Five years after soon to be horror maestro Wes Craven burst onto the horror scene with his still transgressive exploitation shocker, The Last House on the Left, the maverick director set out to more or less retell the same story told by Last House by transposing the revenge thriller where the hunters become the hunted in the dry and barren Nevada desert, The Hills Have Eyes. The now classic horror tale of a vacationing family stranded in the desert who find themselves under attack from cannibalistic deformed inbreeding mutants foraging in the rocky terrain has since become the stuff of horror aficionado legend and introduced the world to one of the most unexpected horror icons to grace the silver screen, actor Michael Berryman. Despite coming under fire for its sadistic violence, explicit gore including a controversial image of a real disemboweled cadaver of a German Shepherd, and seemingly nasty lack of a moral compass, the film is now considered an important staple in the genre, further cementing Wes Craven’s status as a formidable horror director to watch for while launching the career of Berryman.
Still a harrowingly gritty, blood, sweat and dust drenched swan dive into stark terror where the desert feels like a shark infested ocean and no one is safe, Craven’s horror show was all but unavailable for decades outside of worn and faded VHS copies until 2003 when Anchor Bay issued the film on DVD for the very first time. Despite housing plentiful extras and a collectible booklet, that disc was and still is a technical disappointment. Being shot on Super 16mm for budgetary reasons, the film’s heavy grain levels never seemed to be properly rendered thanks to the use of one of my biggest pet peeves on home video mastering: DNR (digital noise reduction). In a foolish practice akin to the colorization of black and white movies, DNR seeks to remove grain levels and try to make an older image look modern, resulting in an image that looks waxy, bereft of detail or depth of field. Worse still, in the case of something like The Hills Have Eyes, the artificial digital mastering technique produced a muddy, blurry looking image that simply put looks wrong. I’ve always enjoyed The Hills Have Eyes but my distaste for DNR couldn’t help but make it difficult to watch in the disc driven era of movie viewing, until now thanks to the efforts of the good folks at Arrow Video who have given the film a new 4K remaster supervised by the film’s producer Peter Locke.
Finally, Wes Craven’s horror masterpiece looks correct with heavy film grain and startling amounts of detail against the limitations of the source material. While some fans may gripe about the absence of the 5.1 surround track included on the Anchor Bay DVD, that newly created sound mix always sounded like blown up mono anyway and lacks the crispness of the LPCM mono track on the new Arrow blu-ray. Slated for a limited collector’s edition release, Arrow Video has put together quite the collector’s package here with six postcards, reversible cover art, a collectible booklet, a full size poster, new audio commentaries by Berryman and the supporting cast as well as porting all of the extras included in Anchor Bay’s 2003 DVD release, the Criterion Collection of B movies have more than outdone themselves here. It’s an impressive collector’s edition that is sure to please Wes Craven fans and finally brings the gritty looking shocker to home video as close to the look of the original theatrical release as possible.
There are of course some areas in the set Arrow couldn’t get their hands on, notably the legendarily censored footage Craven was forced to cut to avoid an X rating. Having always been a lightning rod for censorship with everything from The Hills Have Eyes, A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream facing heavy cuts, the trims made to Eyes are considered to be lost forever and are only known about through recollections of Craven and the crew over the years. Even after the film secured an R rating, Eyes still found itself under fire in the UK when it was branded a “Video Nasty” by social activist Mary Whitehouse who sought to ban the film completely from circulation and further cuts to the R rated version were administered. It wasn’t until the dying out of the Video Nasty movement and the 2003 Anchor Bay DVD that UK viewers finally got to see the uncut R rated version issued in American cinemas.
In spite of the censorial shortcomings stacked against the movie, The Hills Have Eyes achieved such success that it spawned both a sequel in 1985 (later disowned by Craven), a remake in 2006 directed by Alexandre Aja (reliant on CGI and makeup over Berryman’s very real birth defects and physical deformities however) and a 2007 sequel penned by Craven and son Jonathan. Despite the technological advances and harder pushing of the envelope in the new movies, the meat and potatoes approach to the original with Michael Berryman (the real deal) in such an iconic horror film performance will always reign supreme in the eyes of horror film fanatics. For me personally I still prefer Craven’s The Last House on the Left to it but it’s a solid reworking of the kindred themes of ordinary nonviolent people who transform into savages under extreme duress coupled with personal vendettas.
- Andrew Kotwicki