Call it an ‘Awards Wannabe’ weekend on the premium movie channels. Mixed in among all the mindless comedies, baffling ‘b’ genre efforts, uninspired action films and draggy dramas, three of the big four film networks are breaking open the Oscar addled entries from last year’s frustrating Fall season to hopefully provide some glamour to their otherwise gratuitous offerings. Frankly, such a switch up is more than welcome, especially when you consider the completely brainless crud that could be currently available - or sadly, is destined to be part of the future programming schedule for this frustrating quartet. At least three of the offerings are well worth a Saturday night sitting in front of the TV (or an attempted TiVo recording, depending on your social plans) and individually, all argue for a sense of artistry comparatively absent within your typical Tinsel Town fare. Even without a statuette in hand, all four of these films are worth your consideration. Available for sampling the weekend of 7 October are:
Boy oh boy does Tinsel Town love actors who can sing and dance. Granted, it’s part of the medium’s luminous past, and argues for a talent far beyond the standard Method acting elements of modern moviemaking. Still, critics went crazy for this Johnny Cash biopic, with most noting how honorable it was to see leads Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon singing the songs in their own voices. Similar to Sissy Spacek in Coal Miner’s Daughter (but unlike Jessica Lange in the Patsy Cline drama Sweet Dreams) the result was an Oscar for Witherspoon, serious consideration for Phoenix, and a decent box office run. Frankly, there is much more to this movie than a couple of younger generation Hollywood superstars warbling a collection of country and rockabilly classics. Both leads do something that’s rare in a cinematic biography – they get to the true heart of their celebrated counterparts. (Premieres Saturday 7 October, 8:00pm EST).
Sam Mendes must have done something in his past to deserve such a rollercoaster ride. When American Beauty hit theaters in 1999, it was immediately embraced as a sensational, satiric skewering of strangled suburban sexual politics. What a difference a few years, and dozens of messageboard debates, makes. Mendes is now condemned for helming one of the worst Best Picture winners in the history of the Academy and his own award is dismissed as a the result of standard Oscar overkill. All of this applies to his fine follow-up, the Gulf War epic Jarhead in the following, unfortunate manner. Instead of embracing this latest effort as its own visually stunning experiment in storytelling, it was cast aside as another example of Mendes meaninglessness as a cinematic entity. As a result, what should have been an acknowledged minor masterwork was poisoned by the Internet’s inane ability to turn everyone into a critic. How horribly unfair. (Premieres Saturday 7 October, 10:00pm EST).
Ever since the book became a bestseller, rumors were flying about the eventual big screen adaptation of this project. For the longest time, Stephen Spielberg was positioned as a possible director, and right up to the moment he pulled out, his imprint was all over the approach. With his leaving came a creative void that needed desperately to be filled. With his Best Director nomination in hand for helming Chicago, Rob Marshall was put in charge of the production, and the rest is mediocre moviemaking history. All arguments about the ethnicity of the cast aside (Chinese playing Japanese, for starters) and the misguided decision to make non-English speaking performers phonetically fudge their Western dialogue, Memoirs is still a visually sumptuous effort. Yet many feel this film is all style and absolutely no substance – at least none that was included as part of Arthur Golden’s book. Whether or not they’re right is up for argument, and thanks to Starz and its various premium channel showcases, they’ll be plenty of chances for viewers to decide for themselves. (Premieres Saturday 7 October, 9:00pm EST).
