Born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1939, Wes Craven would go on to become a legendary director, screenwriter and producer. Before his passing in 2015, at the age of 76, he helmed almost 20 films in the arena of horror, carving out for himself a place in the modern-day pantheon of great frightmakers. Starting with 1972’s remarkably effective (although wholly offputting) classic The Last House on the Left, Craven proceeded to create the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise in 1984, and the Scream franchise in 1996. The Serpent and the Rainbow (1986) and Shocker (1989) also proved to be rattlingly good film jolters. Here, during this 50th anniversary year of Craven’s first film, I would like to discuss three other Craven outings that might make for perfect fare during a long Shocktober weekend. Each one of these is guaranteed to both stun and entertain:
As I mentioned in my review of Aldo Lado’s 1975 film Night Train Murders, an Italian homage of Wes Craven’s notorious Last House on the Left, when I originally saw the Craven film, it struck me as an undeniably intense yet indefensibly repugnant affair, and I swore never to see it again. I have kept true to that promise, too, although I have a feeling that today, four decades and some hundreds of sick films later, I might be better prepared for the unsettling nastiness that that film dishes out. Craven’s follow-up horror film of five years later, 1977’s The Hills Have Eyes, has never bothered me as much, somehow, although it is no less intense an affair. In the latter film, we meet a prototypical American family, the Carters: a retired mom and dad celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary; their three grown kids, son-in-law and infant grandson; and the two family dogs, Beauty and Beast. When the Carters’ car and trailer break down in the wilds of the desert Southwest, however, they encounter a family that is NOT quite as prototypical: Jupiter, a mutant who had been born in 1929 and left to die 10 years later; his three sons (Mars, Mercury and Pluto); daughter Ruby (the “Marilyn Munster” of the clan); and kidnapped prostitute/wife. Oh … did I neglect to mention that decades of desert living has turned Jupiter’s clan into scavenging cannibals, as well? And that those Carters sure do look mighty appetizing? Anyway, Craven’s second horror film is inexpertly made (not that that signifies anything; so was George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, one of the scariest pictures ever made!) but, like its predecessor, remarkably intense. The first half of the film builds tension nicely, and after the clan’s initial attack and massacre – a truly nerve-wracking sequence – roughly halfway through, things just don’t let up. This is visceral, brutal filmmaking, with no way for any viewer to predict who – if anyone – will survive. Jupiter’s sons are a truly horrifying bunch, with perhaps Mars (Lance Gordon) being the worst of all. His line “Baby fat … you’re fat … fat and juicy!” is absolutely bloodcurdling. That said, the cannibal family in Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) strikes this viewer as being even more depraved and nightmarish. Interestingly, the Jupiter character did not become a mutant as a result of having been born near a nuclear testing range, as might have been expected; his birth predated those tests by over a decade. In a cast of relative “no-names,” only Dee Wallace (here at the beginning of her psychotronic career) and Michael Berryman (as poster boy Pluto) might register as familiar, although the acting by the entire cast is better than adequate. This picture is a tad grainy looking, but don’t blame the Anchor Bay DVD that I recently watched; this is most likely how it looked when it was pristine. The film also features one of the best dog attack sequences you’ve ever witnessed, as well as one of the most startling fade-outs before the words “The End” pop up. Trust me, by that time, you’ll feel as if you’ve been through the proverbial wringer…
Wes Craven’s 1982 adaptation of the then-popular DC comic book Swamp Thing is an enjoyable romp that is ultimately undermined by a low budget and simplistic script. In it, scientist Alec Holland, played appealingly by Ray Wise, comes to woe when his secret swampland project is attacked and his plant/animal recombinant DNA formula is stolen by criminal genius Arcane, nicely underacted by Louis Jourdan in what can almost be seen as a warm-up for his villainous Kamal Khan in the following year’s Octopussy. Holland is accidentally doused with his new elixir during Arcane’s heist, transforming him into the eponymous Swamp Thing. Stealing the show from even this sweet monster, however, are tough government operative Alice Cable, played by yummy Adrienne “Bubbles” Barbeau in a role that must have generated many “laying cable” jokes back when, and Arcane’s pond-scum underling Ferret, played by David Hess, who many Craven fans will recall with extreme repugnance from 1972’s The Last House on the Left. Swamp Thing, to its credit, boasts an abundance of actual swampy locales, having been filmed in Cypress Gardens and Magnolia Plantations & Gardens in Charleston, S.C. The film becomes increasingly silly as it progresses, and the makeup work on Swampy himself and on several other rubber-suited mutants is so-so at best. And for all you horndogs out there who may have heard about Adrienne’s nude bathing scene, well, let me just say that it may prove a disappointment, and that many will have to use their DVD player’s 2X zoom just to make sure there really is something to ogle there. Still, as comic-book adaptations go, this film is likable and does have some ingratiating charm. It moves along quickly and never gets, um, bogged down. Still, I’m not exactly moved sufficiently to check out the 1989 sequel with Heather Locklear. And oh … this picture might pair well with the 1973 British horror film The Freakmaker, for one effective plant/animal hybrid double feature!
THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS (1991)
Some 13-year-old boys have to undergo a Bar Mitzvah in their passage to manhood; others have to go through a different kind of hell. Take Fool, for example, a 13-year-old black ghetto kid in Wes Craven’s 1991 effort The People Under the Stairs. To prevent his family’s imminent eviction and to raise money for his mom’s cancer operation, Fool accompanies two local toughs in a robbery attempt on their landlord-from-hell’s house. But things go horribly wrong, and poor Fool finds himself trapped in this crazy house, replete with booby traps; kidnapped, mutilated, cannibalistic hostages; possibly the most persistently nasty Rottweiler in screen history; AND the sickest brother-and-sister team you’ve ever seen. Everett McGill and Wendy Robie play this demented pair, and they both manage to impress; he in his full-body leather outfit, blasting away with shotguns and stabbing away with bayonets, and she with a perpetual steely gleam in her eye and rants of “burning in hell.” Their house really is something, too; the viewer never knows what trap or pitfall will be confronted next. Most of the action transpires in this single house set, but that abode really is a world unto itself. This fast-moving film offers up some laughs and none-too-subtle social commentary, in addition to the thrills, and becomes almost fairy talelike, as Brandon Adams’ Fool (certainly one of the gutsiest black kids ever shown on film) attempts to rescue a young girl from the clutches of the nutzo pair. Writer and director Craven, one of the foremost horror masters of the last 50 years, has here created still another highly entertaining and impressive horror wringer. Recommended!
Anyway, FanLit viewer, I do urge you all to curl up with this trio of Craven goodies during this Shocktober season. I cannot think of a finer way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the debut of one of America’s finest purveyor of film frights … Mr. Wes Craven!