THE HILLS HAVE EYES
DVD - Image A- Sound A- Extras C+
BD - Image B+ Sound A Extras C+
starring Susan Lanier, Robert Houston, Martin Speer, Dee Wallace-Stone
written and directed by Wes Craven
by Walter Chaw Released the same year as Star Wars, Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes boasts of its own Luke Skywalker in the character of a blue-eyed towhead named Bobby (Bobby Houston) who, at an unwelcome call to adventure, finds himself embarked against the forces of evil with a patchwork band of heroes out of their depth. Chewbacca subbed by a ridiculously Rin Tin Tin German Shepherd hermaphrodite (sometimes a girl, sometimes a boy, always a hero), The Hills Have Eyes is Craven's zero-budget follow-up to his astonishingly unpleasant (and influential) exploitation version of The Virgin Spring, The Last House on the Left. A rough, raw, often amateurish take on the Sawney Beane cannibal family legend, the piece derives its power from the canny paralleling of its antagonistic families and its use of archetype and mythology in the telling of what is essentially a caste horror picture.
Big Bob Carter (Russ Grieve) is a blowhard of a retired cop who decides to detour on a family road trip to see a silver mine and ends up stranding his clan in the middle of a military test site inhabited by a family of cannibals named after Roman gods--or planets. Bob's wife Ethel (Virginia Vincent), son Bobby, daughters Lynne (Dee Wallace-Stone) and Brenda (Susan Lanier), and Lynne's husband Doug (Martin Speer)--as well as two dogs, "Beauty" and "Beast"--are set in a life-and-death struggle against Jupiter (James Whitworth), Mars (Lance Gordon), Mercury (producer Peter Locke as Arthur King), Ruby (Janus Blythe), and the memorably freakish Pluto (Michael Berryman). There's some animal cruelty, a rape, a kidnapping of an infant that seems to represent some sort of rejuvenating hope for both clans (one as a "Thanksgiving turkey," the other as the optimism of a better future), a crucifixion, a burnt offering, and, intriguingly, a pair of Oedipal uprisings that first retells the abandonment story (Jupiter is left to die in the desert as Oedipus in the mountains), then follows through with its idea of patricide and, in a way, a double-bedding of respective mothers.
There is a compelling ugliness to The Hills Have Eyes that mirrors Craven's debut film, finding its horror movie concerns in the displacement of the middle-class, Deliverance-style, as interlopers in the wilderness come upon the base versions of themselves. It's a theme finding new life in a recent spate of films (Duplex, Cabin Fever, Cold Creek Manor, and Wrong Turn (see sidebar)), suggesting again that the influence of The Blair Witch Project--the quintessential modern iteration of the sort of provincial terror/technological paranoia of the Seventies exploitations--is deep and wide. The use of walkie-talkies in The Hills Have Eyes and a brilliant reliance on ambient noise and directional effects heightens the idea that for all the conveniences that bells and whistles afford modern man, he abandons instinct and animalism at his own peril. (Recall the comlink intrigue in the Death Star loading dock and garbage disposal of Star Wars, as well as the definition of "The Force" as a power flowing between all living things.) As the fur-clad cannibals begin to hunt Big Bob and his polyester clan, there's a stunning moment that makes use of a serpent in the hands of Ruby, fallen from the grace of the Natural (she's constantly referred to by her family as "slut," presumably because she wishes for a life in artificial fibres) into a desire for civilization. Leia, eat your heart out.
Ruby's story is in fact the centre of The Hills Have Eyes, supplanting Bobby's and Doug's revenge melodrama (one that takes a turn to the delightfully wicked in the use of grandma's corpse as bait) and ascendancy into animalism. Her rescuing of the purloined infant suggests the possibility for a new family unit comprised of herself, Doug, and the baby, an unusually optimistic ending to what is generally thought of as a nihilistic piece. That sense of comfort, however, is the thing that deflates The Hills Have Eyes: the belief that at the end of technological/societal breakdown there remains the hope for individuals to resurrect culture in the traditional nuclear bond. Instead of exploitation and the horror of entropy, the picture is an unusually meaty, unusually well performed drive-in horror flick (look for a poster of Jaws as ironic commentary on the nature/man theme) that feels a little hamstrung by the almost universal condemnation of The Last House on the Left. As a mirror to the low-fi, sci-fi hero journey of Star Wars, however, The Hills Have Eyes is the far less damaging to its respective genre: forging a tradition of city folk vs. country folk that bears dividends to this day where the empty sturm und drang of George Lucas's space western only corrupted science fiction films (and all movies) for, say, thirty years or so.