While he was apparently too whacked out on sudden fame to continue his Comedy Central series, the brilliant, if baffling comedian Dave Chappelle was well enough to collaborate with French auteur Michel Gondry for this Wattstax-inspired concert film. With such a substantive cinematic heritage to contend with (the 1973 effort is one of live music’s forgotten masterpieces) and the baggage the star brought along, success seemed slight – or at the very least, destined to be determined demographically. Unbelievably, the movie was incredibly well received, with appeal that crossed over generations, races and other social classes. Thanks to Gondry’s inherent ability behind the lens, and Chappelle’s unbridled braveness in front of it, what could have been a standard concert experience becomes a celebration of humor and humanity that’s infectious in its effectiveness. While the small screen may diminish some of its impact, this is still an experience to seek out and enjoy. (Saturday 7 October, 7:05pm EST)
Seven Films, Seven Days
For October, the off title idea is simple – pick a different cable channel each and every day, and then find a film worth watching. While it sounds a little like an exercise in entertainment archeology, you’d be surprised at the broad range of potential motion picture repasts in the offing. Therefore, the second seven selections unearthed this week include:
7 October - Jay-Z: Fade to Black
The rap impresario used his “retirement” from performing to put on this star studded live concert. One of the best hip hop happenings every captured on film.
(The Movie Channel – 11:20PM EST)
8 October - In Cold Blood
With Infamous hitting theaters and Capote fresh in everyone’s mind, here’s a chance to see Richard Brooks’ masterful 1967 take on the celebrated “nonfiction novel”.
(Flix – 10:15PM EST)
9 October - Dances with Wolves
Some argue that Kevin Costner was unduly rewarded for this overlong horse opera. Presented in its almost four hour splendor, such sentiments may now be prescient.
(Encore Western – 8PM EST)
10 October -Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte
With the success of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Bette Davis was looking for another horror film to sustain her career. She got this camp classic instead.
(Turner Classic Movies – 8PM EST)
11 October - The Waterboy
Believe it or not, Sandler plays a real character here, a hopelessly hindered mama’s boy who discovers the joy of team sports – and the local Cajun gal who loves him.
(Encore – 8PM EST)
12 October - Deliverance
While it’s hard to imagine how the censorship-happy channel will handle the infamous “squeal like a pig” sequence, it should be fun finding out.
(American Movie Classics – 8PM EST)
13 October -Wild Wild West
Okay, it’s awful, but it’s filled with inventive visuals to go along with its incredibly lame logistics. Beside’s it’s the perfect bad movie for a day overloaded with silly superstitions.
(TNT – 11PM EST)
As part of a month long celebration of all things scary, SE&L will use its regular Monday/Thursday commentary pieces as a platform to discuss a few of horror’s most influential and important filmmakers. This time around, the genre-saving stylizing of Sam Raimi
Though he’s mostly known as a genre icon, his creative canon is limited to only four true examples of motion picture macabre. As a matter of fact, many may now consider him the founding father of the truly great comic book hero adaptation rather than the man who first introduced pizzazz to the previously static scary movie. But from the very first frames of his very first film, Sam Raimi brought horror up to date, signaling a stylistic renaissance that continues today. His impact was so immediate, and his influence so important that it’s no wonder he’s become the benchmark for postmodern horror.
Like Quentin Tarantino in the ‘90s, Raimi reinvented the fright film in the ‘80s, adding elements both esoteric and experimental to the tried and true facets of fear. Without his Evil Dead trilogy, or his first attempted epic Darkman, we wouldn’t have the current creative concept of mixing genres and substance shuffling that helped make dread a full fledged fan obsession. By utilizing approaches both serious and slapstick, satiric and spectacular, Raimi proved that a fright flick could be anything it wanted to be, as long as the director stayed true to his vision, and understood the ramifications of messing with the genre.
Like most influential filmmakers, Raimi was practically born making movies. Along with friend Bruce Campbell (who would later star as Ash in the Dead trilogy), he would create Super-8 ‘experiments’, usually centering around his two favorite cinematic categories – horror and slapstick comedy. Raimi and his friends were particularly taken with The Three Stooges, and modeled a great deal of their amateur actions on the trio’s well choreographed and over the top physical humor. Once bitten by the celluloid bug, Raimi was determined to have a career as a filmmaker. By 1978 he cobbled together a 32 minute short/resume reel entitled Within the Woods and shopped it around to various businesses and merchants. Raimi was hoping to finance a full blown version of this seemingly straightforward story. Sure enough, he and his partners raised just enough cash to start his first feature film - the soon to be classic The Evil Dead.
