The phrase "direct-to-video" has negative connotations across most genres. Documentaries usually dodge this bullet best, but horror has gotten the scarlet letter stitched to its soul. It implies a lack of confidence, which is ironic, because these "scurry" movies, for all their shortcomings, are the ballsiest things on film. Except maybe for documentaries. So, if you have a direct-to-video horror that pays homage to direct-to-video horrors with the premise that a character is making a (small) documentary about a direct-to-exile, rarely seen horror film of faux-legend, what do you have? A smart, extremely compact flick called The Hills Run Red. Its cover doesn't fool you, but the film itself indeed surprises. It's got that "ridiculously dark comedy if you're looking for it" touch, because as it knowingly follows a typical horror plot, it subverts the genre-necessary clichés. I'd have given it a 3.25 even, if CinemaBlend was all smaller decimals and shit.
The Hills Run Red is the name of the legendary 1970s movie-within-the-movie that our lead character, Tyler (Tad Hilgenbrink), is obsessed with. It was banned after one viewing for being too violent. Yep, not the most original concept, but I enjoy it. It's hard to find exclusivity in a world this connected, and fan-obsession, even as puppy-dog faced as Tyler's is, is relatable. Anyway, the film was directed by Wilson Wyler Concannon, played by the snazzy William Sadler. Favorite Sadler role? Grim Reaper in Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey. New favorite Sadler character name? Wilson Wyler Concannon. The director went into hiding after the film's banning, leaving behind only a goofy interview and a film trailer that is both viscerally eye-gouging and the least-grabbing film trailer ever. It's Edgar Wright's Don't trailer with none of the subtlety or wit. But it features the film's awesome looking slasher-basher Babyface. He has a broken baby-doll face sewn onto his own, as introduced in Hill's opening credit sequence. It's on the cover. Check it out. You'll go, "Ooh."
Tyler's girlfriend, Serina (Janet Montgomery), is perturbed by his obsessive with the film, which includes taking notes as he rewatches the trailer and director interview. He has a friend, Lalo (Alex Wyndham, a dude), who listens to Tyler blast off about why lost films are cool. Lalo is a watered-down Justin Long, though enjoyable in his amateurness. When Tyler discovers the location of Concannon's daughter, Alexa (the lippy Sophie Monk), who appeared in the in-film Hills, Lalo sleeps with Serina. The film is only 80 minutes long, so this happens fairly early. I suppose this could fit into the film's themes of the dangers of desire, but really, they just look like assholes. On the flip side, Tyler finds and meets Alexa, the most agile and coherent heroin-addicted stripper ever depicted on film. Tyler, in the middle of a lap dance, convinces her to let him plead his case for her assistance. So then, in the hotel room that doubles as her home, he cures her addiction in three days or something. Okay, really, this is where the Lalo/Serina cheating happens, but they don't know he's helping a stripper kick the horse! Way to go, assholes. The foursome then sets out on a documented scavenger hunt to try and locate the "fictional" “Hills” "set," a house and barn in the middle of the woods. All the quotes are there because maybe, just maybe, that scary looking Babyface character wasn't just a character in a movie. Maybe his S.A.G. card has expired. Maybe he's still in them thar woods.
The (high five!) shaky-camera-free footage Tyler takes of things is nowhere near as documentary-ish as good old Heather Donahue in Blair Witch. He just pops off at the mouth, holding the camera up to his face, preeeetty much proving how much of a noob he is at doing things with sincerity. As I say these things with sarcasm, I don't mean to say they're done badly. Tad Hilgenbrink as an actor isn't amazing or anything, but he plays his role better than most of the people in the multi-sequel/remake bonanza happening in bigger-budget horrors. Tyler is just a really driven nerd, and not to let you in on a secret, but sometimes dumbasses aren't heroes, which is one of those subversions that the movie does well. Another is that, yes, the group brings a cell phone, and yes, it has reception throughout. But when your only idea of location is "by some trees," who do you call? Don't even mention GPS. Baby steps, people.
Anyway, the trouble soon starts. Interspliced between certain time cuts are quick snippets from Concannon's Hills. The brutality of the on-screen death isn't so much new-age horror as just really realistic throwback effects, far from the Black Knight/Ash Williams fun-gore. When Babyface offs some rednecks (yes, the epitome of limited danger), the mood is set for how this guy approaches the kill, which is not clever, and not tricky. He just offs people. Except for one ludicrous feat of strength where he throws a character up into a wall, Babyface is a grounded villain, at least in the context of mentally deranged psychopaths. Alexa, having known this wacko as a child, soothes him with some "Hush little baby" lullaby singing. It's only moronic at first. We then make it to the house somewhere around the middle of the film, and more of the expected twists are turned on their head as things continue. The last plot point I'll mention is that Sadler's eventual appearance as William Motherfucking Wyler Concannon is hilariously demented. In the disc's interview feature, Sadler mentions how nice it was to be in a movie without all the strings attached that Hollywood holds taut, and the fun of playing something so off-kilter. Things get pretty nasty when he appears. The film's conclusion is all John Carpenter, and I don't care if they didn't admit it in the commentary. Stay tuned for a mid-credits capper.
The film's director, Dave Parker, is versed in both background mainstream work and in more hands-on stuff with DTV output, though usually with a lower budget. Not to impress you, but Joel Silver was one of the producers. The money was spent wisely, and the camerawork is more than impressive for a small feature. Except for the inter-cuts, there are no flashy camera tricks or distracting nuances, just straight-up filming. What Hills does have that's intrinsically visual is a plethora of lovingly doctored faux-horror movie posters and memorabilia, in all styles of iconic horror film imagery. These are nice details to spot. Many of the kill-shots are memorable, and several few-frame images struck me as genuinely creepy. The film was co-written by "Splatterpunk" originator (and much more) David Schow, and the less-established John Dombrow, with a story credit to John Carchietta. It could have been tighter in places, but for the most part sets up a microcosm of horror milestones and keeps you guessing as to what could possibly happen next. And after a second viewing, there's still the slightest bit of mystery to be had as far as where some people's heads lie, as it were, but maybe I'm fooling myself.
Okay, so after watching it once, I thought it was pretty good. I mentally cheered and jeered as things progressed, and had an enjoyably cheesy time. It was honestly in listening to the commentary (with Parker, Schow, and producer Robert Meyer Burnett) that a deeper appreciation set in. There was much pinpointing where plot and background were concerned, and all three guys have a rich affection for the genre, so many choices that seemed hokey were there directly to spin.
The disc is in 2:35:1 anamorphic widescreen, so it's really impressive looking, giving the film a scope that surpasses its direct-to-DVD status. The blacks are crisp, and it helps, because after Babyface appears, things are dark and bloody. The standard Dolby 5.1 surround sound is used in full. The sound design is crisp and there's really not as much shrill screaming as you'd expect from such a picture, so no worries there.
The film's only other extra besides the commentary is the thorough "It's Not Real Until You Shoot It: The Making of The Hills Run Red." The film was shot in Bulgaria using a mostly Bulgarian crew. It took me by surprise, because there's nothing to give away that this isn't shot in some wooded expanse in between outstretched American suburbs, even in the city shots. There are many shot set-ups that are fun to watch, particularly the amazing looking "hills actually running red" featured in the fake film trailer. You also find out that there were no rehearsals, so the cast pretty much memorized script and showed up to film. Maybe that's how Lalo could get in Serina's pants so easily.
I'm recommending this to my friends, but not to my mom. That's pretty much how you can judge it. It's a gorier Scream without any of the recognizable talent or tongue-in-cheek approach. It's all guts, all glory.