Wednesday, 18 November 2009

The Hills Have Eyes (Film Series)

There have been four films in the Hills Have Eyes series:

1977's "The Hills Have Eyes"
1983's "The Hills Have Eyes Part II"
2006's "The Hills Have Eyes"
2007's "The Hills Have Eyes 2"

There was also a 1995 film called "The Outpost", which was also known alternately as "Mind Ripper" and "The Hills Have Eyes Part III: The Hills Still Have Eyes" and "The Hills Have Eyes 3: The Hills Have A Nose, Chin and Beard Now, Too".

Wes Craven

Truly, an overly self-important horror director (I know he used to be university lecturer and all, but for every "Nightmare on Elm Street" there's a "Hills Have Eyes Part II" and "Deadly Friend" either side of it) with some true classics as well. When he's good, he's pretty astonishing, so it's really a shame when he doesn't bother.

1974 - The Last House on the Left
1977 - The Hills Have Eyes
1978 - Summer of Fear
1981 - Deadly Blessing
1982 - Swamp Thing
1983 - The Hills Have Eyes Part II
1984 - A Nightmare on Elm Street
1985 - Chiller
1986 - Deadly Friend
1987 - The Serpent and the Rainbow
1989 - Shocker
1991 - The People Under the Stairs
1994 - Wes Craven's New Nightmare
1995 - Vampire in Brooklyn (ugh)
1996 - Scream
1997 - Scream 2
1999 - Music of the Heart
2000 - Scream 3
2005 - Red Eye

The Hills Have Eyes 2 (1983, Wes Craven)

1985, directed by Wes Craven

Well, if you watch this back to back with the first film, it doesn't come off too bad. It's infinitely more lightweight from the get go and the filming of some early scenes is so fucking slack, you can't believe it. Two or three set ups at most in scenes that establish a significant number of characters, accompanied by many takes (the bit where the black girl first gets off the bus) which make you go "if the director cared, he would have done a second take". Yet, the atmosphere is halfway "Hills Have Eyes" desert spooky and half early eighties, "Friday the 13th" type slasher. "Friday the 13th" is a good reference point, as Harry Manfredini also scored this movie - unlike the first movie's enjoyable music, this one is a typical Harry Manfredini score, meaning it sounds identical to "The Children", "Zombie Island Massacre", Craven's own previous "Swamp Thing" and, of course, every single "Friday the 13th" film. Seriously, the desert flats in this movie are painted out as the west coast "Crystal Lake". And, admittedly, the location (similar, but not the same as the first film) is still a very spooky place, especially now it has it's large mine shaft. Also, Kevin Blair from "Friday the 13th Part Seven: The One With the Telekinetic Girl and the Gay Cast" is in this as well, sucking as hard as everyone else.

Some of the logic is so fucked - the script is just too lax to care. In the first movie, the family broke down for at least a reason. In this one, the bus (yeah schoolbus) springs a leak and they just RUN OUT OF FUEL.

If you look at this movie in the context it was released in (1985, a year after "A Nightmare On Elm Street") it's pitiful. Craven shows barely any of the flair he brought to "Nightmare...", which is strange even if you learn "Nightmare" was filmed the year after "Hills Have Eyes Part II", but released first - it'd be a massive progression, if I didn't think the problem with this was ultimately that Craven didn't give a shit. It was nice seeing Bobby in the opening, flashing back to the first movie - continuity like that is still pretty effective. But the actor playing Bobby (I think Robert Houston is his name), looks stoned out of his mind for his two "scenes" here. The first scene, flashback aside, is just the same thing repeated - discussion between Bobby and the psychiatrist, ending with Bobby pulling a face like "heh, shows what you know...".

The idea here is, of course, to start a franchise. A series like Sean Cunningham's "Friday the 13th" series, or Wes's later "Nightmare" or "Shocker" films were intended to become. This movie wasn't a hit when released and, to be honest, that's not fair. I think it's at least as fun as "Friday the 13th Part 2" (but not "Part 3" or "The Final Chapter") and pretty fun overall. The vast continuity with the first film makes for a nice "back-to-back" feel.

It's not Craven's worst film (ever seen "Vampire in Brooklyn" ? "Music of the Heart"?), but it isn't great. It manages to swing my favour by acknowledging and somewhat recapturing the agoraphobic feel of "Hills Have Eyes", but I have to admit its nowhere near as imaginative, compelling or engaging as "Nightmare on Elm Street", "People Under the Stairs" or even the original "Hills Have Eyes". You could do worse, but a lot better too.

