The Hills Have Eyes holds a very dear place in my heart. It (along with The Mechanic) was the very first film that arrived at my house on DVD from a fresh young company called Netflix back in the very early 2000s. I had been a cinephile before Netflix, working at video stores and movie theaters to get my fix whenever I could. But Netflix, at that time, felt like the world’s biggest video store. And also, at that time, it seemed like they had just about every movie. I’ve matured, and Netflix has changed… but my love for those first couple of films I discovered way back then can’t have changed, right?
Well, as it turns out, The Mechanic will always be prime Bronson for me, but The Hills Have Eyes hasn’t fared quite as well with the passage of time. This isn’t to say it isn’t still a prime Wes Craven film or a standard bearer for the mutant hillbilly subgenre. It’s just to say that it doesn’t stand out quite as strongly to a more seasoned horror vet who has now “seen it all” and realized that Eyes doesn’t necessarily stand out from the pack as much as younger me might have thought it did. This is most true of the first half of the movie, which feels more contrived than I’d remembered, and also more cliched… even if it wasn’t at the time. And yet, even if the set up feels more and more familiar the more horror films one watches, the execution remains superior and distinctly satisfying in a way that vindicates the “been there” feeling of the movie’s earlier scenes.
The Carter family are taking an RV road trip to California and decide to stop and see a silver mine that they’ve recently inherited in the barren deserts of the Southwest United States. But first they’ll stop off at a remote filling station run by a grizzled old man who begs them not to go off the main roads. Big Bob Carter (Russ Grieve), the patriarch of the family, of course refuses to heed the warnings and in a bit of highly staged family heatedness, ends up crashing the car and stranding the family directly in mutant cannibalistic hillbilly territory. Some of the film’s most shocking horror elements follow as Papa Jupiter’s (James Whitworth) clan lay siege to the Carters, brutally thinning their numbers and even sexually assaulting them, before adding insult to injury and both kidnapping the baby and eating the bodies of the lost. It’s ugly and cruel and holds nothing back. But it is perhaps these most iconic moments of brutality in the film which feel less effective today after seeing cinematic brutality at these levels for decades since.
Instead, it’s the final act, when the remaining Carters reach desperation and mount a comeback attack against the depraved Jupiter clan, where the movie really holds up and becomes both emotionally engaging and hugely satisfying. The desperation of the Carter clan drives them to acts of brutality that surprise the audience and draw us in more effectively because we can relate to these people much more readily than we can relate to the cannibal clan.
There are still iconic and unforgettable elements to The Hills Have Eyes which allow it to stand the test of time and hold up among horror master Wes Craven’s wide body of work, even if it didn’t play as singularly to me today as it did many years ago. Horror icon Michael Berryman makes what I believe is his big screen debut here as the mutated Pluto, and his performance and iconic physical presence remains effective. The film still has one of cinema’s all-time toughest dogs, with “The Beast” feeling like a full blown member of the Carter family (and perhaps one of the greatest story arcs for an animal in a human movie). The location work also remains impressive, with a distinct look based on the isolated rocky hills of the southwest. The film also retains the sort of dirty, low budget grindhouse feel which later Wes Craven projects would grow beyond. That “early career, zero budget” aesthetic works in the film’s favor to create an analog isolation which wouldn’t otherwise be as effective with a slicker, glossier look.
The Hills Have Eyes remains a top tier Wes Craven film, even if exposure to the hillbilly horror and rape/revenge subgenres that Craven himself had a hand in creating dulls the impact a little bit today. It’s recommended for horror fans and Wes Craven aficionados.
Craven and producing partner Peter Locke had very little money to make this film, and as such chose to shoot on 16mm film. This is a decision many filmmakers have made, and it’s perfectly reasonable, except it isn’t a future proof compromise. The Hills Have Eyes does not look great on Blu-ray. It probably looks better than the DVD did, but there’s not some kind of definitive transfer feeling here. It looks grimy and that helps the aesthetic of the movie, but not necessarily the folks who spent lots of time and energy to scan this film into a high definition version. There’s only so much you can polish 16mm film stock from the 1970s.
Outside of the transfer, however, Arrow’s Limited Edition The Hills Have Eyes release does tread “definitive” status. I believe all the old special features from the DVD release have been ported over, and there are also new bonus features created just for this release. So in that sense, fans of the film have a clear imperative to upgrade from the DVD version.
And I’m Out.