Release Date(s)1977 (November 23, 2021)
Studio(s)Blood Relations Company/Vanguard Releasing (Arrow Video)
- Film/Program Grade: B-
- Video Grade: B
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: A
Taking inspiration from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes is more intriguing than its title might suggest. It tells the story of a family in an RV traveling across the country, only to be thwarted by bloodthirsty, cannibalistic maniacs who thrive on attacking and killing the innocent. Without any way to contact the authorities, it’s up to them if they are to survive or not. Featuring early performances by Dee Wallace and character actor Michael Berryman in the role that would define his career, The Hills Have Eyes stands today as an exploitation classic.
Wes Craven’s early output as a filmmaker is probably his most interesting, as it consisted of pornography, later morphing into horror. He was not an experimental film student that made that one early project with something to say about society through interesting characters and visuals. Yet one can’t help but argue that he did indeed channel that into his work, no matter how dark or disgusting it got. By the time he made The Hills Have Eyes, Craven had already established himself as a complete madman that would do anything to shock an audience. In reality, he was very soft-spoken and more like a college professor with a wicked sense of humor, which made him almost unfit to make motion pictures.
It’s always been apparent that he was better with ideas rather than their execution, sometimes turning in clunky material that might or might not land, depending on what kind of variables he was working with. Following The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes was another brutal piece of work. It’s not overloaded with social satire, but its examination of humans being pushed to their absolute limit is a recurring theme in his other work, but never as over the top as Hills. Its gritty, no-holds-barred nature gives it more of an edge than other similar films. The Hills Have Eyes was also a big money maker in its day, but unfortunately, the 2006 remake has all but overshadowed it.
The Hills Have Eyes was shot by director of photography Eric Saarinen on Super 16 mm photochemical film using Arriflex 16 and Eclair NPR cameras, framed at the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and later blown up to 35 mm for its initial theatrical release. Arrow Video’s Ultra HD presentation of the film is sourced from the same master used for the Turbine UHD release of the film in Germany, which was scanned in 4K from 2 separate 35 mm color reversal intermediate elements struck from the original 16 mm AB camera negatives (which appear to be lost). The result was then graded for HDR (HDR10 is the only available option).
There are clear-as-day differences between Arrow Video’s previous Blu-ray release of The Hills Have Eyes and this new Ultra HD release. First, it has one of the highest yields of grain of any 4K presentation currently available due to its 16 mm source. It’s handled as well as can be given the circumstances, appearing organic and fitting the film’s low budget aesthetic. But the largest differences are in color and contrast. The previous Blu-ray was more saturated and hotter looking, especially skin tones, which were unnaturally pink at times. This new presentation improves shades of red, green, and blue, but also gives the desert a drier, whiter appearance over its previous orange/brown look. The new color grade also gets much more detail out of the palette without appearing oversaturated. The boost in contrast makes this a darker presentation as well, with added depth in the shadows. Though it’s likely to be a matter of preference, this look for the film seems more appropriate. But without the participation of the director or cinematographer (the previous Blu-ray was overseen by producer Peter Locke), it’s difficult to know which is more accurate. Minor traces of wear and tear remain, including density fluctuations, speckling, and stability issues. But it’s also obvious that some of the damage has been cleaned up—scratches that originally ran through the frame are now absent, but phantom traces of them have been left behind.
Audio options include English Mono, 2.0, and 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional subtitles in English SDH. (The previous Arrow Video Blu-ray release included the Mono track in LPCM.) The 7.1 and 2.0 tracks, like the video source, appear to also have come from the Turbine Ultra HD. The 7.1 track widens the soundstage, but mostly ambient activity, though Don Peake’s score is also spaced out a bit more. Surprisingly, the stereo track is wider too, but less interesting aurally. The Mono track isn’t overly narrow and it handles the various elements well (particularly during the chaotic climax) without sounding bloated or distorted. None of the tracks have been given added dimension or improved sound effects in an attempt to give them a more modern feel. Dialogue exchanges, relegated exclusively to the front, are clear and discernible, even during moments of bedlam. In short, all three tracks are true to their single channel source, clean and free of any leftover hiss or dropouts.