For many, this single setting exploration of demonic possession and human bloodletting was the most vicious, violent and unrelenting work of shock cinema created to date. Raimi, realizing that he probably only had one shot at sustaining a career from this initial foray into film, pulled out all the stops to deliver what is still considered to be the first really great post-modern macabre classic. The narrative is deceptively simple – a group of friends venture to a cabin in the woods. There, they unwittingly unleash some dark demonic forces, determined to possess their bodies and swallow their souls. As a premise, there was nothing really new or novel. But once Raimi got beyond the basics of his platform plot, his visual acumen argued for a new, novel sense of filmic style.
The key to any Raimi film is the view from the lens. As a filmmaker, he is very aware, almost compulsively focused on what the camera ‘sees’. Unlike other directors who determine the action, and then place their frame in the best position to capture it, Raimi makes the compositions a part of the process. Take the opening shot of Evil Dead. As the friends drive up to the cabin, something slowly moves across the forest floor. As we cut between the car and the “creature”, Raimi keeps the movement fluid (or as fluid as possible with his camera rigged to a 2x4) and hints at some eventual collision between the two. As the discussion in the car heats up, the movements in the woods become more swift and definitive. We just know something bad is about to happen. As the images hurtle forward, preparing us for something shocking, we are totally locked into Raimi’s reality. Thanks to how he uses his lens, we are lost within his own personal paradigm of horror.
But there was more to his genre-shattering style than just a collection of camera angles. Raimi realized that, like an artist, all artforms are made up of potential possibilities as well as tried and true technical procedures. By embracing them all, and juxtaposing or jerryrigging as many as he would or could, he’d create something unusual and unique. When the demons first possess Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss), her eerie overdubbed dialogue and strange body movements are the result of age old optical and aural tricks. To achieve the jagged motion, footage of Sandweiss’ “backwards acting” was shot, then reversed. Similarly, vocal effects were used to tweak her voice into something truly terrifying.
This kitchen sink approach would become his trademark – and the initial criticism of Raimi’s cinematic style. Many wondered why he would employ so many visual cues (animation, rear projection, homemade steadicam) when most horror hacks could barely settle on one. The answer of course lies in what exactly a movie macabre is supposed to be. Fear is an emotion, just like happiness or sadness. It is easy for ‘straight’ films to achieve those said sentiments since words can be just as powerful as images, perhaps even more so. Unfortunately, unless you’re filming a series of campfire tales with expert spinners of ghost stories in the bunch, you can’t really achieve terror with talking. No, true fright is an involuntary response, a real time reaction to what you perceive as a threat, or can’t quite understand. Yes, the unknown is probably the biggest fright factor in the whole horror catalog. To achieve that on film requires skill, and more importantly, style.
Raimi proved this when he went back and revisited The Evil Dead for its sequel – Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn. In truth, it was more of a remake than an actual follow-up, with the events of the first film playing out in a prologue before the new material kicked in. In addition, Raimi was also ready to include more of his own idiosyncratic ideas into the story this time around. After all, he had already established his creepy credentials. With Evil Dead 2, he was prepared to push the limits of the genre as far as they would go. For many, this distinction between pure terror and the kind of monster mash-up that he was after was not unlike the difference between original Hitchcock and John Carpenter’s Halloween. Many people couldn’t fathom the use of humor or homage in horror. Both concepts seem antithetical to the concept of “the unknown”.
The proof was in the popularity, however. Even critics who typically dismissed Raimi came out to praise Evil Dead 2. Some cited the obvious references to those beloved Stooges, the Grand Guignol level of gore, and the terrifically trippy camerawork. But what Evil Dead 2 was most responsible for was barely even mentioned. Like the fright films of the ‘50s that relied on tacky monsters and bad filmmaking as a means to achieve their drive-in movie end, Raimi reintroduced pure fun back into the genre. Instead of the super serious efforts of the ‘70s, or the toneless slasher films that started the decade, this director determined that anything could be clever. A detached hand would become a brilliant comic foil, a room full of furnishing could magically come to life. Heck, even an eyeball got its own action sequence. Between the slicing and dicing, demonic dancing, chainsaw fu and rampant visual invention, Evil Dead 2 became a total tour de force. Had he done nothing else ever in his entire creative career, this sensational sequel would stand as one of horror’s shiniest, silliest moments.
