Let's make no bones about this, folks … The Hills Have Eyes looks terrible on Blu-ray.
Being honest, though, the film, shot on Super 16mm, has never looked good. It is blasted, blighted, pitted and worn, texture, detail and depth don't really exist, and its grain is in understandable overload. The only way that this is ever going to resemble anything even approaching the hi-def pop that many people hanker for would be via obnoxious overuse of DNR, edge enhancement and colour boosting. However, spectacular results from such primitive and problematic sources can certainly be achieved with proper care and attention and a considered restoration. You need only look at the BD's of Texas Chainsaw, The Evil Dead and Basketcase, all of which hail from such grubby and lowly origins.
The Hills Have Eyes, though, has not been treated similarly.
Encoded via AVC, this 1.85:1 transfer appears to have been taken from the old SD master that was restored for the 2003 DVD release, which means that it brings with it some of the old bugbears that may have been okay for standard definition but can prove quite unacceptable for Blu-ray. Edges are still enhanced though they don't exhibit the same glaring haloes. Aliasing afflicts some shots. Texture can be mired and obscured by splotchy, unresolved grain and damage is still apparent. There are lots of pops, flecks, dots and frame-wobbles present. Whilst colours are bright, with primaries looking quite vibrant and well-saturated, they can also be prone to bleeding. Blacks have a tendency to crush, although I wasn't too troubled by this. Contrast is meagre, with daylight scenes looking quite harsh, flat and indistinct. Midnight blues have little subtlety and do not blend successfully with the shadows.
Close-up detail is almost none-existent and if that isn't there, what chance does middle and background detail stand? This is flat, void of depth and utterly resistant to yielding up any improvements in visual integrity and resolution. Distant ridges and rocks are blurred and the image of the stricken camper-van is like looking at one of those “Magic Eye” optical illusions. There is much talk of this possibly being little more than an upconversion. Personally, I believe that Image have only used that old and clearly inferior master because there simply wasn't any better material available to them. I'm also of the opinion that there probably isn't any better material out there. But if this is the case, I can't fathom why they bothered to put this out on Blu-ray at all. However, in fairness, I will say that there is the odd shot, every once in a while, that looks pretty reasonable. Our first glimpse of Ruby, say, as she chews on a piece of Beauty and hears Beast howling in the hills. Here, we see separation in her hair and some actual definition and texture to her face. Pluto's ankle-wound, too, is possibly a touch more defined. But, really, I'm clutching for positives here.
Overall, this is a huge disappointment. The improvements over the DVD are, to be blunt, negligible. Although I haven't actually gotten around to doing a direct comparison, it is fairly obvious that there can't possibly be much between the two images. This does not look like high-definition and I cannot possibly recommend it as a worthwhile upgrade.
Then old Special Edition DVD came with two audio mixes, one of which sought to deliver the original mono track whilst the other was an Anchor Bay surround remix. This BD also goes down the same road. We have an Uncompressed PCM mono track that hails from the same old restoration, and a DTS-HD MA 6.1 variation. Neither is likely to impress all that much.
Both tracks are clean and free from distortion. The mono is hardly bright or vivid, but its reproduction of the eerie sound effects, the skirmishes and brutality, and dialogue is reasonably clear and undoubtedly faithful. Obviously it lacks depth and spatiality, but there is still a small degree of presence and atmosphere afforded it. The surround option doesn't have a great deal to play with in the game of signal extension, but the soundfield is certainly widened-out, with some more depth lent to the placement of the creepy sound effects and very small touch more weight to the .LFE elements. However, this can't really muster up much vigour for the gunshots, the unsettling score, the incessant screaming, the bodily impacts or the couple of explosions. Little things like the whistling of the wind through the kettle outside of Grandpa Fred's place barely registers. The hammering of nails into Big Bob's palms and the scattering of rocks lack weight and distinction and the shattering of that window don't pack anywhere near the punch you might hope for.
Voices can be thrown from further afield, such as Papa Jupiter's taunting, but I don't consider any of this positioning to be all that natural-sounding or realistic. Jupiter's mocking voice actually seems to dip quite low in the mix too. Lower than it should. Group chatter is perhaps understandably constrained give the limitations of the source, and some of the more action-oriented sequences can lack bite. There is a nice moment when Mars' cow-imitation moves down the right hand side of the environment very swiftly to follow Bobby's position of hearing.
Movement is not convincing either. Action sweeping from right to left – as Jupiter hauls Grandpa Fred out towards the barn for slaughter, for example – sounds quite artificial. The surrounds pick up on some atmospheric effects and some reasonably well-directed elements such as the sound of Beast howling in the distance for his lost mate. We also get to hear scuffling boots and rockfalls, and the slight echo of Mercury being pushed over a cliff. But the surround element is largely, and understandably redundant.
In the scheme of things, and making allowances for the source, this is still a dated and problematic track that has moments of interest to perk it up. The mono mix is there for the purists, but the surround does still offer a few surround elements that help to widen up the experience, whether they convince or not.
Image's Midnight Madness edition decks out The Hills Have Eyes with a similar roster of extras that adorned the Anchor Bay 2-disc R2 Special Edition. And they are indeed a bunch of goodies worthy of digging your teeth into.
