When will I do that?
Well, the easiest answer to that question is, of course, when I feel like it, but I do try to keep in mind a few personal rules. First, penning a review for something that strays outside the boundaries of SciFiHistory.Net must be reserved for seminal flicks only: it should be for films that have both stood the test of time and are worthy of addition to the site. Second, the features should still have some element or two that flirts directly or circumstantially with ‘the truly bizarre.’ Lastly, it should be reserved for films that have left an indelible footprint on yours truly! (As Mel Brooks once gleefully professed, “It’s good to be the king!”)
So in the days of my youth, pay cable was just getting started. Back then, when the channel obtained what they thought to be a new, hot property, schedulers might typically play that film more than once-a-day in rotation, and this gave the audience an opportunity to really experience something they were promised to be a sensation over and over and over again. Sure, it may’ve been spaced out by a few hours, but theoretically (and if you were that interested) you could start and end the day watching the same motion picture on rare occasions.
And I distinctly remember being warned by everyone around me to avoid watching Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes. Though they had never seen it, they had friends who had; and they were cautioned away from the flick because it was the scariest thing ever captured on film. It’ll scar you for life, they promised, or it’ll make you have all kinds of nightmares. It was violent. It was bloody. It was the stuff of pure Hell.
I was just breaking into my teen years, so obviously the next thing I did was sit down and watch it … not once … but twice. I think I even watched it a third time over the weekend.
Over four decades later, I still don’t see what all the hubbub was about.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for the final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the product packaging:
“Taking an ill-advised detour en route to California, the Carter family soon run into trouble when their RV breaks down in the middle of the desert. Stranded, the family find themselves at the mercy of a group of monstrous cannibals lurking in the surrounding hills. With their lives under threat, the Carters have no choice but to fight back by any means necessary.”
The minor quibble I made above – the point at which I wrote that I don’t see what all the hubbub was about – isn’t meant in any way to insult these Hills. Craven and company built this tidy little thriller to succeed – arguably one of the best of its kind – and the film has deservedly earned its place in history. Released in 1977, it didn’t exactly sprint to the top of the box office charts: it made a splash in its debut but disappeared fairly quickly as other features gained prominence. The way ‘cult’ flicks do, this one proved it had legs when home video entered the marketplace, giving small towns across the fruited plains wider access to titles they had missed … and history was made when Hills became a fast favorite of the corner video palace.
My issue is that I’m usually disappointed in Horror films, mostly because I find so few of them truly scary. They might be thrilling (as this one definitely is). They might be bloody (this one has its moments). But it’s just very hard to legitimately ‘scare me’ the way these features do others. I distinctly remember seeing this one on cable; and other than giving me a mild adrenaline rush in the second half, I found it more ‘fun’ like a carnival attraction than I did a ‘fright.’
What works in Hills is the feature’s overwhelming blue-collar mentality. The Carter family could be any family. It could be yours. It could be your neighbors. It could be the guy across the street. And when any story can present characters that commonplace and relatable, it’s extremely likely that the wider audience of regular folks is going to be affected by it. I think that speaks, largely, to the film’s reputation: it posits a somewhat extraordinary set of circumstances befalling the ordinary American, and that has a way of giving any tale added weight.
One-by-one, the Carters play victims as they allow these horrific outsiders – monsters of a type by any definition of the word – to dictate the terms of their kinda/sorta captivity. The tools the family have of our (snicker snicker) advanced civilization are essentially useless when matched against the instincts of primal man. They’re continually outmatched and outsmarted not because they’re inferior but because they’ve grown cozy in life, never had to fight for food or territory. Once that innate instinct to survive kicks in and the Carters rise up to the challenge, then they become not so much a threat as they do ‘an equal’ on this playing field. They’ll have to now prove themselves superior.
In this regard, it’s easy to see the everlasting appeal of one of Craven’s earliest features. The low budget approach – an almost guerilla-style experience – gives Hills a grounded center despite the presence of some larger-than-life adversaries. Monsters needn’t always be crafted in laboratories because sometimes – in the words of a Jeff Goldblum character – “life finds a way” to make them out here; and that’s some fertile stomping grounds in which to set characters at odds with one another. When your attacker doesn’t want your wallet, your keys, or your car, and all he seeks to take from you is the meat off your bones, what other course of action is there but to rise up, refuse, and fight to the death?
You may not believe in this world … but if you ever find yourself in it you’d better hope and pray you’re more like the Carters than you might like. Your life might depend on it.
The Hills Have Eyes (1977) is produced by Blood Relations Company. (FYI: the film’s original working title was ‘Blood Relations.’) DVD distribution (for this particular release) is being handled via Arrow Video. As for the technical specifications? With this 4K restoration, the film likely looks better than it ever has: I do remember thinking some of the night scenes definitely needed a bit more light (back in the day), and I’d make the same argument today, though there’s thankfully more to see here than before.
As for the special features? Well, this is Arrow Video, and they continue to impress with each opportunity. Besides the restoration, there are a solid handful of mini-documentaries, the best of which is the previously released 2006 doc on the making-of the film: Craven and his crew sit down and reflect on their time together and even offer theories about why they believe the flick continues to resonate all these years later. There are also the usual galleries, trailers, and outtakes (a few good laughs in there surrounding the dogs); and the press materials include postcard art, a poster, and a booklet with essays. But the best plus? THREE commentaries. (That’s right! THREE!!!!) I’ve only made my way through one-and-one-half of them thus far (the cast one is very fun though occasionally strays a bit too far beyond the focus), and this is just a remarkable assortment of goodies. Well done, Arrow. Well done.
Recommended. If you’re seen The Hills Have Eyes, then the best reason I can offer you to check it out again is the fact that this new restoration is very, very good. (Yes, there are still some scenes shot in a bit too much darkness, but it is what it is.) If you’ve never seen it, then now is the best time … though I’ll admit right up front that this gritty, surreal experience is not going to be for everyone. As a master of the genre, Craven would go on to some high marks, but I suspect this rural chiller was probably as much fun for him to make as it is for audiences to endure. Definitely a bit dark and occasionally a bit depraved, it remains a one-of-a-kind flick.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Arrow Video provided me with a complimentary 4K UltraHD disc of The Hills Have Eyes by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.