I’m having a really difficult time with this final post, denizens. Watching Scream 4 really brought home the fact that this truly is it. This was the final film of Wes Craven’s career. It’s a painful truth to assimilate on many levels, least of which is the reopening of the sorrow that I have felt ever since learning of his untimely death. I’m not going to lie: When I saw “Directed by Wes Craven” pop up in the credits, I teared up as it hit yet again that we will never see that for another new movie. It feels like we have lost so many incredibly talented people recently. To mourn each and every one of them as thoroughly as I have with Craven would pretty much become a full-time career. However, let it be known that the creative space within this existence has a lot of vacancy signs in the windows at the moment. We desperately need to see these vacancies filled. The world can be an ugly, cruel reality. Those who provide us with the safety of escapism, no matter how brief, are invaluable.
So, let’s get this final show on the road, shall we?
Like I said, I won’t rewrite history. However, I also wrote of my second viewing that “the movie puts forward some truly salient points regarding what happened to us as a society, not just in horror but in general culture, within the more than 10 years between the third and fourth movie. And the author of the book I read even gives a convincing defense of what I felt on original viewing was a tacked-on cop-out ending. I still feel as though it’s a bit of a cop-out…but viewing it with the author’s defense in mind helped me to see it as the castigation against remakes and reboots that he proposes it to be.”
Re-watching this film twice for this series (yes, Craven gifted us one final director’s commentary) made me realize further that this movie shouldn’t stand with the original trilogy at all. That trilogy is a complete telling of the nightmare that Sidney, Gale, and Dewey endured and survived. That book is closed. This fourth film truly kicked off a new book completely
I’m going to make really quick work of this review, denizens, simply because I don’t want to think about this movie more than I have to.
I’ve spent so much time with this particular series, trying to give each of the films that Wes Craven wrote and/or directed as much credence as possible. I have tried to find worth or enjoyment in each movie. Sometimes, this has been a struggle. My Soul to Take has made the struggle insurmountable.
This film felt almost as if Craven printed up a collage of posters from his previous movies, posted it to a dart board, and then just started throwing darts to see which films he would pilfer for recycled ideas. My guess is that the darts hit Shocker,A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Scream. Then he decided that such a combination would only work if he made mental illness a key plot element. And then? Then he decided this would all look best if in 3-D. Seriously? Maybe focus on giving it even one layer of dimension before trying to focus on the third.
Sorry. Sorry. I just need to vent, and if it saves any of you from making the mistake of watching this film, all the better.
I struggled to get through even my one obligatory viewing of this film (which is okay, since the rental version of the movie blocked me from being able to listen to Craven’s commentary; as if I’m going to go buy a copy just to hear that). I’m not terribly surprised that I didn’t like this movie. I remember seeing the previews and feeling absolutely bereft of desire to see it. Watching it for this series confirms that I was on-point with that reaction. I am, however, terribly disappointed that Craven thought this movie was worth his time and effort. Did he feel like he needed to give horror fans something (anything?) to appease us since he hadn’t made a genre film in 5 years? Was he pressured into making this? Or was he just bored and decided that this would be a good way to pass some time and get paid? Whatever the reasons, I wish he’d ignored them all and continued to enjoy a well-earned break from film-making.
In fact, I found this movie so distasteful that I officially recant what I wrote about Chiller.This is my least favorite Craven film. At least Chiller contains some enjoyable camp. This movie tried so hard to take itself seriously, which is quite difficult when it’s so dogmatic to horror cliches. It’s such a shame, too. This was the first movie that Craven had written and directed since his 1994 New Nightmare and his first full-length directing gig since 2005’s Red Eye. Both those movies are examples of Craven at peak performance, which makes this entry all the more preposterous and derisory.
Don’t look to this post for a review. The story is banal, the cast mostly unmemorable (of course, this might be the ultimate sign that I’m getting old; I recognized absolutely no one from this film). Craven clearly hit the auto pilot button on this one and ended up flying us all into a mountainside. Now we’re stranded and I’m not above volunteering this DOA cinematic sludge for hors d’oeuvres.
Re-watching Scream 2 for this series made me realize that it’s been a long time since I watched this or the third film. I love the first movie (duh). Clearly, I have all the time in the world for it. And I have owned the trilogy in every iteration it has appeared in (VHS? Check; DVD? Yup; Blu-ray? I bought a Blu-ray player just so I could buy and play the trilogy, ISYN). However, as time has passed, I have slowly convinced myself that the sequels are not worth watching. As the second film even addresses, very rarely do sequels prove their worth. However, the horror genre in particular seems to thrive off the existence of unchecked and often unwarranted franchises.