Here’s a revamped version of what I said back when they were first unveiled.
There is a Commentary Track from Wes Craven and producer Peter Locke which is great entertainment. The pair are never dull and constantly dust down the anecdotage. They are also quite teasing about the bits that had to be trimmed for the MPAA - such as the cookout scene of Jupiter waggling Big Bob's fingers in his face, or the degree of violence perpetrated in the raid on the camper-van. Locke says that Lanier's screaming troubled him deeply and they reveal that they had some grandiose plans for some shots, like a pull back that even journeyed into space! Listen to them when Pluto fingers his shredded ankle. A very scene-specific and informative track, folks, that spills the beans on Craven's second controversial shocker.
We also get two fantastic documentaries. The first entitled A Look Back At The Hills Have Eyes is a vast 54-minute retrospective examination into what it took to make the film - from Craven's reading of the Sawney Bean legend to Peter Locke's persuading of him to tackle another horror movie and set it in the desert. Craven was intrigued by the notion of so-called civilisation turning to savage means in order to survive. Cast members Robert Houston, Dee Wallace-Stone (who gets more attractive with age), Susan Lanier (who doesn't) Janus Blythe (who actually appeared in the woeful sequel - seeds of Craven's career plummet being sown right there) and Micheal Berryman join in with fun reminiscences and deliver an obvious fondness for the film and for Craven. Houston reveals that everybody had to cry for the audition. Blythe says that she had to run for hers, as well. Berryman has twenty-six birth defects and, despite his appearance in so many genre flicks that capitalise on his unusual looks, he is actually a wonderfully warm and gentle man. It also comes across how everybody suffered to make this film with 12-14 hour days in the dirt and grime, shooting to beat the sundown, horribly hot days and fearfully cold nights - playing desperate people trapped in the middle of nowhere wasn't hard because that's exactly what they were. Apparently the dogs were treated better. Good. Check out the set-dressing of bones and teeth for the costumes and cave of the cannibals - it's all stuff culled from Texas Chainsaw. Everyone is keen to explain how traumatised they were by the baby-snatch sequence, with Berryman the most poignant and evocative on this painful element. Overall, this is a great warts 'n' all documentary that covers all aspects of the production with respect and a wealth of detail.
The second documentary is something that had been replaced on the old R2 release with the fabulous and altogether more rewarding 70-minute examination of milestone horror films called The American Nightmare, made by Adam Simon in 2000. This was an excellent piece that provided a grim and sobering look at a slew of classic and controversial movies, the filmmakers behind them and the societal and psychological impacts that they made. Sadly, the documentary that we get now is The Directors: The Films Of Wes Craven, which may seem, on the surface, to be more relevant, but is much less effective. Now seriously dated, this has the filmmaker himself discussing the ideas behind his projects as well as few anecdotes about the productions and the various troubles he has had with suits and censors. Various cast members are onboard to provide the usual sort of back-slapping praise and their elements become slightly cloying and boring. Neve Campbell makes the mistake of citing the then-filming Scream 3 as being definitely the final entry in the series. “There won't be a fourth,” she declares. Um, right. No, this actually isn't very good, although Craven does provide the odd nugget of interest.
Then we get the Alternative Ending, but don't bother with this. It is the last ten minutes of the film, re-jigged so that Doug's duel with Mars now comes before the skirmish with Jupiter, the violence has been trimmed and it is all topped off with an unbelievably sugar-coated reunion and a hands-of-peace final note. If that doesn't sound bad enough then consider that it is in appallingly damaged 4.3. It's a no-no.
The Restoration Demonstration delivers the first four minutes of the film with a white vertical line down the centre of the picture revealing the before and after of the process. Well, despite what I said earlier about the grain, let me assure you - it was once far, far worse.
Then we get a US and a German Theatrical Trailer and four TV spots, a biography of Wes Craven and a fairly extensive gallery of production stills, storyboards and promotional gubbins. Plus, if you have a BD-ROM drive, you can download the screenplay and screensavers.
All in all, swapped-documentary or not, this is a good set of extras.
Although much of its original brutality seems to have lost its edge, Hills Have Eyes still retains a unique and disturbing feel. It is gritty and raw and dangerous. Yet this violent and often repugnant element works in its favour. Low-budget, seat of your pants filming that is made by people who have genuine talent is always far more engrossing than the derivative mega-bucks alternative churned out by shallow hacks. Hills is original, exciting and frightening. We could all end up in the back of beyond. Let's just hope that we don't also end up on the locals' menu.
But whilst Wes Craven’s culture-shocker remains a true endurance test that still has enormous power, it simply does not warrant the upgrade to Blu-ray as evidenced with the transfer found on this release. Its 16mm origins are not entirely to blame, however. We’ve seen how such elements can look when restored and spruced-up for a hi-def appearance with the likes of The Evil Dead, Texas Chainsaw and even Frank Henenlotter’s Basketcase, and Images' transfer of Hills falls so incredibly far behind them that fans would do better to hang onto their DVD incarnations.
The extras are still good, however. But I wish that Image had been able to add The American Nightmare to their selection.
So a classic horror film gets a horrible Blu-ray. Honestly, folks, don't waste your cash on this release and stick with the DVD.
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