It bears repeating that Anchor Bay is the genre fan's hero, a DVD house that respects its product in a way that brings a tear to the eye of the scholar and collector. The Hills Have Eyes is no exception to their output, arriving in a stunning presentation that offers what must be a best possible video transfer in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen from a print immeasurably cleaner than that of the grainy VHS release a lot of us were squinting through in the Eighties. A DTS-ES 6.1 soundmix shares space on the first disc with fulsome Dolby Digital 5.1 EX audio and a commentary track from Craven and Locke. The yakker is relaxed and informative though it lapses too often into silence or self-derision; I like it when filmmakers have a sense of humour about their earliest work, but mocking some of the dumber moments is something best left to Crow and Servo. Still, reflections of how the guerrilla crew set fire to a Joshua Tree without much thought to legality does produce some giggles. Not indispensable, it's still worth a listen.
A second disc features a wealth of supplementary material, including an awesome hour-long documentary, "Looking Back on The Hills Have Eyes", that opens with a spoiler warning and proceeds into new interviews with Craven, Locke, Berryman, Blythe, Houston, Lanier, Wallace-Stone, and DP Eric Saarinen. A quick overview of Craven's early career segues into a brief discussion of the origins of this film and the reaction to The Last House on the Left--a fascinating corollary between the brutal treatment of the Beane clan and the clan's own brutal behaviour reveals the roots of Craven's amazingly scholarly/satirical approach to Hills, a lot of which (the classical structure, the allusions and metaphor) survives in the final product no matter how imperfect the picture. The crew's early travails in the desert (no water, car won't start) suggest a neat parallel with the film's narrative--the backstory is so rich, and presentation so professional, in fact, that it gives invaluable lustre to the picture. Another hour-long documentary, The Directors: The Films of Wes Craven, offers one of those retrospectives that HBO and IFC produce occasionally, featuring soundbites from Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, David Arquette, Adrienne Barbeau, Robert Englund, Mitch Pileggi, and so on, while a four-minute "restoration reel" demonstrates exactly how much better the picture looks now than it used to (answer: a lot).
Of particular interest is a grainy alternate ending that carries past the freeze-frame/red filter of the original into a re-sequenced showdown, with Jupiter and a tableau wherein Ruby is accepted into civilization at the hand of the defiled Lanier. Somehow less saccharine than the more ambiguous original ending, what the alternate ending loses in heat, it gains in new disturbing implications as the sudden embracing of Ruby, without explanation (and blessed by the hero dog, no less), seems to imply that its subtexts are indeed as fervid and complicated as suspected. Rounding out the amazing presentation, we have Mark Wickum, the best in the business at this sort of thing, contributing a wonderful "Wes Craven Biography"; an exhaustive stills gallery split into "Behind the Scenes," "Posters & Advertising," and "Storyboards"; two trailers and four TV spots; and a DVD-ROM feature containing the full script in PDF (as well as a couple of screensavers that I'm afraid to load on my antiquated system).
DVD - Image A- Sound A Extras B-
BD - Image C Sound A Extras B-
starring Desmond Harrington, Eliza Dushku, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Jeremy Sisto
screenplay by Alan B. McElroy
directed by Rob Schmidt
by Bill Chambers Rob Schmidt's Wrong Turn capitalizes on the infamy of "Home," a fourth-season segment of "The X Files" about an inbred clan that stores their amputee matriarch under a bed. (Wrong Turn was even shot by John S. Bartley, "The X Files"' early DP.) Aired by Fox just one other time after it premiered and later dropped from syndication, the superficially disturbing "Home" went on to become the show's best-selling episode on VHS; it was but a matter of time until some enterprising producer recognized the franchise potential in its heartland troglodytes--and it was even more inevitable that they should be paired with a WB cast-off for the first big-screen vehicle, since no modern horror flick is complete without one. Eliza Dushku, the mere mention of whom reduces most young men to a saliva heap, does a credible job of balancing exhaustion and adrenaline as Jessie, the lady victim-avenger who blows a tire on a booby-trapped West Virginia dirt-path during a road trip with four friends. Momentarily inattentive at the wheel, city slicker Chris Finn (Desmond Harrington) runs into Jessie's stalled SUV, stranding both parties near a lush but foreboding patch of woods. As Chris and Jessie lead the requisite search for help, the horniest guy and girl decide to wait by the car, giving us our first glimpse of the hillbillies from Hell: expert marksmen with super-strength, a high pain threshold, and traces of ESP, they make you wonder what the disadvantage to being inbred is aside from having the face and hygiene of a Dairy Queen employee. That said, they're pretty cool.
