Wes Craven’s infamous schlocker The Last House on the Left was an exercise in pop culture-crashing perversity. It was a grindhouse blockbuster and, five years later, Craven returned with a film that went on to eclipse its reputation. The Hills Have Eyes is the grueling tale of a WASPy family that finds itself stranded in the American Southwest desert (and, most unfortunately, near a lair of retarded cannibals). This is very much Craven’s attempt to capture the rural horror of Tobe Hooper’s earlier The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Suffice it to say that while frequently effective, The Hills Have Eyes is no Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Because Craven goes to such great lengths to humanize the cannibal family by mirroring their actions with those of the straight-laced clan, he ends up diluting the terror of being confronted with the proverbial Other. The film culminates with a grand statement about our inherent need to kill, but these impulses are usually more devastating when the urges aren’t necessarily in response to a life-or-death situation. Also, Craven indulges in his least terror-inducing motif: the MacGyver solution. Just as Nightmare on Elm Street‘s climax boiled down to an elaborate parade of Acme Inc. booby traps, The Hills Have Eyes stretches credibility in the final reel with a series of outlandish ambushes. In any case, Craven’s latent sick streak gets a major workout here, and the rudest shocks seem to center around the “good” family’s parental figures. The patriarch exits the picture in a blaze, tied to a burning tree. And the mother, who suffers a long, slow demise after being shot in the stomach, ends up being used by her own children as bait for the cannibals. (Craven himself was raised by fundamentalist parents, so it seems fairly reasonable that he was working through some major issues while writing the screenplay.) The major saving grace of The Hills Have Eyes is that it’s better acted than probably any other film from Craven’s early period. Because of his emotionally bare nature, Robert Houston’s achingly implosive terror is more complex than your average male lead in a horror film.
Anchor Bay has worked many a miracle with old, grainy films, and their video transfer of The Hills Have Eyes has to be considered another one, with only a few caveats. It's pretty safe to say that this is as good as the film has ever looked. Though most of the film is basically brown, the occasional snatch of primary colors (blue and especially red) are bold, almost over-saturated. Unfortunately, the budget limitations of the film are all too obvious, and it's clear that this is a great transfer of a film that wasn't all that great-looking to begin with. Though many scratches and flecks have been cleaned up, there's still a whole buffet of film grain and iffy focus. Anchor Bay also continues to provide more soundtrack choices than one could ever have hope for: a mono, a stereo surround, a 5.1 surround and a 6.1 DTS-ES. Choose whichever one your heart beckons. They all can't hide the fact that Hills Have Eyes was recorded shoddily.
All you ever need is here on this disc, right down to the strange made-for-TV-ish alternate ending, which ends on an uplifting vision of lesbianism that transcends the divisions between the urban and the rural, the omnivore and the cannibal. (Can't imagine why it never went to series.) Anchor Bay also includes a commentary track with Craven and producer Peter Locke and an hour-long documentary on the film-both pieces, not surprisingly, tend to overlap somewhat. The commentary is laid-back and moderately insightful, but not particularly gossip-drenched. Neither is the documentary, but at least the latter has interviews with the cast members, giving a more well-rounded portrait of the production. (Unfortunately, it seems craft services weren't available to chat.) A second hour-long documentary was included from The Directors series. While more interested in Scream and Music of the Heart than Craven's earlier films, it still offers a pretty complete portrait of the director's career. Rounding out the package is the usual cavalcade of theatrical trailers, television spots, storyboards, posters, and behind-the-scenes photos.
Fans have been waiting for decades for a proper release of Wes Craven's back-ass desert flick. Anchor Bay's generous extras make this release the Thanksgiving turkey.