Tuesday, September 22, 2015


All of the bold, brilliant renegades who made life interesting for me as a kid are dropping like flies. A few years ago I banged out a eulogy of sorts for actor David Hess, and on August 30th, 2015 the world sadly bid farewell to director Wes Craven, the man responsible for propelling Hess to dubious cult stardom as "Krug" in The Last House on the Left. The only redeeming turn of events I can think of at this particular juncture is that the heat of summer has burned off and porches will soon glow again with grimacing carved pumpkins that nod toward the other side of the grave. What better way to herald the turn of the season and honor the man who scared the world silly than with one of his earliest celluloid masterpieces projected on the glorious big screen?

Let's face it, Craven made a lot of snoozers. In fact, he helmed a lot of movies since 1991 that I haven't even bothered to watch (and I've sat through all of the A Nightmare on Elm Street sequels!). But he also made a few truly groundbreaking masterpieces that completely revolutionized what was possible in a horror film, similar to how his hero Peckinpah shoved a stylized version of masculine aggression into the mainstream before him, and somehow became the most unlikeliest of Hollywood darlings in the process (i.e., they depicted on-screen violence very differently, but they both made a lot of money making people very uncomfortable). Craven's debut feature film, The Last House on the Left, was so intensely mean-spirited and unflinching that it really would have come as no surprise if he was never allowed to make viewers piss their pants again. He probably would have returned to his cerebral day gig as an English professor and lived more or less happily ever after. However, in 1977 The Hills Have Eyes emerged from rocky vermilion catacombs to gleefully rub salt of the earth into the gaping psychic wound that Krug and company inflicted upon a mostly unsuspecting public five years earlier. Shot on 16mm due purely to practical budgetary considerations, his second work of exploitation wonder exudes a similarly grimy perspiration that lends highly implausible proceedings the gravity of a nature documentary, and, although it might be easy for the uninitiated to sneer at Michael Berryman's mean mug on the poster (I finally looked it up - the medical term for his condition is Hypohidrotic Ectodermal Dysplasiat - and apparently he can't exude grimy perspiration), The Hills Have Eyes is a deceptively heavy film that poses profound questions to the sober attentive viewer regarding man's natural state and the very fragile proposition that is civilization.

Craven was a populist horror visionary capable of camouflaging complex philosophical quandaries in supernatural, occasionally atavistic, symbol. His distinct brand of transgression strikes at the borderlines where boundaries collide and ultimately collapse; the borders of dream and consciousness (A Nightmare on Elm Street), the city and the heath (The Hills Have Eyes), the living and the dead (The Serpent and the Rainbow), the artifice of genre and the fourth wall (Scream), etc.. Like the carnage of the Vietnam War directly transmitted into American homes like a dinnertime virus, as it was for his generation, the dread in Craven's films comes a-creepin' precisely where we think we are safe. He excelled at bringing horror home. Much like Stephen King, who populated his best monster stories with agonizingly recognizable suburbanites who slurp beer in front of the TV and generally wallow in dull domesticity, Craven's death trips typically depart from middle class ports. Consider Nancy dozing off in the bathtub. Or cheery Phyllis and Mari playfully setting out to score some weed on the way to a rock concert. The Hills Have Eyes expands the archetype of the home to national proportions, trading in a white picket fence for a Winnebago and replacing a spectral boogeyman with a feral clan of incestuous cannibals loosely based on the real life 16th Century Scottish degenerate Alexander "Sawney" Bean, who reportedly lived in a seaside cave with his wife, eight sons, six daughters, 18 grandsons and 14 granddaughters and was responsible for the mysterious "disappearances" of more than 1,000 travelers (spoiler alert: they ate them). It is no coincidence that Craven's subhuman brood eke out their rudimentary existence in a former bomb testing zone. War is hell and always breeds its provincial demons. Craven even throws in the old "he's calling from inside the house!" trick, but this time the very notion of home is up for grabs and it is 70s era walkie talkies the size of footballs that let us know that we ain't alone. It is also no surprise that the patriarchal figure who literally drives his home and kin into the wild-erness borderland of Nevada is a retired lawman. When the primeval forces of Order and Chaos clash, you don't want a barista on the job.

It doesn't take long for the shit to really hit the fan in roadkill land. And it sure is a fun ride! To paraphrase a lyric from David Hess' unnervingly incongruous Lee Hazlewood-goes-ragtime score for The Last House on the Left, "This foolin' around ain't gettin' us outta the state." Just what state he was referring to we are never quite sure, but one thing is certain: you don't need a full moon to find the beast in man in a Craven flick. All hyperbole aside, a few days ago was Hess' birthday. Ol' Krug would have been 73 years old on September 19th. If you live in Portland I humbly suggest you come out TONIGHT and raise a few pints to the memory of David Hess and the nightmarish legacy of Wes Craven. 

September 22, 2015

Here's your soundtrack, punk: