For most of its running time, The Hills Have Eyes moves away from the claustrophobic confines of trad horror cinema, using the great outdoors to aid and abet a terrifying assault on family values.
During a trip to California, the Carter and Wood families - numbering seven people - break down in desert wilderness, and soon feel the wrath of a cannibalistic clan bent on murder and mayhem.
While I'd never held this film in particularly high regard, two recent viewings (via Anchor Bay's special edition DVD) served to greatly increase my understanding of how much Wes Craven and his team accomplished here.
With a budget of just $300,000 that only allowed one take for the vast majority of scenes, Craven and his cast and crew simply knuckled down to produce a film that has even more relevance some 26 years on.
Here, men, women, an infant and a family pet (the last two being virtually untouchable cinematic taboos, back then) are put through the wringer by their disenfranchised counterpoints in a real class war. For Craven, it's Texas Chain Saw Massacre meets Last House on the Left, with several scenes earning their corn in the suspense and gore departments. While Craven was forced to make a number of cuts by the MPAA, this is the full version which includes stabbings, shootings, a crucifixion, and the horrifying results of an alsation attack that will delight everyone who cares about the surviving members of two decimated families and regrets the loss of their loved ones.
Cast standouts include Virginia Vincent (the wise matriarch), Robert Houston (possessing the same kind of eye language as Richard E. Grant) who compels the audience to share his burden, and Susan Lanier really getting into character and emerging as a strong, resourceful heroine. Admirers of Dee Wallace will be delighted by her involvement, too.
Anchor Bay's DVD offers the best looking version of this film to date, though it's never been a slice of eye candy, due its low budget production values and the film stock used for the shoot. There's still an abundance of grain present, and fleshtones are often a little subdued, but colours are generally bolder than previous incarnations. A vast improvement.
The first disc includes a commentary track featuring Wes Craven and producer Peter Locke, who plump for the scene specific approach. Although their chat initially suggests we're in for 90 minutes of, well...... friends chatting, they do settle down to provide an informative and often humourous discussion of events on and off screen. We learn about the obstacles presented by censorship ("These days it could be a Disney movie".); production logistics; how the release of Smoky and the Bandit overshadowed a hitherto successful theatrical run, and there's also some background on 'poster boy' Michael Berryman who suffered 26 birth defects , thanks to his physician parents; information on snake preparation ("This has been milked?" "No, he's all ready to go!"); a side-splitting Harry Potter reference, and a revelation that one Eddie Murphy is a huge fan of this film.
So, that's disc one done and dusted. The second part of this set kicks off with 'Looking Back At The Hills Have Eyes': a 53 minute featurette that is a nailed-on classic of its kind. During a series of video interviews, Craven, Locke, DOP Eric Saarinen, Berryman, Houston, Stone, Lanier and 'Animal Girl' Blythe all speak with pride about a project in which they gave their all. Craven gets the ball rolling as he recalls his parents banned him from going to the movies, and how he made up for lost time by feasting on Godard, Fellini and Bergman (The Virgin Spring being a strong influence on The Last House on the Left). We also learn about the Scottish family who inspired The Hills' screenplay; why Craven decided to name some of the characters after planets (forcing the Carters and the Woods to truly battle against destiny ); how Robert Houston won his part by crying; why the still-gorgeous trio of ladies remember this film with great affection, and there's a great quote from Saarinen on low budget filmmaking: "Cheap, fast and good. You can have any two, but never all three".
Those of you anxious for additional info regarding various points raised during the commentary are also catered for as Craven digs a little deeper on the Smoky and the Bandit party-pooper; expands on censorship issues, and treats us to more tales of the snake (Michael Berryman: "Everyone had a coronary"). All in all, it's a 24 carat classic, but don't releax just yet as Anchor Bay have also treated us to a 71 minute documentary. 'The American Nightmare' is a sobering combination of real life atrocities and celluloid horror.
The murders of Martin Luther King and President Kennedy, images from Vietnam and the massacre in Kent State, Ohio are far more appalling than anything the horror genre can throw at us, and footage from/ reaction to the aforementioned events recalls a time when people must have wondered whether life would ever get back to normal.
The rest of the disc comprises of a terrific stills and poster gallery, two trailers, DVD Rom material (which I was unable to access) and a split-screen restoration comparision: the left hand section displays the spruced up version, which looks sharper and a tad more colourful.
Looking back at The Hills Have Eyes has been a real pleasure, with just a few reservations thrown in. I still can't empathise with all of the good (?) guys all of the time, and the planet family are a simply too wacky to even come close to replicating the menace and sheer terror of other class war entries. Still, when Craven brings the hammer down, his film just rocks and rolls LAMF.
For its loyal fan base, The Hills Have Eyes is now a gourmet's delight in the form of this special edition. And from a purely personal viewpoint, it's also this year's nicest surprise.
Less impressive are Deadly Blessing, Swamp Thing, the ridiculous Hills Have Eyes Part II, Deadly Friend, Shocker, Vampire in Brooklyn, Cursed and the successful Scream sequels (the last of which was his final movie). Music of the Heart was a change of pace for Craven, but not a hit, though aeroplane thriller Red Eye was a successful attempt at something different; My Soul To Take, an attempt at more of the same, flopped. One of the pioneers of the American new wave of horror of the 1970s and 80s, he brought a true edge, wit and imagination to the genre.