The following extras are included:
- Audio Commentary with Martin Speer, Susan Lanier, Janus Blythe, Michael Berryman, and Michael Felsher
- Audio Commentary with Wes Craven and Peter Locke
- Audio Commentary with Mikel J. Koven
- Looking Back on The Hills Have Eyes (Upscaled HD – 54:39)
- Family Business (HD – 16:06)
- The Desert Sessions (HD – 10:58)
- Alternate Ending (UHD – 11:37)
- Outtakes (HD – 18:57)
- US Trailer (HD – 2:42)
- German Trailer (HD – 2:45)
- TV Spots (HD and Upscaled SD – 4 in all – 1:53)
- Image Gallery (HD – 40 in all)
- Original Screenplay (HD – 90 pages in all)
The first audio commentary, recorded in 2016, features actors Martin Speer, Susan Lanier, Janus Blythe, and Michael Berryman, as well as Red Shirt Pictures’ Michael Felsher. Though it’s basically a Q&A of sorts, Felsher steers the conversation well and keeps it lively, speaking to each participant and asking them questions about their backgrounds, their careers, and their work in the film. It’s a lively chat and plenty is discussed. The second audio commentary, recorded in 2003, features Wes Craven and producer Peter Locke. The two men enjoy each other’s company and share their memories of making the film, though they occasionally drop out when they run out of things to talk about. Regardless, any track featuring the late, great Wes Craven is worth checking out. The third and final audio commentary, also recorded in 2016, features film lecturer and author Mikel J. Koven who discusses the film in a more scholarly manner the other two tracks, delving into its many facets on the surface, as well as underneath.
Looking Back on The Hills Have Eyes is Perry Martin’s excellent, in-depth documentary about the making of the film from 2003, featuring interviews with Wes Craven, Peter Locke, actors Robert Houston, Dee Wallace, Susan Lanier, Janus Blythe, Michael Berryman, and director of photography Eric Saarinen. Family Business features a 2016 interview with actor Martin Speer, who talks about getting the part, shooting on location, working with Wes, the film’s use of violence, doing his own stunts, the results of overacting, the film’s afterlife, and meeting fans at conventions. The Desert Sessions features a 2016 interview with composer Don Peake, who discusses meeting Wes for the first time, getting the job of making music for the film, his initial reaction to the material, instruments used for the score, thematics, Wes Craven’s and Peter Locke’s reaction to the score, writing and conducting, his reaction to the finished film, working collaboratively, his final thoughts on the film, and meeting the cast for the firs time at a convention. The Alternate Ending, which can be optionally viewed with the main presentation, is a re-edited version of the same ending, but closes instead with a final shot of the surviving protagonists, as well as a set of curtain call credits for the main cast. The Outtakes are an extensive set of alternate and blown takes from the film. The TV spots include 2 from the film’s US campaign and 2 from its UK campaign. The Image Gallery features 40 stills of posters, publicity photos, and lobby cards. And finally, the film’s 90-page screenplay has been included as a main extra, whereas it was previously available on Arrow Video’s Blu-ray release as a .PDF file via BD-ROM.
The disc sits inside a black amaray case featuring 6 lobby card reproductions and double-sided artwork—new art on the front by Paul Shipper, and the original US theatrical artwork on the reverse. Alongside it is a double-sided poster featuring the same artwork options and a 38-page insert booklet featuring cast and crew information, the essays Family Activities: Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes by Brad Stevens and The Hills Still Have Eyes by Ewan Cant, and restoration information. Everything is housed within a rigid slipcase featuring the same new artwork.
A few extras from previous releases of the film that haven’t carried over include Trash Tube, an interview with actor Michael Berryman (from the Turbine German 4K Ultra HD release); the film’s soundtrack on CD (from the Turbine German Blu-ray release); The Directors: The Films of Wes Craven documentary, a restoration demo, various still galleries, and a set of screensavers via BD-ROM (from the Image Entertainment Blu-ray release); and The American Nightmare documentary (from the Anchor Bay UK DVD release).
Arrow Video’s second time around the block with The Hills Have Eyes provides an improved A/V presentation and the same great extras from the previous release. The film has plenty of staying power and is actually better than its predecessor The Last House on the Left, even though Last House gets most of the attention. If you’re a fan of the film or of Wes Craven, this is definitely another release worth picking up. Highly recommended.
- Tim Salmons