Wrong Turn has a Seventies sensibility, and like the film itself (in which Jeremy Sisto's character rhetorically asks of his companions, "Haven't you seen Deliverance?"), the director acknowledges its sources. But this is another case of playing the notes and overlooking the music: the film is a gory, efficient thrill machine, yet it doesn't leave you feeling the forlornness that '74's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre or '72's The Last House on the Left do to this day. There is an attendant guilt when watching the better Seventies splatter flicks, and they reflect within the tenor of the decade, all those American lambs being led to slaughter in Vietnam and all that political corruption on the home turf; the ones we remember are cocktails of violence and paranoia that leave a sympathetic hangover. Wrong Turn exploits fears that are endemic to those it creates (the bumpkins of Deliverance--backwoods sentinels at heart--are not timeless aggressors like the bogeymen of Wrong Turn) and is therefore strictly about itself. The grey area is whether it's Schmidt's fault or the zeitgeist's that the film doesn't resonate even ten seconds past the finish line, although its crowd-pleasing instincts are unmistakably of trend rather than tradition.
Fox presents Wrong Turn on a flipper disc containing the film in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen and fullscreen transfers. Image quality is fine, if a little murky during the night scenes (quelling the impact of a spectacular--and sure to be lionized--axe kill); the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is quite stirring, though, with convincing, heightened outdoor ambience keeping the rear discretes constantly active. LFE usage is plain thrilling. The abovementioned yak-track is sleepy and occasionally banal, with the otherwise likable Harrington coming across as too shy for this sort of thing. (At points, he's so spiritually absent that Schmidt and Dushku speak of him in third person without any trace of irony.) Jeffrey Schwarz's interesting "Fresh Meat: The Wounds of Wrong Turn" (9 mins.) includes a secondhand anecdote from Schmidt that ultimately equates scare cinema with pornography more convincingly than almost anyone ever has, although for a professed fan in '70s horror, Schmidt's failure to get The Exorcist's year of release correct only confirms that his vested interest in the genre is minimal. A gallery of "poster concepts" reveals that Wrong Turn once invited comparisons to Deliverance at the marketing level (the film's original tagline was "Get Ready for a Killer Weekend"--recall that Deliverance's is "This is the Weekend They Didn't Play Golf"); three deleted scenes (two, actually, plus the 3-minute oddity of dailies for a particular slaying) and the picture's theatrical trailer round out the disc. Originally published: October 1, 2003.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
On Blu-ray, both Wrong Turn and Wrong Turn 2: Dead End look like they were shot in Super16, and in the case of the former, that's a real problem: it wasn't. I unfortunately can't confirm it, but I don't remember the DVD as anticipating the inadequacies of this 1.85:1, 1080p transfer. In other words, it seemed fairly status quo whereas the BD--soft-focused, hazy, flat--most definitely does not; because even the opening titles are untenably blurry, I suspect it's an issue of how the film was mastered as opposed to how it was shot. Detail does increase in conjunction with the camera's proximity to the actors, but in a very superficial way that's mostly a trick of magnification. Weirdly, there's a fine scrim of noise that suggests the image couldn't have been subjected to DVNR, which is why I wish I still had the SD version around for comparison. Adding insult to injury, colours are oversaturated to the point where certain foliage and Lindy Booth's hair (she looks exactly like Red Fraggle) are almost radioactive. To quote the little-known actor Steve McQueen, "What the hell happened?"
The audio, on the other hand, dazzles, the 5.1 DTS-HD MA track honouring an inventive mix characterized by a grinding bass that sounds generated by friction and, fittingly, gets under the skin like nails on a chalkboard. Extras are ported over directly from the DVD, though I failed to cover the following three video segments when I wrote that review: "The Making of Wrong Turn" (4 mins.) and "Eliza Dushku: Babe in the Woods" (4 mins.), each your standard infomercial-cum-making-of (they're actually called EPKs within their own credits); and "Stan Winston Featurette" (5 mins.), a now-ghoulish tribute to the late legend, referred to as "the greatest living makeup man" or some such. Turns out I hadn't overlooked anything vital. Fox's Digital Copy spot cues up on startup despite that no Digital Copy of Wrong Turn is included with this release. Originally published: October 29, 2009.
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