A later release poster with an alternate title ("II" instead of "Part II") and an acknowledgment of 1984's "Nightmare on Elm Street"

The Hills Have Eyes (1977, Wes Craven)


(1977, written & directed
by Wes Craven)

Here it is, the film that actually showed Wes Craven might be capable of directing great horror pictures. I hesitate to call this film "great" because so much of it isn't - but it's definetely got a lot of great things in it and it's miles above the horrendous "Last House on the Left" which preceded it.
The "plot" is essentially a reworking of Tobe Hooper's "Texas Chain Saw Massacre" writ large on 35mm film, as a family find themselves trapped in the desert while deformed mutant cannibals run around picking them off, but it features the added dynamic of family vs family as the straight family find themselves having to resort to nasty violence to fend off and destroy the mutant cannibals. It's got a pretty solid cast for what it is, featuring early appearances for genre favourites Dee Wallace and Michael Berryman and "Shogun Assassin" director Robert Houston as Bobby. It's got baby-eatin' (intended), bird-eatin' and all kinds of cutting, and shooting. But what makes this a truly exceptional low-budget horror film is it's location. Actually shot in the middle of a startling desert environment, the film is incredible to look at even when the lighting seems a bit rough (which can be quite often, I think). The huge rock face surrounding the family is etched into my brain like few movie locations - this is a barren, horrible place, full of rattlesnakes, tarantulas and mutant cannibals.

What I find particularly interesting is that, dissimilar from most horror film, it enschews traditional claustrphobia for a kind of agoraphobia. The family's kinda trapped in a big scooped out valley in the desert - nothing but highway and desert cliff face. They can be seen from all angles, especially in the dark where they themselves can see absolutely nothing.

Pretty cool film. Evocative landscape filmed atmospherically and with passion and confidence plus a compelling story and script. Actually, this is definetely one of Wes Craven's very best scripts, right up there with "Nightmare on Elm Street". Fair play to him.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Dawn of the Dead (1978, George A. Romero)

"Dawn of the Dead" (aka. "Zombi"), 1978, written and directed by George A. Romero.

Version reviewed: The entire Region 1 "Dawn of the Dead: Ultimate Edition" collection from Anchor Bay, featuring the three most common cuts of the film.

There are some films that are so groundbreaking in it's genre that they become prerequisite classics. Very much of their time but still impressive today none the less are George A Romero's original zombie films. Both "Night of the Living Dead" and "Day of the Dead" have faults and high points, but the clear masterpiece of Romero's series is Dawn of the Dead - an intimate and atmospheric horror epic with action, stunts and scope. In fact, if it weren't for the fact that Dawn of the Dead just isn't very scary, I could easily consider it comfortably the best horror film ever made for these other respectable merits alone. Today, "Night of the Living Dead" plays like a perfectly sixties shocker with psychedelic musical cues and moody expressionist lighting in the face of the bright colour that was in use in cinema. "Day of the Dead" plays like a very vivid nightmare, but "Dawn of the Dead" is the one that paints a sustained, surreal zombie landscape for all it's length. A quite believable scenario is sketched in the first twenty minutes - society is falling apart, largely due to people's refusal to choose a course - readily abandoning their jobs and no-longer-relevant "responsabilities" or sticking it out together. Our four main characters can hardly be blaimed for running out on it - there was nothing left sticking around for.

For what it's worth, despite the parts that are dated (or, more accurately, of their time) the film paints it's own convincing reality and the four main characters are drawn in a lot of detail. No, the effects are often quite disappointing, but they were groundbreaking for the time and have a fun and surreal feel. George A Romero himself thinks of the film as a live-action comic book and I can definetely see what he means - but it's a long one and worth every minute.

There are three cuts of this film I have seen and all are included in this boxset - Romero's preferred 127 minute US theatrical cut, his 139 minute "Cannes" cut and the 116 minute Dario Argento cut for Europe. All three cuts have their virtues, but my preference is for the Cannes cut - the lengthier pace allows the film more space for atmosphere and this is the cut I grew up watching, anyway. Argento's cut features very little (maybe NO) library music like the Romero cuts, featuring wall to wall Goblins music. Both kinds of music are effective, though I could do without the cheesy music when Ken Foree decides not to shoot himself which appears in both the Romero cuts. The main Goblin piece which appears frequently, especially in the European cut, is a very effective piece for a horror film.
Romero's theatrical cut is the one that features the best music, featuring a mix between Goblin's score and the library cues, sometimes at the same time or seamlessly transforming back and forth. However, this cut just misses too many things I like from the "Cannes cut". Note the transition from Peter and Roger at the slum to Steven at the docks. In the Cannes cut, the transition from Peter's gunshot (right into the camera) to the helecopter in the air, as it lands at the docks. In the theatrical cut, it cuts right to someone who has been shot in the head as Steven investigates him. It misses out the helecopter and most of the material with the policeman leaving for "the islands", which added a lot of scope, giving the feel of one adventure among hundreds.

The Ultimate Edition is truly a great release for this classic. All versions of the film look good (although, the Cannes Cut is definetely the worst looking) and it's really cool to have all the versions together.