Wes Craven's second film as a writer and director is a vastly more proficient work than “The Last House On The Left,” his infamous debut (produced by future “Friday the 13th” director Sean S. Cunnigham) which captured the sadistic torture, mutilation and subsequent murder of two errant concert-going girls.
Still learning the ropes of filmmaking on “Last House,” Craven spent three years with Cunningham trying to get non-horror projects to fruition, but when the wallet went dry, Craven accepted the challenge from producer Peter Locke to write a horror script, set in the desert. Using a handful of characters, one location, and the legend of a family 16th Century Scottish cannibals who subsisted off lost travelers, the 16mm film production went ahead.
Some of the early making-of documentaries that Anchor Bay included on their sets (such as “Suspiria” and “Opera”) often subjugated content via attention-deficit pacing; leaving little room for the viewer to absorb the aural facts and visual information. Written, directed and produced by Perry Martin, “Looking Back at The Hills Have Eyes” is one of their best documentaries thus far, though the large pool of information culled from the interviews – director Craven, producer Locke, cinematographer Eric Saarinen, and many of the actors – made it easy to construct such a fluid narrative, and preserve the charm and wit of every participant.
Craven's a soft-spoken but very funny man, and with producer Locke, their commentary track elaborates on some additional production aspects, though the final twenty minutes does suffer from noticeable pauses. Like “Halloween,” “The Hills Have Eyes” is characterized by the filmmakers and cast as the work of a bunch of city kids learning their craft while being totally devoted to the film. Giving it their all, the team effort was a more grueling production than “Halloween” – affected by the vicissitudes of desert temperatures, unpredictable rattle snakes, and a tight budget – and when the print was ready for submission to the MPAA, the battle to avoid an automatic X-rating was the next ordeal.
Both men describe what scenes were seriously trimmed – the irritation still rankles Craven today – and the DVD also includes an alternate ending. Shot, edited and fully scored, the grainy full frame trio of scenes seems ridiculous after having watched the more brutally appropriate finale, and it's obvious why the finale was reworked. (Additional footage, however, made its way into Craven's 1985 sequel, when finances proved tight again.)
The restoration demo replays the film's first four minutes in alternating split-screen, and shows the excellent effort that was made to clean up the scratches and grain inherent to 16mm, yet avoid chroma color boosting that negated the docu-drama timbre of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” on DVD. The tweaked sound mix spatially enhances the original mono track, and with the exception of a few mis-timed, off-screen dialogue cues, it's a good upgrade to an already frightening film.
A fine capper to this set is a 1999 documentary, “The Films of Wes Craven,” produced as part of “The Directors” cable TV series (and available on DVD as part of a mega-set). A good third is devoted to Craven discussing his childhood, plus intelligent insight on the horror genre and his own successes and failures. Produced after the release of “Music of the Heart” and “Scream 3,” Craven and the many interviewed actors place the director at a period in which he ought to have garnered enough clout to try another genre, but the subsequent years have proved to be disappointing.
Craven remains effectively trapped in the horror genre, and as of this writing, he's merely lent his name as a presenter of direct-to-video horror fare. Anchor Bay's DVD certainly showcases one of his best films, but the important extras reveal Wes Craven as a filmmaker in search of broader artistic rewards.
© 2003 Mark R. Hasan