Born in 1939, Wes Craven was raised in a strict Baptist family, attended very conservative religious schools, and received a masters degree in philosophy and writing from Johns Hopkins University. He got his start in filmmaking by directing numerous pornographic films before making his break-out horror classic The Last House on the Left. In the 1980s, he created one of the greatest icons in horror history with Freddy Krueger then subverted the very slasher genre he helped popularize with the Scream franchise, which turned slasher films into a satirical exercise of meta-filmmaking.
Both of those film series inject humor into their horror. Freddy Kreuger often makes wry jokes as he’s killing his victim and Scream satirizes the entire genre. With Arrow’s new restoration of Craven’s second film, The Hills Have Eyes, it's interesting to see how the director’s early films are a far cry from his later films. It is utterly bleak, brutal, and humorless.
In it, we find the Carter family traveling to Los Angeles in their travel trailer. They take the back roads through the desert in order to find an abandoned silver mine someone bought Bob (Russ Grieve) and Ethel (Virginia Vincent) for their silver anniversary. They stop off at a junky-looking gas station where Fred (John Steadman) warns them not to venture off the main road for the desert is full of dangers.
Not listening, the family wander deeper into the wilderness, wreck the car, and are stranded in the middle of nowhere. Bob walks to the gas station while Doug (Martin Speer) goes the other direction looking for help. Bob finds Fred, half-hanged and scared out of his mind. He tells a tale of people living in the desert full of anger and evil. They are so hungry they’ll kill you where you stand and eat your babies. Sure enough, back at the trailer that’s what is happening. The rest of the family is being attacked, the men badly beaten, the women shot or raped and the baby stolen.
This bunch of city slickers, this family gone soft from the easy life, must learn to fight back against the feral children of the desert if they are to live. If they want to survive. Of course they do, but it takes a lot of grit, ingenuity and blood to do it.
Made on a tiny budget of about $230,000, Wes Craven makes every cent count. He uses the desert to great effect with its barren loneliness, creepy jagged landscape, and rocky terrain that hides its evil just beyond sight. Much of the film is shot at night in and around the trailer and it's like a base under siege with the family not knowing what to do or how to protect themselves from such menacing evil. There are a few special-effects shots that zoom in on the horror (including a really effective scene in which someone is burned alive), but Craven also uses his camera in interesting ways to add excitement where his budget limited him. Often during attack sequences, he moves the camera herky jerky to give the feeling of violence without actually seeing any on screen.
The story moves quickly along. We get enough information about the family and why they put themselves into such danger to make it plausible. Likewise, the attackers are fleshed out just enough to make them real (or real enough for this sort of story), but mostly, the film focuses on action, or the absence of action, which ratchets up the tension.
Understand me, The Hills Have Eyes falls very much into the-low budget horror movie spectrum of greatness. It is decidedly not for every one, certainly not those who shy away from gratuitous violence. It can be a bit of a hard pill to swallow even amongst modern-day genre fans. Looking back on my IMDB profile, I noticed I had originally rated it two out of ten stars when I first watched it many years ago. No doubt part of that stemmed from the low quality VHS print I watched it on. My rating has gone up significantly since then but this is very much a movie for a certain type of viewer.
Likely you already know if you are that type of movie-goer, and if you are, then there is plenty to recommend here. Many consider it Wes Craven’s masterpiece. I wouldn’t go that far as I think both the first Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream are better movies and show a director more sure of himself, but there is a certain gritty, no-frills charm to it.
Arrow has once again produced a remarkable set. It's got a brand new 4K transfer from the best available reels (the original negatives are no longer available). It looks about as good as it can ever look, and it's far better than I’ve ever seen it look. But it's still not great. There’s plenty of grain to be found, light levels jump around a bit, and there some definite deterioration visible. But for a low-budget horror movie made a few decades ago, it's very watchable, and again about as good as one can expect. Audio is decent as well. They didn’t exactly have the budget for creating a real soundscape, but the dialogue is clear and the horror noises effective.
The extras really knock it out of the park. There’s a terrific audio commentary from Wes Craven and Peter Locke, a nice-looking featurette with most of the cast plus Craven and director of photography Eric Saarinin. Plus, there is an interview with composer Don Peake, the original screenplay (which you can read from your computer but it's kind of a pain), and the usual galleries, trailers and TV spots. You can also watch it with the original ending (it's a bit happier but skips out on one of the best scenes). There’s a nice, fat book with pictures and essays, a reversible fold-out poster, and some super cool postcards with various foreign language posters for the film on them.
The Hills Have Eyes is a classic horror film. An absolute must-see for genre fans. This new Arrow edition cleans the film up better than it has been before and comes chock full of great extras.