The Hills Have Eyes

cast: Susan Lanier, Robert Houston, Virginia Vincent, Dee Wallace, and Michael Berryman

writer and director: Wes Craven

89 minutes (18) 1977 widescreen ratio 16:9
Anchor Bay UK DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Jeff Young

Just three years after Michael Winner’s crude but effective urban revenge thriller, Death Wish, where violent images of home invasion and brutal rape showed us that the modern city is as much a source of ghastly horror as any haunted house or Transylvanian castle, ambitious filmmaker Wes Craven returned to the great outdoors of Tobe Hopper’s magnificent The Texas Chain Saw Massacre to “scare the pants off America” with this powerful rural shocker about cannibals attacking a group of tourists in the Mojave Desert. A tale of two families, with isolated feral scavengers versus civilised vacationers in a bleak drama of survival when there are no laws and no morality, and nice American folks discover their savage social ‘opposites’ are actually a dark mirror of themselves.
Retired cop Bob Carter (Russ Grieve) and his wife Ethel (Virginia Vincent), their son Bobby (Robert Houston), daughters Brenda (Susan Lanier), and Lynne Wood (Dee Wallace, in her feature debut), and husband Doug (Martin Speer) get involved in a private war against the gang led by the facial scarred Jupiter (James Whitmore), who kill and eat one of the Carters’ dogs before Mars (Lance Gordon) kidnaps the Woods’ baby. Michael Berryman, the bald mutant poster boy of this era’s post-holocaust cinema, looks the part without hardly any makeup and plays up a storm as the degenerate Pluto, while freaky wild chick Ruby (Janus Blythe) defies her tribe in favour of resourceful Bobby and feisty Brenda, after Jupiter has crucified and beheaded their dad, and (using a deadly rattlesnake as a convenient weapon), she helps to kill the crazed Mars…
Filmed on inhospitable locations with handheld 16mm cameras, The Hills Have Eyes is a roughly shot but starkly memorable independent production that established Craven’s enviable reputation as a director of edgy low-budget cinema. Although the level of violence and brutality is intense, and the filmmakers eagerly break several taboos of mainstream US cinema (including killing a young mother, threatening a helpless infant, and slaying a family dog), this 25-year-old thriller has lost some of its power to shock since I first saw it on video in the early 1980s.

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Nevertheless, it deserves its place among genuine horror classics beside the likes of George Romero’s keenly ambiguous Martin, John Carpenter’s suspenseful hit Halloween, Mario Bava’s atmospheric Shock, Abel Ferrara’s grisly Driller Killer, the British Death Line (aka: Raw Meat), the exploitative Friday The 13th, and the aforementioned Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which dragged the whole genre out of the doldrums of its costume-drama past into the modern day, and away from the overly familiar supernatural concerns of vampires and werewolves, to give us a new subgenre of slasher movies, and a refreshingly unrelenting visceral impact.
This special edition DVD has an anamorphic transfer of the digitally restored main feature, with an enjoyable and fascinating director’s commentary (Craven is joined by producer Peter Locke), and optional Dolby digital 5.1 surround or DTS sound, but there are no subtitles. The extras disc offers excellent value and is well worth the asking price by itself, with a retro featurette Looking Back At The Hills Have Eyes (written, produced and directed by Perry Martin, 54 minutes), which interviews Craven and Locke, plus cast of Blythe, Lanier, Wallace, Berryman, and cinematographer Eric Saarien. There’s also Adam Simon’s highly educational and wholly absorbing 71-minute documentary The American Nightmare (2000) that offers an impressive and intelligent overview of the US horror phenomenon, and boasts comment from many of the genre’s finest directors. On top of all this, you get a previously unseen alternative (more upbeat) finale to the main feature, TV spots and trailers, a restoration demo, galleries and biographies, animated menus and the Hills script as DVD-ROM content.