That being stated, are the Scream sequels terrible? No. As sequels go, they actually are quite good. In fact, this re-watching of the first sequel, again focusing on the technical merits of the film, has made me realize how strong it was on several different levels. This and the third film (we’ll get to that fourth one in a little while) also have elements of enjoyment and intrigue and, after pondering this a bit for this series, I would posit that they ultimately do add merit to the horror genre for doing to the horror franchise trope what the original did to horror in general.
First, though, I’ve been pondering why Craven was so amenable to the notion of participating in sequels for Scream when he was so adamantly against them for Freddy Krueger. I think a few things went into his decision this time. First, writer Kevin Williamson always had sequels in mind [insert predictable Stu Macher quote about sequels here]. So the option was always on the table, even when Craven first started hearing about the script, as opposed to how Craven wanted his original Nightmare on Elm Street to be a one-shot film with a definite ending. Second, I think it would be fair to surmise that Craven probably learned a valuable lesson with Freddy. If you don’t want others botching your creation, then you need to be the one driving (even if you’re driving from someone else’s map). With Scream, he realized that he could be conductor for Williamson’s death train, from start to finish, and I suspect that appealed to him, especially after the first film blew up so massively and rapidly in popularity.
And then there is the unique focus of this horror franchise. Other popular horror franchises hinged upon the killer always being the same. Not this time. No, this franchise’s focus was the exact opposite of most horror films. This time, it’s all about the survivor. Sidney is the character who doesn’t change (although let’s not forget the other survivors, two of whom stay by her side through the whole series like a Holy Survival Trinity #spoilerz). Sidney is the keystone.
[Loba Tangent: If that concept sounds familiar, it should. Craven granted the same level of power to Heather Langenkamp in his New Nightmare.]
Craven had already made a career of presenting strong female characters in many of his films. In fact, he had made a career of presenting unlikely heroes/heroines from several diverse groups, not just strong women. His last two films prior to taking on Scream, in fact, showcased casts comprising not just Black heroes/heroines, but also largely Black casts. This was practically unheard of from a serious film-making perspective at this point in the horror genre (I say serious here as opposed to horror spoofs like what the Wayans brothers were doing with their Scary Movie spoofs). Horror was a Hollywood holdout of predominantly White casts, White heroes, White villains, made for predominantly White audiences. Was that because horror is mostly preferred by White audiences? Or was it more likely because diverse audiences weren’t interested in a genre that showed no interest in them? I think Craven tested this latter theory most successfully with The People Under the Stairs, which was a genre success that very few anticipated.
[Loba Tangent: I think this was part of what made the opening sequence with Jada Pinkett and Omar Epps even more spectacular. Pinkett’s character’s lament about how the movie they were getting ready to watch was “some dumb-ass White movie about some dumb-ass White girls getting their White asses cut the fuck up” not only was a poignant castigation against several horror tropes but also made her character’s ultimate, shall we say, intrigue in the telling of that “dumb-ass” movie even more humorous.]
Therefore, a man who had spent several decades building his reputation as a Master of Horror (I think it’s time we started using that as an official title, don’t you?) through the construction of complex, complicated, and often unexpected horror heroes/heroines would naturally be drawn in by a series of movies that eschewed the traditional horror franchise route of focusing on (glorifying?) the killers for the unconventional approach of focusing on the survivor(s).
There’s also another aspect that seemed particularly prevalent and important to this sequel that I think must have attracted Craven by dint of reason that it had held such a disturbing fascination for him throughout his career: the reality of human brutality. Again, let’s think about the movies that started Craven down his path to Master of Horror status. Those movies sprang up from Craven’s desire to examine the darker sides of human nature in the most realistic ways. And now he gets this script that hinges upon examining the reality of what transpired within the first movie.
These survivors from the first movie? They’re all damaged, emotionally and in many ways physically. That “fun” first movie carried weighty consequences, which we watch play out throughout the unraveling of this and following sequels. There is still humor all throughout this sequel, but Craven and Williamson did an extraordinary job in balancing it with weightier truths for these characters, particularly Sidney. We’ll get to her in a moment, though.
First, I’d like to take a moment to talk about the opening of this film. I already mentioned that Jada Pinkett and Omar Epps bring us into the new world of Scream 2. They are heading in to a free preview of Stab, the movie based on Gale Weathers’s book on the events of the first film, The Woodsboro Murders. So basically we end up watching a movie about people watching a movie of events we’ve already watched. The continuing beauty of this is that what they are watching is both very close and incredibly far away from what actually happened in the first film. Again, Craven and Williamson are taking collective digs at the tropes of their trade in exquisite fashion. What they are also doing, and it comes through with such unsettling perfection, is juxtaposing the “reality” of horror movies for its fans against the true reality of horror.