Unfortunately, such a standard would be hard to beat, and try as he might, Raimi just couldn’t recapture the freaked-out fun of Evil Dead 2 in its inevitable follow-up, Army of Darkness. Financed by the notoriously intrusive Dino De Laurentis, and formulated around another favored film type – the stop motion animation adventures of Ray Harryhausen – Army added its own special spice to the series, but by the time of its release (1992) funny and frightening had been long established motion picture playmates. What once seemed cutting edge was now commonplace, and many of the movie’s more amazing sequences (the windmill attack, the final battle) drew more heavily on other genres – sword and sorcery, full blown fantasy – than actual horror. Still, the industry praised Raimi for consistently elevating his level of originality and daring. Along with the underrated comic creation Darkman, Raimi was ready for the non-genre big time.
And he’s been there ever since. From smart, solid thrillers (The Gift, A Simple Plan) to a hyperstylized Western (The Quick and the Dead) and a straightforward sports drama (For the Love of the Game) Raimi wandered the filmic landscape, looking for a place to reestablish his personal creative acumen. While he continued to influence horror through his numerous production credits (including adapting the J-Horror classic Ju-On for the big screen), what Raimi really wanted was a broad creative canvas upon which to unleash his own insane cinematic Id. The opportunity came when he was handed Spider-Man. A longtime dream for this funny book fan, Raimi realized that, finally, here was a chance to truly reinvent the genre. With all the money he needed to back up his aesthetically overreaching ideas, there was no way he could fail.
He was right. Spider-Man and its even better sequel, Spider-Man 2 totally changed the look and feel of the barely breathing comic book movie. Everything he did three decades before, all the invention and innovation he brought to horror easily transferred over to the big budget action blockbuster. Suddenly, what once seemed like a last ditch effort by studios to shore up some easily available material became one of the most successful motion pictures of all time. Raimi’s talented twist was all about style with substance, the mixing and matching of cinematic categories to achieve the perfect combination of craftsmanship and chutzpah. Without his efforts, terror would still be a great big Gothic goof. Raimi realized its potential, and with it came the true birth of postmodern dread.
From the User’s Guide to Indian Films Intro
The movies described in the User’s Guide are the hit list of Indian cinema. They’re not only the best films of all time, but they give you the best glimpse of what Indians enjoy, their sense of tragedy and comedy, their aspirations, their regrets. In short, it’s a visual chronicle of Indian society in the last 50 years. Enjoy.
Week 10: Lagaan (“The Tax”)
2001, Color, Hindi
Dir: Ashutosh Gowarikar
I probably wouldn’t even be writing this User’s Guide to Indian Cinema if it weren’t for Lagaan. Lagaan initiated the era of the “cross-over movie,” Hindi films that are made and marketed for an international audience. Who would have thought that the most recognized Hindi film in the world would be an art movie about cricket? Cultural theorist Ashis Nandy sums it up perfectly, “Cricket is an Indian game accidentally discovered by the English.” As irony would have it, the game of the oppressors is embraced and transformed by the oppressed into something new, invigorating and culturally in tune with India’s heritage. Lagaan starts off with a bet. In 1893, a remote village has continually been harassed by the local British authorities who have been extorting tax money on the village’s meager crop. The charismatic youth, Bhuvan (Aamir Khan), in a fit of rage, rashly challenges the British to a game of cricket. If the villagers win, they’ll never have to pay the back-breaking taxes. If they lose, they’ll pay double. Unfortunately, none of the villagers know how to play cricket. Enter Lucy (Rachel Shelly), a lovely memsahib who sympathizes with the villagers—and fancies Bhuvan. She teaches the villagers, a veritable dirty dozen of hapless blokes from various religions and castes, the rules and secrets of the game. It’s a lavish period piece and a rousing sports movie. At face value, Lagaan is a typical movie about the Raj: privileged, nasty whites in regimental uniform beating ragged villagers, poor farmers wearily praying for rain so that their crops grow, the whiff of forbidden love between a white and a native. But his gentle direction of his actors, his staging of the musical numbers and the final, pulsating cricket match, a game for survival, is what sets the movie apart as the best of Indian cinema.
