Wes Craven’s survival horror film is a bit rough around the edges in terms of editing and acting, but that’s also why it’s so stark and creepy. It’s a gritty and grimy film much like “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and its tone lends it something of a semi-documentary aesthetic. Everything, right down to the final shot feels so probable and possible of happening in this universe. It’s the destruction of the nuclear family by the ultimate clan of what society would normally deem the antithesis of the traditional family. Not to mention it’s the society cannibalizing one another right down to the very last man. I initially didn’t enjoy “The Hills Have Eyes” when I saw it a decade ago, but watching it again has allowed me to really enjoy what Craven intended and how soaked in dread and violence it is.
It’s so much more coherent and cogent than “Last house on the Left” and garners the same themes about civilization, and how primal instinct is a base human urge, no matter what kind of illusion of domesticity we surround ourselves with. At the end of the day when all bets are off, we’re still just apes, fighting to protect our young, and digging caves looking for a means of seeing the next day. Craven isn’t a lot about flash and gloss, but more about delivering a very downbeat opening and close that establishes the sheer ferocity of the premise and violent aftermath. He’s quick to set up a ton of exposition where a local gas station manager is approached by Ruby, the daughter of a local tribe who is begging for food in exchange for trinkets and treasures she’s collected from past victims her family has ensnared.
Told he’s leaving his home and fleeing from Ruby’s father, the vicious Papa Jupiter, Ruby begs to be taken with him. From there we’re given the grisly origin of Papa Jupiter and his clan of inbred cannibals, and are introduced to the pair of families traveling through California. Led by retired cop Big Bob Carter, they venture through the rough desert terrain and thanks to Bob’s stubbornness drive through a nuclear testing site that is also the stomping grounds of Papa Jupiter and his large family of deranged hunters and predators. Granted many of Craven’s films don’t age well, but “The Hills Have Eyes” is a mostly stark and tense horror film with some genuinely great moments of chaos. From the appearance of Papa Jupiter, to the invasion in the RV, Craven keeps the pacing brisk and often breakneck.
He’s very intent on destroying and dismantling the idea of the nuclear family, transforming the Carters in to this gradually savage and vicious group that go through hell to reclaim their kidnapped newborn child. There’s even an especially symbolic moment of Ruby eating one of the family’s dogs with its head planted on a pike. With Craven’s early work, there are no actual black and white bad and good guys, and with “The Hills Have Eyes,” it’s really two warring tribes doing whatever they can to survive. It’s still kind of silly in some instances and some acting is rough, but Craven’s film is still inherently unnerving and frightening, and has a ball shaking up the dynamic of the American familial unit.
Featured in the Arrow Video release is the nearly hour long “Looking Back on The Hills Have Eyes” a great retrospective on the film with interviews with the late great Craven, Peter Locke, Michael Berryman, Janus Blythe, Robert Houston, Susan Lanier, Dee Wallace, and Eric Saarinen. “Family Business” is a sixteen minute interview with Martin Speer, while “The Desert Sessions” is an eleven minute interview with the film’s composer Don Peake.
There’s an eleven minute alternate ending for the film, which can be played with the film itself providing an alternative experience for film buffs. There are eighteen minutes of outtakes, as well as Trailers and TV Spots featuring the US Trailer, the German Trailer, and TV Spots. There’s an image gallery, and a variety of audio commentaries with the cast, with Wes Craven and Peter Locke, and there’s one with Mikel J. Koven. Finally, there’s the original screen play which can be accessed on the BD-ROM exclusively. The deluxe edition garners a great illustrated booklet with essays and stills from the film. There’s also a reversible fold out poster, and six postcards.