I don't know. Maybe I'm missing the point with Wes Craven films, or something. Sure, the Scream films are a hoot; I love Nightmare on Elm Street, and Serpent and the Rainbow is one of my favorite flicks of the 80’s, but The People Under the Stairs? Shocker? Deadly Friend?? My Soul to Take??? Come now. These are mediocre films at best. Certainly one need make more good movies than bad ones to be considered a "master of horror", no? Craven fans tend to point out the visceral nature of his early work as proof of his genius, but all I see are z-grade production values, bad acting, and simply serviceable exploitation at best. His most notorious film, Last House on the Left, left me cold, and a bit offended by the calculated manner in which he attempted to push my buttons. I've seen films far more shocking, and they shocked me with their subtle nature, not gratuitous, (and, quite frankly, ham-fisted) rape scenes and intestinal fetishism. Still, the guy has lobbed a few gems in our direction and The Hills Have Eyes is one of that I keep coming back to almost in spite of myself.
The Carter family takes a detour in the desert en route to California. When their vehicle goes off the road, they're trapped in the middle of nowhere, but they're not alone! Another family calls this desert home; a family of mutated cannibals led by their patriarch, Papa Jupiter (Whitworth), who scavenge the land and prey on unsuspecting passers-by. When the Pa Carter and his son-in-law, Doug, head off in different directions seeking aid, the Jupiter clan employ a classic divide and conquer strategy, and then attack the Carter family, kidnapping Doug's succulent baby for a family feast. However, the Carter's have a friend in Papa Jupe's unhappy daughter Ruby, who wants nothing more than to free herself from the (literal) chains of the clan. Oh, and there's also the family dog named Beast, who's sort of the star of his own little canine revenge flick within this one.
The Hills Have Eyes is a fun piece of goofy exploitation cinema, but methinks this one's been given a bit too much credit (and I realize I’m in the minority on this). The flimsy story is a direct descendent of both The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Deliverance, and really doesn't add much to the genre save for the “mutant” angle, which is played more for laughs than as social commentary. To hear some folks talk about this one, you'd think Craven had reinvented the wheel, but all he really did was throw new rims on an old tire and roll it around in the desert. Of course, the same could be said for dozens of movies, many I consider classics, so, while I don’t think The Hills Have Eyes is the “brilliant” horror film many of my fellow horror aficionados would lead us to believe it is, here we are, still talking about it more than thirty years after its release, and that’s got to count for something, right? Besides, I’ve seen the film more times than I care to admit, so I obviously enjoy it even if I don’t quite agree with most on its importance to the genre.
The film makes its Blu-ray debut as part of Image’s Midnight Madness series, but anyone expecting this flick, originally shot on super 16mm film, to look like anything more than…well…a flick originally shot on super 16mm film will be sorely disappointed. Like the MGM Blu-ray release of Last House on the Left, Image takes the “you can’t polish a turd” approach to The Hills Have Eyes, and the results are typically grainy, noisy, and kind of ugly. It is what it is. The only way they could possibly make this movie look any less gritty would be to run it through the DNR wringer, and, even then, it’d still look ugly – just a different kind of ugly. So there’s an argument as to whether or not 16mm flicks get any benefit at all from the HD treatment, and, in my opinion, yeah, they do. There’s certainly more detail present, and the image is a touch sharper, but, at the same time, whatever issues plagued the source will be magnified (in this instance, the grain), so you take the good, you take the bad, you take them both, and then you have…The Hills Have Eyes. As I mentioned in my review of Hellbound: Hellraiser II, there are folks out there who are suggesting the films in Image’s Midnight Madness Series are not proper HD transfers taken from the source, but, rather, upscales of DVD transfers. I don’t see it. I’m no bit-rate expert or anything, but I trust my eyes, and, while this transfer’s not a huge leap in quality over the DVD by any means, there is a noticeable difference that simply wouldn’t be had this been a matter of upscaling. If anything, the image would be that much worse.
The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track manages to wrangle a lot out of the original mono track, ramping up the bass substantially. Environmental effects emit from all corners of the room, and dialogue, while still a touch hollow sounding, is crisp and clear, while the sparse score is well-mixed and distortion free.
Extras are carried over from the previous Anchor Bay DVD, and include a commentary track with Craven and producer, Peter Locke, as well as a pair of featurettes:
LOOKING BACK ON THE HILLS HAVE EYES (55 min.); A very entertaining retrospective featuring interviews with many of the film's stars and its creators, crammed with behind-the-scenes footage and some interesting tales from the set.
THE DIRECTORS: THE FILMS OF WES CRAVEN (59 min.): This is from the Director's television series that broadcasts on A&E, and features a look back at the films of Craven, as well as interviews with many of his stars, past and present (but mostly Scream-era folk)
The disc also features trailers, TV spots, stills/photos, poster art storyboards and (text only) Craven bio. Also presented is the laughably bad Alternate Ending, which makes the final cut’s “Oops, we ran out of film!” ending look brilliant by comparison.
Like all of the films in Image’s Midnight Madness Series, The Hills Have Eyes is, essentially, a budget title (meaning you can pick this up for under $14 bucks if you shop around), but, unlike Hellbound: Hellraiser II, this Blu-ray actually packs in some excellent extras which make this a tremendous value for Craven fans (or “apologists”, as I like to call them).