I’m referring, of course, to the murder of Pinkett’s character, Maureen Evans. I still can recall the collective silent horror shared throughout the audience I was in when we watched that murder play out. Whereas the majority of the kills in the first movie all came across in electric ways that pumped up the audience to cheer or scream or laugh or yell at the screen, this time…this time was utterly different. Craven knew precisely how to make this one of the most discomfiting deaths from the entire franchise. Whereas it was in many ways similar to the first death from the first movie, this time Craven and Williamson pulled it out of the expected solitude of a typical horror movie setup.
This was not the “girl alone in a secluded setting” predictability akin to what Heather Graham’s character was facing in the Stab film (or that Drew Barrymore’s character faced at the beginning of the first movie). This was a young woman being brutally murdered in a theater full of people. In so doing this, they not only upended the trope but they also made us uncomfortably and unwillingly that much closer to her murder. In essence, we became one with the on-screen audience, all of us watching as Maureen climbed to the front of the theater, bleeding, dying, crying out for someone, anyone to take note, take heed of what was happening. Craven had always made a point of trying to invoke a sense of moral uneasiness in his audiences, and this opening did not disappoint. I remember the disgust I felt at the opening of this film; I realize now that this was precisely the reaction I should have had.
Skipping ahead slightly in the movie but focusing on another instance in which Craven beautifully shows us how to get away with murder in a way that breaks the horror tropes apart, let’s talk about Randy. Poor Randy. All he wanted was for the geek to get the girl. Instead, he’s brutally, savagely murdered by Ghost Face in broad daylight in the middle of a crowded college quad. That was the beauty of Craven’s directorial acumen. He knew how to upend and audience. He lulled us into a sense of complacency. It’s a sunny day. People are all around. They’ve all got each other’s backs on this, right? Besides, it’s Randy! Nothing is going to happen to Randy. And then the blood began to run and we all knew, there is no understanding of sacred beneath that Ghost Face mask.
Interestingly, even the MPAA finally got on board with Craven’s focus on realism and consequences. Craven stated in interviews that he purposely made this film as bloody as he could, expecting the MPAA to come back and tell him to cut it down for an R rating as they did with the first film (and myriad other films from his career). Instead, they left the original cut of the film untouched. According to them, the violence was okay because it carried consequences. Kind of like all Craven’s other films, but never mind.
[Loba Tangent: I’ve actually not only seen the original cut of Scream but I also used to own it on VHS. It’s the version they made the director’s commentary for on that weird VHS double set I bought. I’m kicking myself that I don’t have it anymore. I’ve never seen that original cut anywhere else, not even the special edition DVD set. Craven’s original cut actually made the consequences of Billy and Stu’s actions more prevalent. The MPAA’s insisted-upon cuts took away that level of realism and left instead a false sense of invulnerability for our killers.]
And then there’s Sidney.
We watch as she starts out this round prepared, defiant. She’s armed with a caller ID and a BFF roomie and a new boyfriend and Randy (for now). She’s got this. She is ready for whatever the premiere of that stupid movie based on her chaotic life has in store. Even Tori Spelling.
[Loba Tangent: Good on ya, Tori, for having a great sense of humor and for playing along with the continuation of a line from the first film. Also, this is one of the moments from this film that falls soundly into the hilarity camp. I love how Craven is able to get the absolute worst performances from “Sidney” and “Billy” in the movie based on the first movie, thus poking fun at the original film in such a wonderful way.]
Oh, Sidney. We want so much to believe in your tough girl ruse. But Craven will not let that happen, and you know it. That moment when Sidney realizes the horror is starting again, Craven gives us this beautiful shot composition of her off-center and alone before slowly pulling in closer to her, thereby pulling us into her horror. It was so simple and yet so right.
And in case you haven’t picked up on this yet, I love Sidney Prescott. Just like Nancy Thompson, she is another one of Craven’s quintessential Warrior Women, faced with seemingly insurmountable odds but willing to dig in and find a way to survive. She refuses to lie down and accept her victimization at the hands of others wishing to make her their personal scapegoat. However, we also witness that these events harden her, to trust and to emotional stability. Her inability to place faith in anyone after her betrayal by Billy leads to the deaths of two of her closest confidantes in this film and, I believe, kills her ability to function in any publicly acceptable fashion. It actually worked out that Neve Campbell wasn’t able to be in the third movie for long, because limiting Sidney’s time in the third movie helped solidify that the damage she absorbed in this film may not have killed her, but it came pretty close to destroying her. It certainly destroyed her ability to allow herself to feel. That moment at the end when she shoots Debbie Salt/Mrs. Loomis through the forehead without even flinching? Even Cotton and Gale flinch (Gale! Flinches!), their expressions revealing their respective horror at realizing not only what Sidney has just done but also what she has just become.
