Wes Craven’s seminal horror gets a visual upgrade

Arrow Heads — UK-based Arrow Films has quickly become one of the most exciting and dependable names in home video curation and distribution, creating gorgeous Blu-ray releases with high-quality artwork and packaging, and bursting with supplemental content, often of their own creation. From cult and genre fare to artful cinema, this column is devoted to their weird and wonderful output.

Wes Craven is one of the most influential filmmakers in the horror genre. From imaginative and fun efforts such A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream, to his earlier, grimmer beginnings. After his 1972 directorial debut The Last House on the Left, he cemented his impact on brutalist horror genre with 1977’s The Hills Have Eyes. A film that alongside The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), cemented the terrors of a rustic road trip, as a cornerstone of American horror.

Traveling across country, en route to California, the Carter family takes a detour that end up with them breaking down in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Stranded, they soon find themselves stalked, and subjected to merciless attacks by a group of cannibals living in the hills and caves nearby. As suffering and loss is inflicted on their number, they’re faced with a choice to fall or to fight back. Craven’s simple but effective premise is one that encircles the idea that even as a civilized society, there are circumstances where all of that goes out of the window. Brutality, self-preservation, anger, all serve to peel away the thin veneer of humanity we hold ourselves to, and unleash the more primal nature within. It’s not entirely one sided commentary either, with the main thrust of the film reinforced by fleshing out (no pun intended) the cannibalistic Jupiter family. Developing characters, a history, and building parallels between them and the Carters. Small details hinting that they might not be so dissimilar, and how narrow that line is between them, with each trying to survive in their harsh surrounds.

The latter portions of the film does fall into more established tropes, forcing actions in characters you might not expect to drive things along, and generally getting a little silly. In spite of this, the film remains pretty horrifying, with an unsettling immersion in violence, notably scenes of sexual assault. Discordant in feel, with a perturbing aesthetic, compounded by Don Peake’s ominous score. The film got a well received remake in 2006, but the original still packs plenty of punch.

The Package

What we’re all here for is the new 4K presentation of the film, which is pretty impeccable, especially considering it was restored from 35mm sources, which themselves were derived from 16mm stock originals. Color and contrast are well handled, a vibrant image but not too far from a natural representation. Excellent detail is apparent even in the low lit interior sequences. A thick layer of grain is evident, but it befits the tone of the picture. There is a degree of softness to the image at times, the image quality does vary a little too (some variance likely due to the differing film reels), and some minimal damage (spots and lines) can be seen. But this is all completely expected considering the source. You’ll be hard pressed to find a better presentation of the film than this.

A hard card slipcase contains the film case, 6 postcards/lobby cards, a reversible fold-out poster (featuring OG cover and new artwork by Paul Shipper), and a 40-page booklet featuring information, interviews, and essays on the film by several contributors, along with a series of posters, promo images, and stills from the film.

On Disc Extra Features:

  • Audio commentary with actors Michael Berryman, Janus Blythe, Susan Lanier and Martin Speer: Worth a listen for some of the on-set anecdotes
  • Audio commentary by academic Mikel J. Koven: The film academic offers plenty of info on the film, placed into a wider cinematic context. A little drier that the other two, but feels more substantive. He also delves into some of the stories that inspired the film, and the legacy it left, including the remake/sequels
  • Audio commentary with Wes Craven and Peter Locke: Really insightful commentary, ranging from inspirations from the film, problems and tales from production, the reception the film had, and the impact it made
  • Looking Back on The Hills Have Eyes — making-of documentary featuring interviews with Craven, Locke, actors Michael Berryman, Janus Blythe, Robert Houston, Susan Lanier, Dee Wallace and director of photography Eric Saarinen: Just under an hour in length, its mostly interviews and some behind the scenes footage, as cast and crew share details on the experience of filming, problems on set, financial difficulties, as well as the films effect on their personal careers
  • Family Business — an interview with actor Martin Speer: A longer reflective interview with Speer, who played one of the “family” members
  • The Desert Sessions — an interview with composer Don Peake: Peake discusses his approach, weird instruments used, and the unsettling effect the film had on him
  • Outtakes: Mostly bloopers rather than anything of substance
  • Alternate ending: Reworks the original grim finale in favor of something a little less bleak
  • Trailers and TV Spots/Image gallery/Original screenplay

The Bottom Line

While rough around the edges, The Hills Have Eyes is undoubtedly a seminal work from Wes Craven. A gnarly slice of rustic horror, wrapped around a look at how mankind’s polite facade, offers only a few layers of protection from more primal instincts. Arrow’s release offers an impressive 4K rendering of the film, along with enough extras to mark this as the definitive version of Craven’s nightmarish classic.

The Hills Have Eyes 4K is available from Arrow Video from November 9th

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