Though SE&L can certainly understand the anger over that crass commercial concept known as “the double dip” (read: studios endlessly re-releasing favorite films in differing DVD packages and presentations), sometimes a revamp is a clear motion picture mandate. Back when the format first arrived, several companies, clamoring for a piece of that initial product pie, put out anything they could on the digital domain, most times without concern over extras, aspect ratio or picture quality. Sure, something like Scarface has seen multiple merchandising variations, while distributors like Anchor Bay have made a mint over numerous reconfigurations of Dawn of the Dead and Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy. But if you look at the list of reissues clogging up this weeks pick’s for brick and mortar highlights, you will see several that deserved their major makeover. That’s not to downplay the importance of the many new releases available, but when one can own a practically pristine version of one of Hollywood’s cinematic standards, a new action hero epic seems a little lame. Anyway, here are our picks for 3, October:
Body Double: Special Edition *
Before he fell completely off track in the ‘80s, Brian DePalma delivered a pair of preeminent motion picture masterworks. Sadly, only Scarface has endured. And it’s a shame, really. Of all his Hitchcock influenced homages, Double has the most devilish combination (Vertigo meets Rear Window) of all the director’s experiments in tension. Thanks to wonderful performances by Craig Wasson, Gregg Henry and a pre-plastic surgery Melanie Griffith, and a script that stays true to most of the Master of Suspense’s subtleties, what could have been a seedy slice of copycat gratuity became a smart and savage commentary on contemporary Hollywood. Too bad a misplaced misogynist assault on the filmmaker lessened the film’s BO appeal. Thanks to this new DVD presentation – and its incredible making-of documentary – one learns of the film’s porn star beginnings, as well as how vicious the attacks on DePalma really were. Sadly, it seems they’d only be worse today.
William H. Macy gives another of his idiosyncratic everyman turns as the title character, a seemingly normal nebbish who is suddenly assaulted by a Dante’s Inferno like New York City. Helmed by horror master Stuart “Re-Animator” Gordon and scripted by none other than Tony titan David Mamet, this adaptation of the playwright’s stage show loses little of its bite in this terrific translation. Similar in conceptualization to Martin Scorsese’s misunderstood ‘80s comedy After Hours, Mamet applies his standard slash and burn dialogue to all manner of shocking personal monologues for his lead. Indeed, some may find Edmond’s homophobic and racist rants a tad hard to take – and for those looking for some manner of redemption or understanding on Macy’s part, this is not that kind of movie.
Ganja and Hess*
Call it voodoo done right or exploitation gone all artsy, but true aficionados find this relatively unknown horror film hard to forget once they’ve seen it. Playwright Bill Gunn had high hopes for his literate look at vampirism and ancient curses. Sadly, after a less than impressive play date in the Big Apple, distributors eviscerated Gunn’s original cut within an inch of its artistic life and re-released it as Blood Couple. Even with 30 missing minutes it did no better. Long out of print, Image Entertainment gets substantial genre props for revisiting Gunn’s original cut, including the incorporation of additional footage not found in other DVD versions. With a wealth of supplemental information, including commentaries, making-of documentaries and a look at Gunn’s original script, this presentation practically revives Ganja and Hess to its prerelease glory. During a month which sees all manner of movie macabre clogging the airwaves and retail outlets, this is one unknown quantity worth checking out.
