Since Image Entertainment had released its inferior sequel onto DVD, fans have been clamoring for a respectable release of the original The Hills Have Eyes. Leave it to Anchor Bay to set free a massive 2-disc special edition, which interesting enough is worth the price of admission for the extras alone. Whether or not this is the definitive release of the film itself remains to be seen, let's dig in and find out.
The Hills Have Eyes was Wes Craven's second directorial effort after the "love it or hate it" Last House on the Left. Hills is without a doubt a more mature production, and Craven was certainly living the highlife with a budget of nearly 200,000 more than Last House and a crew of approx. 15 instead of 7! They sure as shit don't make 'em like this any more. In any event, The Hills Have Eyes which can easily be seen as a take on the Texas Chainsaw Massacre (they even reused some of the set dressings) tells the story of a Whitbread American family, traveling through the Southwest desert, who unfortunately succumb to car troubles. They eventually come across a family of local inbred cannibals out for nothing more than the taste of flesh and blood. The story itself is actually taken from the legend of Sawney Bean, a cannibal and his inbred family who would capture travelers in the Scottish Highlands doing more of the same.
I wish I could tell you that there is more to the story, but there really isn't. The fact of the matter is that Craven is able to build up an extreme amount of unsettling tension, the first 40-minutes or so of the film when the unsuspecting family begins to realize how much danger they may actually be in. One of their dogs is the first to get it, and considering the brutal way in which the dog is slain, the viewer is left to only wonder how far this inbred family will actually go. The answer unfortunately, is all the way. Before too long, the viewer is subjected to 20-minute intervals that are just full of screaming and crying as the family (including a baby) are attacked in some extremely brutal and savage ways.
The real wonder of The Hills Have Eyes though, is the fact that Craven delivers such a respectable piece, without relying on the graphic or grotesque scenes of Last House on The Left. This isn't to say that The Hills Have Eyes doesn't contain these elements, because it does. It's just not as overtly exploitative as Last House and I respect Craven's restraint. His maturity as a film director allows him to deliver a film that's just as disturbing and nerve wracking, certainly a great film that's been treasured by horror fans for years, and years to come.
Of course the film is also notable for the early cinematic appearance of Dee Wallace Stone who would go on to star in films like The Howling and of course E.T. Then you've got Michael Berryman who's graced the covers and posters of these films for years, this release being no exception. He's a menacing force, and his odd look only reinforces the terror at hand. Someone needs to use this guy in a breakthrough role, he plays the wacko's good (who could forget him as one of the party crashing cyborgs from Weird Science?) but I'd love to see him have a real chance to explore his acting abilities on film (independent filmmakers take note, give him a call). All of the performances in The Hills Have Eyes are top notch and lend a certain level of credibility to the agonizing experiences on the screen.
Alright, so fans have been waiting for this release for quite some time, how did Anchor Bay do? The answer is quite well, but be warned that this release is anything but reference quality. The film was originally shot on 16mm, so whether or not it was framed for a matted 1.85:1 presentation is anybody's guess. Framing looks fairly comfortable, but one has to question whether or not it would have been a wise choice on the part of Anchor Bay to throw a full frame transfer onto the first disc as well. As it stands, the widescreen presentation here doesn't appear too cramped. Quality wise, be prepared for a lot of grain. Print damage is minimal (a few scratches here and there) but grain is present nearly the entire time, a lot of grain. I suspect that this transfer was taken from a blown up print, which would explain this. Still, Anchor Bay has done a tremendous job in restoring this film, just take a look at the 4-minute comparison on disc two (before and after restoration) and you'll see what I mean. Colors are fairly bold as well. Surely not a DVD to show off the capabilities of your system, still this 16X9 image is the best that The Hills Have Eyes has ever looked, no doubt.
Audio options include a souped up DTS and 5.1 Dolby Digital track, standard surround and the films original mono. The new digital mixes are not that bad and offer some cool directional surround effects. Purists will most likely want to stick with the mono, but the surround tracks are still worth a listen.
All of the extras are laid out on Disc-2, except for the audio commentary provided by Producer Peter Locke and Craven which lives on Disc 1. The commentary is great, and although you'll hear quite a bit of information repeated on Disc-2, still worth a listen. Both Craven and Locke are very personable, and most importantly, very passionate about their work. Disc-2 brings home the motherload. Many times 2-Disc sets don't really warrant 2-discs, but this is not the case here. For starters, there are 2 separate hour long documentaries. The first entitled Looking Back on The Hills Have Eyes, features interviews with a large chunk of the cast and crew as they appear today and it's a great piece. The second entitled The Directors: The Films of Wes Craven appears to have been lifted from broadcast and is basically an hour long career retrospective for Craven, also including interviews with many of the folks that Craven has worked with in the past. Most notable though are scenes from some of Craven's films that are not yet available on DVD, like Deadly Blessing and Ann Ramsey's head being smashed with a basketball from one of my personal faves Deadly Friend (someone needs to release that flick on DVD ASAP). The fun doesn't stop there, be sure to check out the "alternate ending" (meh), trailers, TV spots, still galleries, concept art etc. etc. As a DVD ROM supplement we're also given the films original screenplay and screensavers (spooky!). The whole package is rounded out with a metallic shine on the cover and a booklet of liner notes.
Anchor Bay has once again done a tremendous job with another release that is sure to be treasured by cult and horror fans for many years to come. It's certainly not their best transfer, but it is the best that this film has looked on home video. The film itself comes highly recommended and the extras are truly special. This is a great set, many thanks Anchor Bay. One thing worth mentioning is the fact that the only bit of unused footage we see is the alternate ending. This is the R-rated cut of the film, rumors of deleted/extended scenes are just that, rumors. If they had at one time existed, it's worth noting that they probably don't exist anymore. This is the version of The Hills Have Eyes that you've probably seen many times over, embrace it yet again.