Wow, this is a long review. And I haven’t even gotten to things like the soundtrack and Marco Beltrami…or the roll call of Hollywood’s young elite who clambered to appear in this film…or the ones who were actually picked. Like Sarah Michelle Gellar. Even though she was in the middle of filming Buffy, she made time for a cameo in this film. I mention all this only for one reason: Craven’s sense of humor. See, Gellar’s scene included moments where she was watching television, and then moments where she was moving about her sorority house while the television just played in the background. Like in this moment:
Yes, denizens. That would be Nosferatu playing on the television behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
However, the one final thing that I would like to focus on for this film is the play scene. There is a moment in this film in which Sidney has a dress rehearsal for a play she’s in at the college. The significance of this scene from a Cravenous perspective? Craven wrote this scene and the play. The original script that Williamson wrote included some kind of generic Our Town-esque play, according to producer Marianne Maddalena. Craven, however, knew a way to write a scene that would integrate a play perfect not only for the film but also for Sidney. Let’s not forget that he was once a professor of literature or that he had a master’s degree in philosophy and writing. If anyone could come up with the perfect theme for a play suited to Sidney Prescott, it would be him.
[Loba Tangent: Also, making the play a Greek tragedy was Craven’s subtle castigation of the MPAA for their denouncement of violence of horror movies. Craven was basically pointing out that violence and horror have been a part of entertainment since the Greek tragedies. Hello, Oedipus and Medea. And yet now they are lauded as classics.]
I have to admit, the play scene is one of my favorite moments in not only the Scream trilogy but also horror in general. The way Craven not only beautifully draws the parallels between Sidney and Cassandra but also utilizes the Greek tradition of a masked chorus in such an effectively chilling way
I’m going to cheat slightly with this review, denizens. I recently reviewed this film elsewhere online, and rather than reinvent the wheel at this point, I’m going to use a lot of what I wrote in that “other” place, for this review. For posterity, yo.
I guess I also should finally point out that I probably will have a lot of spoilers throughout this and other Cravenous reviews. I don’t know why I never thought of mentioning this before. So, yeah. Spoilers.
So now that Wes Craven was (kind of) able to scratch that itch of wanting to direct anything other than a horror movie and found it to be less than the pleasant break he’d hoped it would be (thanks, Eddie…no, really…thank you), it was time once more to turn to what he knew and did so well. It wasn’t an instantaneous “yes” decision, mind you. It took a bit of pushing from Bob and Harvey Weinstein as well as a few of Craven’s close associates to finally convince him that it would be worth his time to take the reins on what practically everyone in Hollywood was convinced was going to be a huge horror hit. The Weinsteins were so convinced by the end of the day, in fact, that they scheduled a Christmas release for the film. A Christmas release? For a teen slasher flick? In the mid-90s?
God damn it, Gump! You’re a goddamned genius!
Seriously, though, with Craven coming on board as director, this turned out to be the “perfect storm” of a horror film. It was a brilliant script filled with admiration and adoration for a genre that, to tell the truth, had seen better days. Horror was, forgive the pun, nearly dead in the mid-90s. Fans had lost interest in tired sequels and cheesy scripts and horrible plots. It took Williamson to come along to remind us what we fell in love with and to show us that there was still life in the genre yet. His story was clever, his lines were catchy and quotable, and his characters were cliches to a point, but cliches with twists and unexpected complexities.
Combine this with a cast filled with up-and-coming young actors just starting to make an impact on Hollywood as well as a couple of established actors who were either making a successful comeback or who brought a delightful sense of nostalgia with their presence, and like I said: perfect storm.
Watching Scream again for what truly has to be beyond the 20th time I’ve seen the movie, I made a special effort to focus primarily on the look of the movie
After his success with The People Under the Stairs, it was time for Wes to come home. Time for him to reclaim his greatest creation and put the dream demon back into his proper context. And so, in 1994, Wes Craven went back to Elm Street, and he brought several members of the original cast with him. The end result?
I’ve already written here about Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, so I don’t necessarily want to make a new post for it. However, I will reiterate that it was a brilliant return to Elm Street for Craven and a beautiful denouement to Freddy Krueger. Yes, I know that they brought him back for his battle with Jason, but I feel as though that’s an incidental addition. An appendix, if you will. This film felt like a solid conclusion to Freddy’s journey as well as Craven’s homecoming and reconciliation with Bob Shaye and New Line Cinema.
