by John Linton Roberson
Wes Craven is maddening. I really cannot stand the SCREAM films--except the first. After that the postmodernism becomes an excuse for one more fucking slasher series but one that can sell itself to those too smart for such things. Along with Romero, Cronenberg, Carpenter and Hooper, Craven helped create the very rules of the modern horror film, and now he's killing it. This film was one of the most important horror flicks of the past 35 years, and stands quite in contrast to his current, smirking work, but is of a piece with it too.The others of this sort would be best exemplified by Night of the Living Dead (1968), most of all, because it broke every conventional rule of horror till then, and since. Barbara goes inside the car, always the "safe place" in horror films till then. The attacker simply smashes the window with a brick. They hide someplace safe. But no place is safe. The threat has no cause, nor can it be reasoned with; it comes and comes and will not only kill you but(yuck!) eat you. Family ties mean nothing; a man's daughter dies and, re-animated, kills and eats him. Everyone you ever loved will now seek you out to kill you. And in the end everyone is dead but one, who is then killed by those who in another movie would've been the rescuers, and his body is tossed with all the other corpses on an anonymous bonfire.
"Better than I ever heard it was."
Basically, kneecapping your psyche. This film ushered in the idea of horror as absolute, irrational, dionysiac chaos, unreasoning destruction that can only overwhelm in the end; the good guys do not win in these sorts of films, at least not while remaining good.
One can see in these films the pain of the Vietnam era, the idea that one could be sent to die for nothing simply because some arbitrary authority said so; in a way "Night..." is a nightmare encapsulating the fear of that era, as Invasion of the Body Snatchers reflected its own--both versions did, really; I was shocked when I moved to the Bay Area how accurate its depiction of the Bay Area of California is. (Particularly toward the end.) The Bomb would be, in a way, another anxiety tapped here, indirectly--just the idea death can come for no reason, for reasons you cannot understand, that anything can happen, and you only have the illusion of control and safety.
After Romero, after Hooper's weirdly restrained Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Wes Craven upped the actual violence, savagery and gore, not to mention the sadism. He'd show you what Hooper was actually not showing--there's less actual blood in Texas than it feels, less than in Psycho, even. Craven instead gave you the film you'd heard the former was. But sometimes he made a good one.
I've never seen Last House on the Left, but I understand it's not worth the bother. Eventually Craven's films became steadily more cartoonlike, more distanced and tongue-in-cheek, culminating in the near-theory that is the SCREAM films. Indeed, it was he who came up with most of the rules he's so fond of quoting, so he ought to know what he's talking about. But they don't scare. I miss horror films that do. Blair Witch Project scared the bejesus out of me, I'm not ashamed to admit, and fuck anyone who calls it overrated. It was frightening, and it's been a long time since a horror movie scared me; damn slasher films, and damn Wes Craven for making the whole genre look silly.
But recently Steve Bissette of Swamp Thing fame (ironically, since Craven did the film adaptation of that work), a virtual expert on the genre who teaches a class in the subject and has written and drawn(and written and spoken)about it for almost 30 years, quite cannily recommended this film to me, and I have to say, it was gripping and I simply must tell you about it a bit, though how much I can say without ruining it, I'm not sure. The fun in this film is the unexpected extremity of the activities(but nevertheless, the odd restraint of their depiction.) So since I want to write freely, SPOILERS A-COMIN'!
It's very loosely based on a true historical story. In the medieval era, there was a family of cannibals, the Sawney Beane clan, living in a cave on the Scottish coast, who lived for decades in an incestuous, primitive state with masses of kids and grandkids, robbing, killing, and eating anyone who happened past--eventually all caught and brutally executed. By the time they were caught the clan exceeded 48.
Transpose this to the southwest a-bomb-testin' part of the desert in the present day(well, early 70s), reduce the clan to about 10, and make it the story of one family's victimization, and that's this movie. Oh, and they have walkie-talkies.
Essentially, a family who has been given a silver mine as an anniversary gift is stranded out in the desert among just such a tribe of cannibals, who stay out of sight till dark, then move in and pick them off one by one, starting with the middle-aged, haughty father, who is exploded and cooked by an incendiary explosive stick inside him. One can almost hear, "That'll teach you to send me to Vietnam, you fucker!" in the sadism of this scene; Craven makes the father rather authoritarian and an unlikeable asshole from the start, so his death is made rather a joke, particularly in one relatively restrained, visually, but emotionally wrenching scene where the clan(most of which have the names of planets, or gods if you prefer) is munching down on his now-flayed, barbecued body. We see his boiled face, that's all, but it's enough. Like David Cronenberg says, some things cannot be suggested.
But more strikingly here, the "Sawney" figure, the father & leader of this bunch of cannibal desert rats, Jupiter, rants at the body of the father, making it quite clear he is eating him out of contempt for his defeat. "How dare you come out here and stick your life in my face!" he shouts defiantly at this dead man. Jupiter is a striking and well-acted, magnificently dreadful and somewhat cartoonish villain, with a bizarre but fascinating "x" scar across his face(his nose split in two halves), caused by his father hitting him in the face with a tire iron when young. It almost resembles, in its stylization, some ritual tribal scarification, and indeed there are some that resemble this. He wears bits of his enemies as trophies. He looks like a Neanderthal dressed in bits of modern clothes, and people.
But more, it's almost presented as a class thing--nice perfect middle-class little blond family destroyed by desert hillbilly cannibals. This fear of "primitives," whether hillbillies or hippies(in the case of, say, Helter Skelter ), was prevalent in that time (cf. Deliverance ), almost like controlled, white, Imperial America was scared shitless of losing control even for a second. These films exploited and mocked their paranoia that for all their assumed sophistication they were still just monkeys like us all. They showed the nightmare you get if you scratch the fears of that time, which I'm not sure anyone much younger than me(31, just old enough to recall at least the tail end of that era properly)
It's also bizarrely professional for what appears to be a low-budget production all the same, and the acting (particularly Susan Lanier and Robert Houston, who are frighteningly plausible as brother & sister) is first-rate. I must go on about Houston's performance a bit more. It's rare sarcasm works when deliberately in a script, particularly a horror script. HOuston's sarcasm is not only still warm, and convincing anyway, but the range of terrors he goes through is nothing short of astonishing. At one point, when telling the others he found his beloved dog gutted(the mate of this, a German Shepherd, exacts the most brutal revenge in the end, BTW)--before anyone else has died--he cries so genuinely he loses control; a tiny bit of snot even flies out his nose--because that's what happens when you really, really cry, after all. Craven does encourage you to care about the characters--which makes the deaths of many of them all the scarier. In a way, Craven is far more the traditional horror filmmaker than the relatively punk attitude of a Romero.
There are brutal parts to this movie. A gutted, skinned dog is, as I said, found at some point(interestingly, the credits very specifically state "No animals were killed or treated inhumanely in the making of this film"--and considering the extensive use of the two dogs as actors, that's a relief--but interesting they thought to say this before they legally had to). The father is burned alive and quite clearly eaten. There is a particularly brutal(but not really graphic, nor presented as at all titillating) rape scene. The revenge is quite vicious, but considering what's gone on till then you certainly don't mind. And the ending is very abrupt.All in all, a true classic of the genre. Have a look. But caution--not for the easily-made-paranoid.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=2283&reviewer=151
originally posted: 03/04/00 22:19:06