The Hills Have Eyes: Arrow and Red Shirt Unite To Bring Us the Ultimate Edition (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Horror fans, this is a big one: Arrow's new 4k restoration of Wes Craven's classic The Hills Have Eyes, taken from two different 35mm color reversals (the original negatives have been lost).  Of course, it's come up before whether a 16mm film will even really benefit from an HD upgrade (i.e. Blue Underground's initial reluctance to reissue Shock Waves), and certainly fans had better brace themselves for a lot of grain and not so much detail, but I think past examples have shown that there is the possibility of decent improvement; just don't expect it to look like Lawrence of Arabia.  And the fact that Arrow has teamed up with Red Shirt pictures to give us the a really souped up special edition with the alternate ending finally restored makes this release impossible to ignore anyway.
All of Wes Craven's best work has an edge that separates it from the more mainstream pop horror of the times, but this is one of his early film's that's almost all edge.  An almost idealistic, all American family are driving through the desert in their camper and run across another family.  This one's dirt poor and isolated to the point that they've practically gone feral, and certainly homicidal.  It doesn't help that the military seems to have been using their land for nuclear testing.  The two sides brutally go to war against each other - even the family dogs - and that's basically the entire plot.  It's just a savage tale of survival at any cost.
Few films, let alone the official sequel and remakes, have managed to live up to the raw ferocity of the original (although, as modern studio horror remakes go, you could do a lot worse than the 2006 Hills Have Eyes).  But it is dated in a way that will turn off some audiences.  Like, immature audiences might be distracted by the 70s fashions; but it can be hard for even serious horror aficionados not to find it a little silly that the killer family are dressed just like those old Roger Corman cavegirl movies, especially poor Laura Ortiz, in her Flintstones necklace and little fur booties.  But the rough, high stakes drama and the moving tragedy these people experience should pull you past that or any other little hang-ups you might get caught up on in a lesser film.  I mean, I won't spoil it, but the mother in the chair scene?  Oof.  You're not gonna find that in your little Goosebumps books.
Anchor Bay's 2003 2-disc special edition enjoyed a long reign as the definitive Hills Have Eyes release. Even when Image put out a blu-ray in 2011, I can't say I felt compelled to budge.  I did manage to borrow a copy of their DVD edition, though, just to flesh out the comparison a little more, though.  But now Arrow has issued a brand new, limited edition blu-ray that's ready to take the crown from all contenders.  For one thing, Arrow finally lets you watch the film with either ending, and I kinda dig the darker, alternate one.
2003 Anchor Bay DVD top; 2011 Image DVD mid; 2016 Arrow blu-ray bottom.
Okay, let's start with the framing. Both previous editions were slightly letterboxed to 1.83:1, but Arrow has decided to leave the mini-mattes off and let it ride at 1.78:1 (despite the case and booklet's claim of being in 1.85).  More than that, though, we're seeing more picture on the right-hand side and a little less on the left.  Overall, we're seeing more new information that just the shift from 1.83 to 1.78.  And the mid-range of the picture is brighter allowing you to see detail that's technically on the DVDs as well, but much darker and hidden.  And this has been done without flaring out the brights, which is nice.  And while yes, the 16mm doesn't reveal a whole lot more information in 4k, the grain is much more defined in HD, rather than the smudgy mess of the SD DVDs.  The effect is a bit like pointillism, but it's definitely as clear as you're gonna get.

Now, for audio, the new blu preserves the original mono track in uncompressed PCM, but that's it.  I can see some fans being disappointed that they ditched the 5.1 remixes that the previous releases had, but I don't miss 'em.  Admittedly, it would've been nice to have the two 5.1s and the stereo tracks from the AB DVD as additional options.  If you've got an expensive, high-end surround sound set-up, sometimes you wanna fire it up even if it isn't strictly purist.  But the original audio mix is what's important, and that's here.  Plus, Arrow's blu is the first release of this film to provide subtitles.
Interestingly, Image's DVD is barebones, with nothing but the trailer and a bonus trailer for Hellraiser.  But their concurrent blu-ray and the previous Anchor Bay set had a lot, including a great audio commentary by Craven and producer Peter Locke and a thorough hour-long 'making of' doc, featuring Craven, Locke, Michael Berryman, Janus Blythe, Robert Houston, Susan Lainer, Dee Wallace and DoP Eric Saarinen.  On top of that, it did have the alternate ending trailers, TV spots and photo galleries.  It also included the Wes Craven episode of the rather good documentary series The Directors, and a booklet of artwork and notes by DVDManiac's Jon Putnam.  And by the way, except for the booklet, the Image blu had exactly the same extras as the AB set, and in standard def, too.

Arrow's blu imports almost all of that over, including the commentary, doc, trailers, TV spots, gallery, and the alternate ending (this time in HD).  The notable loss is The Directors, but that's not such a terrible loss because it's available elsewhere, including its own DVD release Winstar, and those DVDs sell on Amazon for pennies.  And everything else made it, plus Arrow enlisted Red Shirt Pictures to come up with a bunch of new stuff.  They've got an all-new, more on the light-hearted side cast commentary with Berryman, Blythe, Houston, Lainer and Martin Speer, and an academic commentary by Mikel J. Koven, which is quite good and informative, as opposed to some of the more self indulgent "I'll treat this like my personal podcast and prattle on about my childhood" commentaries we've had on films last week's Chopping Mall, or even previous Arrow discs like Nightmare City, The Black Cat or Slaughter High.  Then there's new on-camera interviews with Speer and composer Don Peake, and almost 20 minutes of unreleased outtake footage.  And, as you can see on the left, this limited edition also comes with a bunch of extra physical goodies, like a big, double-sided fold-out poster, six postcards of awesome vintage artwork, and a 40-page book, with notes by Brad Stevens and Ewan Kant.  It comes in a nice, thick slip-box, and the blu-ray case has reversible artwork.
So I'd say this is hands down the ultimate edition of The Hills Have Eyes: best transfer, watchable with either ending, the most and best special features, plus subtitles.  And Hills is a title that belongs in every serious horror fan's collection, which you can't say for all, or even most, of Craven's titles to be honest.  Don't throw away your Image blu-ray or Anchor Bay DVDs, though, unless you've got a copy of The Directors: Wes Craven somewhere else.  But whatever you do or don't already have, this is an upgrade worth double-dipping for.

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