The Little Mermaid: Two Disc Special Edition*
The irony of this release is staggering. Mermaid represents Disney’s mid-‘80s effort to save its sinking animation department – a corporate entity that was recently decimated by the supposed switch to all CGI fare. And yet the House of Mouse is greeting the second DVD dip of this mini-masterpiece like a pen and ink prophecy. Granted, you can’t ask for a more effective use of the artform. Combined with Alan Menkin and Howard Ashman’s Broadway ready score and the perfect compliment of heroine and villain, this resplendent effort marked the moment when Disney realized the full power of its post-modern animation possibilities. Of course, their eventual over reliance on the facets formulated here (epic musical accompaniment, brash characterization, a winking nod to a more cynical social mindset) would bring about Pixar’s digital revolution, and the eventual decision to dump 2-D. Of course, Walt’s way of doing things mandates this package be available for “a limited time only”, so get your copy while you can.
Maltese Falcon: Three Disc Set *
It’s stunning when you think about it. John Huston was 35, and making his first movie ever with this definitive detective tale. He managed to wrangle a cast that consisted of a prime piece of Bogart, a sensational Sidney Greenstreet, a perfect Peter Lorre and a wholly complimentary Mary Astor. Employing a near word for word and scene by scene recreation of Dashiell Hammet’s noted novel, Huston added his own artistic touches to turn a glorified gumshoe story into some manner of metaphysical epic. Many have fawned over the feature in the years since its release, and rightfully so. This is old fashioned Hollywood filmmaking at its highly polished best. This new three disc DVD, completely pimped out with commentaries, documentaries and two other versions of the Hammett classic (from 1931 and 1936) should give Falcon fans more added content than they ever imagined. When combined with the masterpiece of a movie at the center of this set, this easily becomes one of the year’s best preservationist presentations.
Point Break: Pure Adrenalin Edition
As the ‘90s attempted to take the action film in as many different directions as the box office would allow, this X-treme sports version of the typical cops and robbers routine hit a notable novel nerve with audiences. The combination of Patrick Swayze’s stealing surfer swagger and Keanu Reeves’ Valley boy FBI basics created a kind of kitschy cult chemistry, and the dude speak dialogue loaded with Zen like zaniness (“Peace through superior firepower”) still provides untold guilty pleasures - even today. While DVD versions have long been available, this new packaging promises to give us a series of deleted scenes (long a fan Holy Grail) and a collection of newly created featurettes. Sadly, Break would mark director Kathyrn Bigelow’s big budget albatross. With success came Strange Days, and her eventual fall from Tinsel Town grace.
X-Men: The Last Stand*
Okay, so Brett Ratner didn’t step in and completely destroy the mutant magic. In fact, he made Bryan Singer’s more serious minded installments look logistically lax by comparison. Sure, fans wanted to hate every frame of this final chapter in their favorite comic franchise, but Ratner just ratcheted up the action and piled on the principle characters. The result is a scattered summer blockbuster that only seems sensible when stuff is blowing up. While several of the setpieces – Jean Grey’s evil return, Magneto’s manipulation of the Golden Gate Bridge – match well against those in previous X entities, it is obvious that Last Stand‘s filmmaking was forged out of a desire to make money, not memorable motion picture mythology. Still, for the casual X-men maven, or someone not expecting a Singer level of loyalty, this is one of 2006’s better popcorn creations. And the DVD promises a collection of unused endings – just the thing to give the faithful meaningful messageboard fodder.
And Now for Something Completely Different
In a weekly addition to Who’s Minding the Store, SE&L will feature an off title disc worth checking out. For 3 October:
The Blood Trilogy *
While he may not have invented the concept of gore (his inspiration, the noted Grand Guignol theater in France had been around since 1897), no one before had delivered such devastating, blood slicked scares to the silver screen. Upon realizing that nudity had more or less run its exploitation course, founding filmmakers Herschell Gordon Lewis and David F. Friedman were looking for another financially viable cinematic approach. Claret became the cash machine for the determined duo, beginning with their seminal scarefest Blood Feast. Revolving around an insane caterer and his desire to create a flesh buffet to the Goddess Ishtar, this vivisection-fest is rife with repugnant imagery. Wanting not to repeat themselves, Lewis and Friedman Southern-fried their next nasty novelty, 2000 Maniacs. A ballsy Brigadoon revamp featuring pissed off Confederate ghosts murdering mindless Yankee tourists, it was another hefty hit. By the time of the Bucket of Blood inspired Color Me Blood Red, however, the bloom was off the grue-covered rose. Not even the still fresh innovation of seeing copious amounts of arterial juices could save the subgenre. As the roughie returned exploitation to its raincoat crowd confines, Lewis and Friedman parted company. Their corporeal collaboration remains a benchmark in the realm of horror, and with Something Weird Video providing the digital goods, you know you’re getting pristine copies of these remarkable movies.
