Pretty much every low-budget, raw, yet influential horror classic from the 70s has been remade into glossy mainstream fare during the last decade or so. Why is it that those remakes end up looking gratuitously vile, disgusting, and ultimately useless while the originals become even bigger classics over time? The 2003 version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre followed every story beat of the original; yet it ended up as barely more than torture porn, gross entertainment for the sleazier underbelly of the audience. Meanwhile, the 1974 version that started it all is still heralded as one of the most genuinely terrifying genre masterpieces ever made. Both are about a bunch of dumb teenagers going to a house in the middle of nowhere and getting hacked in creative ways. What's the difference?
Yes, Tobe Hooper's version played with us psychologically instead of viscerally, by creating a dreary tone that didn't rely on sensationalistic graphic violence throughout. But I think the main reason is seeped into the fact that the 70s originals, due to lack of budget and/or directorial ingenuity, fit the unpleasant tone of their subject matters. If you're going to show the audience genuinely off-putting stuff like a woman being hung on a meat hanger, or a bunch of cave-dwelling cannibals kidnapping a baby with the intent of eating it, your style and tone better match the grisliness of the narrative.
The trademark grainy, raw, and grimy look of these films places us into the point-of-view of the victims, it makes us feel the terror they feel, and end up disturbing and scaring us. The glossy, conventionally attractive mainstream look of the remakes puts us in the POV of the killers, asking us to take pleasure out of the carnage we see. After seeing the originals, we are stunned and shaken. After the remakes, we just want to take a long shower.
We get the same situation with The Hills Have Eyes. The disgusting 2006 remake brings us a standard monster movie where we're supposed to find empty entertainment value out of watching a teenage girl get brutally raped and a shot of a gun being directly pointed at a baby. Wes Craven's 1977 homage (Exploitation lingo for "rip off") to Texas Chainsaw tells the same shoestring story as the remake; a family on their way to California gets stuck in the wilderness and is haunted by cannibals who live, you guessed it, in the hills. Yet Craven's raw approach to the material, perhaps due to the low budget he was given, creates a tightly wound and unsettling experience that the remake can't capture. It's not a great film the way Texas Chainsaw is, but it deserves its place as an efficient early work in the horror legend's filmography.
The main reason The Hills Have Eyes works is in the way the cannibals are designed and depicted. They're not the roided-up monsters of the remake, but human beings altered to look slightly deformed. Even though the make-up work isn't top notch, we believe that these monsters would look this way after decades of living away from society. That, and the unsettling performances from all involved, makes us believe in their existence and in turn cleverly eases us into identifying with the victims' plight. Pretty much the entire film takes place around the desolate desert area where the family is stuck. The way the best horror filmmakers do, Craven uses the first half of the film gradually ramping up the suspense while showing as little of the cannibals as possible. That way, as we're lulled into a slow pace, he confronts us with an utterly disturbing midpoint set piece that sucks our breath away with its uncut brutality. The rest of the film organically turns into a lean study about how even the most civilized among us can turn into savages when pushed to the limit. The haunting final shot of the movie makes this point perfectly within a couple of seconds, while many similar films can't get there with pages of exposition.
To be honest, The Hills Have Eyes suffers from the many awkward writing and execution issues that affect a lot of low budget exploitation films from the era. One of the characters' fascination with "human French fries" resembles the out of tune dialogue of "so bad it's good" flicks like Troll 2. Another character's decision to not tell the rest of the family about the dangers they're facing is obviously there in order to stretch into a feature runtime. The hauntingly minimalistic score occasionally switching to 70s upbeat funk doesn't help either. That being said, The Hills Have Eyes is still a 70s low budget horror classic that shows a talented genre director being able to squeeze a near-classic out of the meager opportunities he was given.
The 1080p transfer almost perfectly captures the gritty low budget look of the film, with a healthy amount of grain and excellent contrast. There are some specks and scratches here and there, but they're rare and far between. Honestly, a crystal clean transfer that would have made the film look like it was shot on digital would not have fit the film's 70s mood.
The Linear PCM 1.0 track is the perfect option for delivering this horror classic to HD home video. Just like the fact that the video being grainy is a plus as far as capturing the original tone of the film, getting a well mixed and dynamic lossless mono sound puts us into the feeling we would get from watching it at a grindhouse theatre.
Looking Back on The Hills Have Eyes: This is a Criterion-quality introspective documentary on the making of the film, with interviews with Wes Craven and the rest of the cast and crew. This is invaluable stuff for fans of the movie.
Family Business: A fun and informative interview with actor Martin Speer, who played the patriarch of the victim family. This is a new interview that's exclusive for this release.
The Desert Sessions: A 10-minute interview with composer Dan Peake.
Alternate Ending: This ending switches the placement of two sequences and gives a more conventional finale. You can also watch the entire film with this ending attached. I highly recommend against this, since the original ending delivers a haunting final note that's much more effective.
Outtakes: 18 minutes of the cast flubbing lines and goofing around. Outtakes on a home video release is commonplace with contemporary films, but it's always fun to get the same from older material.
Audio Commentary with Cast: Most of the main cast is here to give background into how they got their parts, and what the experience of the shoot was like.
Audio Commentary with Wes Craven and Peter Locke: Not so surprisingly, this is the commentary to listen to if you only have time for one. The director and the producer go into great detail describing every aspect of the production.
Audio Commentary with Mikel J. Koven: On the other hand, this one might be more essential if you're more interested in the themes and the aesthetics of the film as it relates to horror history. Lecturer and horror cinema historian Mikel J. Koven creates a fascinating study on The Hills Have Eyes as it relates to ancient legendary storytelling.
We also get Trailers, TV Spots, and an Image Gallery full of poster art. The packaging is gorgeous and stuffed, with a two-sided poster, a booklet full of essays, and lobby cards in several different languages.
With a bevy of extras, the new Blu-ray release of The Hills Have Eyes is a godsend for fans of the film.