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Hills Run Red (2009), The

Warner Bros. // R // September 29, 2009
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted September 23, 2009 | E-mail the Author
One of the most common complaints directed at film critics is that they need to "turn their brains off" and just enjoy a movie that's meant to be entertaining. What these hecklers miss is that most of the movies they're trying to defend are prime examples of films where expectations are naturally adjusted -- it's not like someone has to make a conscious decision to stop thinking about Truffaut or Tati at the 7:20 showing of Paul Blart: Mall Cop. This brings us to the horror genre. Arguably the cheapest genre to film in, this is a cross-section of filmmaking that gets flooded with piles of dreck every year. With so much subpar material diluting the water supply, even the so-called "cream of the crop" is generally "better than the rest" more than anything. To this end, we have The Hills Run Red, an adequately performed, competently directed, mildly-inspired and extremely violent slasher movie. Does it seem great compared to, say, the most-recent Final Destination movie? Yeah, sure. Is it really all that great? Maybe, maybe not.

One hurdle when it comes to writing about The Hills Run Red is the fact that it won't sound like much of a movie without discussing the shift the film takes in the second act. On one hand, that ends up being the big hook, but if the viewer knows about it going in, the element of surprise is not only ruined, but it could make the relatively standard set up feel like a slog (having recently seen Orphan at the dollar theater with advance knowledge of that movie's big twist, enduring the generic to get to the bonkers can be a struggle). As someone who sits through horror movies all the time, I've got no more time left for pat character development and dull introductory scenes: unless you've got some truly well-written, interesting characters, just get me to the madness.

So, taking the spoiler-free route here's what can be revealed: Tyler (Tad Hilgenbrinck, of the disappointing Behind the Mask) is a documentary filmmaker looking to solve the mystery behind the legendary missing horror film The Hills Run Red. Directed decades ago by a man named Wilson Wyler Concannon and shown only a couple of times before dropping off the face of the planet, the film has a reputation among the horror elite as a holy grail, and Tyler is determined to find it. He packs up his friend Lalo (Alex Wyndham), his girlfriend Cerina (Janet Montgomery) and Alexa (Sophie Monk) -- Concannon's daughter, the young star of The Hills Run Red, and a recovering heroin addict -- and heads into the woods to find out more.

When a person sees hundreds of films in a year, the bar naturally gets raised when it comes to movies that try to spin convention into savvy. Unless the filmmakers have something truly clever up their sleeve, it's easy for a twist on convention to play smug instead of clever, especially when simply reversing convention has become the second most-obvious trope itself. One of the only successful examples of this within the horror genre is the Scream trilogy, and it succeeded less by catching the audience off-guard by its attempts to surprise, but by leaning into the joke. The Hills Run Red maintains an adequate batting average, but the hit-to-miss ratio leans smug rather than inspired.

Then there's the film's use of gore. In the 1980's, during the heyday of Friday the 13th, watching people get splattered was kinda fun, and I don't just mean when Jason punches someone's head off in Jason Takes Manhattan or when Freddy fires up his Nintendo Power Glove in Freddy's Dead. When Kevin Bacon gets an arrow jabbed through his neck, it's not really like watching someone die, but more like a prank on the audience (where's the killer coming from, and what's he going to do, and how are the filmmakers going to pull it off?). These days, "torture porn" has turned the violence realistic, but the real problem with these movies is less how graphic they are and more how much the filmmakers want to throw at the viewer. The intensely violent sights the movie has in store aren't offensive, but they're often so protracted that the pained screams of innocent victims turns into tiring white noise. Director David Parker has mentioned online that a whole 10 minutes got cut out, and yet The Hills Run Red is already remarkably gory, and it's hard to imagine 10 more minutes would add much to the experience. There's even a sticker on the front of the plastic wrap as a secondary reminder, in case someone mistakes the axe-wielding killer Babyface on the front for something the whole family will enjoy. Worst of all, it feels like a front, a pre-emptive strike against PG-13 horror. Some of the most visceral moments in The Hills Run Red are the shortest and least-graphic ones.

For horror fans, this might not matter: the devoted will probably still nab The Hills Run Red when it comes out, and many of them will probably be pleased. Yet, despite attempting to meet the movie on its own terms, this brain can't shut off. The performances are a mixed-positive bag (Hilgenbrinck is charismatic enough, Wyndham has a "macho Adrien Brody" air about him, Montgomery does tons of thankless screaming, Monk is kind of awful and veteran character actor William Sadler looks like he's having a ball), and there's also some good direction (the "vintage" Hills Run Red trailer is the best part of the movie). The design of Babyface is also kind of brilliant, as far as slasher villains go. Then Montgomery finds herself in what might be a visual homage to The Descent, and I flash back to early word calling that film "the best horror movies of all time." Even that, a better film than this one, was less of an all-timer and more like a solid double. For The Hills Run Red, a compromise: not a masterpiece, not a disaster, but thoroughly adequate.

On top of the things I pointed out about the artwork in the body of the review, The Hills Run Red is saddled with a cover that blatantly rips off the title font and overall look of the art for 20th Century Fox's Hills Have Eyes remake. The back cover is pretty generic for a Warner DVD, with a larger image with a cover-art effect on it and several smaller unaltered pictures, with a short summary and lots and lots of copyright text taking up the bottom third. The case is an Eco-Box (ugh) and the disc has a bland image of Janet Montgomery gaping in fear.

The Video and Audio
Hills gets a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation, and it looks fine. All of the issues I detected while watching it (motion blur/ghosting, faint digital grain, slightly muddy contrast) seem to stem from the film's low-budget production rather than the DVD itself, including the numerous times the film cuts to the "documentary" footage the characters are filming (side complaint: why show the camera's L-bracket frame when no one is ever framed within the brackets? Argh!).

Dolby Digital 5.1 English is pretty good, although once again, this is no $200 million production, so you're not getting $200 million sound. There are some good directional and music effects here and there, but a good chunk of the movie is just people talking into the camera, which has a "camera audio" effect on it. Curiously, Portuguese 5.1 is the other audio option, with English, French, Spanish, Japanese and Portuguese subtitles.

The Extras
An audio commentary with director Dave Parker, Writer David J. Schow and producer Robert Meyer Burnett is included. The audio is pretty echo-tastic, and there are chunks of dead air where the group seems unsure of what to be talking about. When the group is chatting some of it is pleasant in a low-key way, but there's a lot of back-patting and dry sarcasm that rubbed me the wrong way too.

"It's Not Real Until You Shoot It: The Making of The Hills Run Red" (28:16) is a nice, well-rounded making-of featurette with enthusiastic interviews from Hilgenbrinck, Montgomery, Wyndham, Monk and especially Bill Sadler, and lots of fun B-roll footage of the shoot. It also serves as a reminder that Sophie Monk's American accent may be the source of her flawed performance, and contains some unintentionally funny moments like Wyndham being interviewed while pale as a zombie and drenched in blood.

Trailers for Freddy vs. Jason on Blu-ray, The Cell 2, Trick 'r Treat and Batman: Arkham Asylum play before the menu. No trailer for The Hills Run Red is included -- the film's theatrical trailer or that cool, retro, film-within-the-film's trailer, which is a great shame. The bonus features are not subtitled.

The Hills Have Red is indeed a cut above most of what passes for horror these days. It's fun in spurts and contains plenty of bloodletting to please the genre faithful. In fact, watching the making-of featurette after the movie even went a ways towards improving my mild reaction to the movie. It's just not that great in the bigger picture -- the "film critic" picture, if you will. Rent it if you've heard good things, but keep your expectations in check.

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