As part of a month long celebration of all things scary, SE&L will use its regular Monday/Thursday commentary pieces as a platform to discuss a few of horror’s most influential and important filmmakers. This time around, the critical, clinical terror of Wes Craven
While many acknowledge his contributions to the horror film, few actually consider the influence Wes Craven has had on the genre. A viable name in all things frightening, Craven is either an original, or an opportunist, depending on the overriding scare scholarship. True, during the home video explosion of the ‘80s, Craven’s canon suffered from sloppy ideas and even more slipshod execution. Between the robot ridiculousness of Deadly Friend to the serial killer as TV signal silliness of Shocker, many thought the macabre master had lost his way. But had they been paying attention, most would have realized that Craven’s clinical look at terror required a certain social or situational element to succeed. Without a contextual base in which to function, his movies frequently appeared out of step with the rest of the mainstream movie mandates.
Yet no one can deny that, every time the genre seems stuck in a ridiculous or repetitive rut, Craven comes along and substantially shakes things up. If one goes back to his first formative smash, 1972’s seminal Last House on the Left, it is clear that this is one director who longs to play by his own unique set of rules. Using Ingmar Bergman’s Virgin Spring as a starting point, and inserting a critical comment on the idle youth of the post-‘60s era, this repugnant rape/revenge fantasy was in direct contradiction of the fear factors infiltrating the industry. Between Hammer’s Victorian vampire epics and the creature feature based drive-in fare, horror really had no legitimate link to the real world. Last House changed all that. Along with its individually memorable tag line (“to avoid fainting, keep repeating ‘it’s only a movie…it’s only a movie…”) it hinted that fright could come in any iconic setting – including the seemingly sedate suburban home.
Thanks to its huge cultural impact, Last House legitimized the real world approach to dread, a concept that would be embraced by both conventional (The Exorcist, The Omen) and independent (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) entertainment elements. No longer was a supernatural situation required. All you needed were the realities of life amplified through the thriller/chiller ideal and – BANG! – instant homegrown horror. It was a fresh faced facet that even Craven himself would revisit later on in the decade. Focusing again on family (a favorite thematic course) and the disintegration of the American Dream, The Hills Have Eyes pushed the notion of normalized apprehension to its limits. With its contradictory clans – one civilized, one cannibalized – and snuff like approach to onscreen killing, he anticipated the growing desire for gore years before the red riot would overwhelm scare cinema.
When the ‘80s arrived, Craven again was seen as a step behind the movie macabre trends. Halloween and Friday the 13th had made the serial killing splatter fiend a new terror icon, and while studios were busy pumping out as many slasher entries as they could, Craven was going American Gothic. Deadly Blessing, his 1981 take on religion and hypocrisy barely registered among filmgoers. It was seen as too subtle, and too old fashioned, to play to a post-modern mindset. After a stab at comic book character action (1982’s underrated Swamp Thing), Craven was at a crossroads. Either he would give up genre efforts and try his hand at the typical Tinsel Town ideal or simply stop making movies all together.
But with the razor finger scraping heard round the world in 1984, Craven created what is, perhaps, the single most recognizable horror idol since the days when Universal ruled the theaters. Not only was A Nightmare on Elm Street the practical polar opposite of the slice and dice derivativeness that plagued the ‘80s creepshow, but it was a considered social observation centered around the nation’s newfound focus on the preservation of children. Not many people remember Freddy Krueger’s original origins. He was a pervert, a child molester and murderer who used his pedophilic ploys to lure the innocent to their death. His ravaged body was the result of a populace in vigilante mode, a group of parents setting him on fire to set the scales of justice back in balance. Now a vengeful spirit, Krueger created a dream world where he was the master. Utilizing the sleep of his killer’s young ones, Freddy found a way to enact his own afterlife payback on those who he deemed undeserving.
