"Did you kill 'em all, like I said?"
There are four movies that revolutionized horror movies in the ‘70s. Movies that were so hard-core and unforgiving that they changed how horror films were made, and raised the stakes of what you could get away with in the genre. These movies were The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, Dawn of the Dead and The Hills Have Eyes. So it's not surprising that three of them have already been remade, and there have been rumors of a remake of Halloween as well.
All of these movies share one common factor: an outsider or novice director with an uncompromising vision and the drive to scare the crap out of you. Three of them also share one other attribute: instead of some sort of supernatural boogeyman, the threat to our cast of victims comes from other people. And some have argued that the real monsters in the fourth film, Dawn of the Dead, are the rampaging bikers who invade the mall.
But I'm not here to write a thesis on 70's horror or compare all these flicks. I'm here to talk about the new Special Edition DVD of The Hills Have Eyes. This two-disk set is brought to us by Anchor Bay, which has become the distributor of great horror disks. Their edition of Night of the Living Dead is the one to own, and they also put out the Hellraiser flicks and twenty or so different versions of the Evil Dead/Army of Darkness films.
The Hills Have Eyes is the story of the Carter family, granddad Big Bob, his wife Ethel, son Bobby, daughters Brenda and Lynn (Dee " E.T.'s Mom" Wallace), her husband Doug, grandchild baby Catherine, along with family pets Beauty and Beast, a pair of German Shepherds. It's Big Bob and Ethel's Silver Anniversary, and they've inherited a silver mine in the wilds of Nevada. The problem is that it's abandoned, deep in the wilds of the desert, and right next to an Air Force weapons testing range.
Oh, there's also pack of feral cannibal people living in the area.
The crotchety old gas station attendant with a secret warns the family not to leave the main road, but Ethel and Big Bob want to find this mine. So they wander down a ragged dirt road to search it out. Fifteen miles and one car accident later, our poor batch of victims are stranded with a broken axle in the middle of nowhere. We all know by now what happens when you venture into the backwoods, either in America or Europe.
As Big Bob and Doug head off in different directions to look for help, our cannibal clan begin their raid on the family. Lead by Papa Jupiter, crazed sons Mars and Pluto (played Michael Berryman, who is now a horror icon and went on to play mutants and freaks in everything from The X-Files to Weird Science) proceed to rape, capture, torture, kill and eat various members of the Carter family.
This drives most of the Carter family, especially Bobby and Doug, a little batty, leading to a tense confrontation as Doug tries to rescue his daughter, with some assistance from not-so-feral daughter Ruby, from the celestially named clan before they can eat the baby "like a thanksgiving turkey," as Papa Jupiter puts it.
For the time, this movie was brutal and cruel. It's still a bit shocking how brutal the cannibals are; ditto the deaths of some characters you would normally expect to live in typical horror films. But by today's standards, the gore is mild, the music/clothing is dated, and while it's still tense, it's not the gut-punch that it was when it came out in the ‘70s. The main thing that still holds up is the tension of the situation, and the transformation of the "civilized" family into "savages" themselves by the end of the film.
The Hills Have Eyes is considered a horror classic, and for good reason. Sure, the acting's a little unpolished, the effects aren't as shiny as today's CGI effects, and it's a little dated. But the film is well worth owning as both a historical document of now-classic horror, and the second uncompromising film of a young and hungry Wes Craven. If you consider yourself a true horror fan, you should own, or at least rent it.
Anchor Bay again shows why their disks are the ones to purchase. The film itself has been digitally remastered, and looks great. This helps, because the desert itself is practically a character in the movie, and the muddy VHS copy I owned before this detracted from that.
While not packed with special features, the disk does have a good set of them. We have an episode of "The Directors," a show about, obviously, film directors. It gives a great biography and overview of Craven's career up through 1999's Music of the Heart. There's also an hour documentary/look back at the movie, with interviews with Craven, the cast and crew. It really gives you an idea of how hard it was for them to make this little independent flick in the Mojave desert.
The Movie Itself: 8 out of 10
The DVD Features: 8 out of 10