their cartoony cheesiness. The Wes Craven Biography falls in line with Anchor Bay’s usual high standards for those listings. It seems long and detailed and is definitely worth a read. The DVD’s booklet includes a long essay from horror film buff Jon Putnam plus reproductions of Eyes posters.
Although it represented a significant improvement from his first film, Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes remains only intermittently positive. It offers some intense and intriguing elements but poor acting and cheap production values hinder its success. The DVD provides picture and audio that are flawed but perfectly fine given the age and budget of the movie. The two-disc package also includes a very nice set of supplements. This is a good presentation of a sporadically interesting film that its fans should enjoy.
Viewer Film Ratings: 3.8461 Stars
| Number of Votes: 13