This concept of constant uncertainty, this dichotomy between threatened kids and disaffected parents was, again, part of a realism based paradigm for Craven. Sure, the situation allowed him to play with all manner of dream imagery and fantasy fears, but the heart of A Nightmare on Elm Street was a “how could it happen here” view of the sanctity of the suburbs. Nancy and the rest of her victimized pals are seen as something sacred, the precious commodity of a community that would resort to murder to protect them. Freddy’s fiendish ploys, complete with all their ‘bad touch’ connotations, were seen as the last legitimate threat in an otherwise hermetically sealed circumstance. By trading on this newfound fear, as well as the significant social shift it represented, Craven made macabre quantifiable and successfully saved the horror film from becoming an irrelevant exercise in tacky teen mass murder. Once again, he opened up the real world for possible terror interpretation.
The many cloying comic sequels to come almost undermined everything that Nightmare‘s novelty contributed. It would also cause Craven to coast for the rest of the decade. He would revisit the horror of Hills for Part 2, take on the fact-based facets of voodoo with The Serpent and the Rainbow, and deliver that problematic pair of Deadly Friend and Shocker. By the time his political allegory The People Under the Stairs was released (1991) many saw Craven as an artifact of the past, a filmmaker more or less responsible for horror’s hackneyed elements. Part of the problem was that Freddy Krueger had transformed from a killer into a comedian, a one liner spewing specter that was no longer scary. In fact, he had become so subverted as a character of terror that merchandising made specifically for tweens was flooding the market.
While many see Scream as Craven next saving salvo in the battle to preserve the motion picture macabre, it was actually his attempt at saving his Freddy franchise, New Nightmare, that set up the self-referential concepts that the later 1996 shocker would solidify. New Nightmare tried to be a kind of 8½ of the eerie, a clever combination of fear and fear filmmaking meant to comment on the effect that Freddy and his knife fingers had on those involved with his legacy. Starring Craven, actors Robert Englund (Freddy) and Heather Langenkamp (Nancy) and a hyper literate script, it was clear that most fright aficionados weren’t ready for an experimental dissection of what made the Krueger canon so compelling – and corrupt. Instead, it was Kevin Williamson’s joke-riddled irony that captured the fan base.
Many saw Scream as the final nail in the post-modern macabre’s creaking coffin. Craven had so successfully complemented Williamson’s wacky homage to horror’s past that it seemed like no future film could top its tricky terrors. And for a while, they were right. Even as the inevitable revamps came along – each one less effective in their self-styled satirical conceits - forces outside the mainstream were giving dread a much needed make over. Thanks to advances in technology, and the relative ease of DVD distribution, every film freak worth his or her scare salt decided to stop whining and make their own damn movie. The result was a real revolution, a resurgence in horror’s hipness that left many, including Craven, scrambling in the background.
Thankfully, instead of choosing to compete, Craven just continued on. The post-millennial phase of his career has seen a sloppy werewolf flop (Cursed), a few more of his patented name-attached production gigs, and the 2005 hit Red Eye. None however, had the cultural impact of his ‘70s through ‘90s efforts. While many may now feel the time to write him off has finally arrived, Craven might just have a few more shocks up his sleeves. Besides, it’s impossible to discount a filmmaker who resurrected the horror genre more times than others have successfully applied it. Without Last House on the Left, A Nightmare on Elm Street and New Nightmare/Scream, terror may not have lasted into the year 2000. Wes Craven saved the cinematic category from its desire to endlessly emulate itself. And one thing is definitely for certain – this is one filmmaker who’s not through messing with the macabre. Perhaps he’s just waiting for another creative crisis to arrive