So what could possibly be next for Craven now that he had come back into his own as a “Master of Horror” and taken back his dream demon?
A comedy, of course.
Well. Kind of. A comedic horror? A horrific comedy?
Truthfully, the only thing horrifying about 1995’s Vampire in Brooklyn is how it both failed at horror and funny. Based on a story idea from Eddie Murphy and producer friend Vernon Lynch, and a script written by Murphy’s brother Charlie (along with the guys who wrote Mulan II), the movie tells the story of Maximillian, the sole-surviving Caribbean vampire, who comes to Brooklyn to find the half-vampire mate who will help him keep his line from ending.
I know what you’re thinking: Don’t vampires just make more vampires by biting someone and turning them into a vampire? That’s kind of what I thought. I also stand by my theory that vampires can’t procreate the way humans can. It’s the whole freaking point (pardon the pun) of why they have to penetrate their victims with their teeth after roofying them with their sexeh stares.
I know what else you’re thinking: Half-vampire? What the hell is that (besides Blade or Vampire Hunter D)? I’ve always questioned the idea of “half-vampire” because I question the procreation efforts of vampires. Also, it’s always sounded a bit silly to me (even though I do enjoy some of the genre stories that use such a creature). Do they only burn really badly in sunlight? Have slightly pointy teeth? Do they have a translucent reflection? Whatever it’s supposed to be, Angela Bassett plays the half-vampire, so I’m okay with letting some of those questions go.
Really, it’s Murphy who is the problem for me with this movie. I’ve never really enjoyed him as an actor. I loved his time on Saturday Night Live and I respect what he did during his stand-up days. However, most of his movie career has left me utterly cold. This movie wasn’t an exception.
Plus there is the fact that you can tell that Murphy is not really all that interested in giving a compelling performance in this role. He later stated that the only reason he agreed to this movie in the first place was because Paramount agreed to release their hold on the rights to The Nutty Professor to Murphy if he finished his contract with them. He also had the audacity to blame the wig he wore in the movie for why people didn’t like it. I totally disagree. That wig worked for Eriq La Salle in Coming to America! You just didn’t try hard enough, Eddie.
Problems compounded with the fact that Craven was excited to finally have a shot at directing a straight comedy only to find out that Murphy wanted him on board because he wanted to do something other than comedy and thought taking a crack at horror would be fun. And when your leading man is also one of the producers on a movie he came up with the story for and his brother wrote the script? There’s not a whole lot you can do besides say, “Good idea, Mr. Murphy.”
They did try to meet in the middle, and there are a lot of comedic moments to the film. We also get Murphy doing his shtick of putting on a lot of make-up and playing other characters. This time, he played a perpetually perspiring preacher and a failed Wise Guy. They were kind of funny, but also kind of stereotypical and cringe-worthy. I’ve always had a problem with a lot of the dress-up roles that Murphy did. If he were punching up with the joke, as he did on SNL, then it might be different. However, most of the time, he was only playing up stereotypes for comedic effect. That’s kind lazy comedy for no real effect other than to make fun of groups of people for assumed shared behavior. But whatever.
It was lovely getting to see Angela Bassett in this film. Craven must have appreciated her participation in his short-lived television series Nightmare Cafe (and by “short-lived,” I mean it lasted six episodes…but they featured actors from Craven’s many films, including Bassett, Brandon Adams, and Robert Englund. Oh, and Trinity, Cigarette Smoking Man, and Ishara Yar show up as well, for you genre fans). Bassett’s career at this point was starting to really pick up, with her Oscar nod securely in place for her turn (heh) as Tina Turner and Strange Days helping to secure her as a player in the genre fiction realm.
[Loba Tangent: Sad trivia, really. Sonja Davis, the stunt woman who doubled Bassett on Strange Days, followed her to this film only to die during a failed stunt that put her in a coma for almost 2 weeks before she passed.]
Her performance as Detective Rita Veder in this film was absolutely one of the standouts. She clearly was willing to embrace the ludicrous lunacy of the story and her role, and she played every moment with a refreshing dedication that I’m sure pleased Craven, particularly on this film. Other than Bassett, I’d have to say that Kadeem Hardison was probably the best part of this movie. Playing Julius Jones, the Maximillian equivalent of Dracula’s Renfield, Hardison brought a zeal to his role that was (sadly) unmatched by his main foil. Also, he did quite well in a role that was both a throwback to and departure from his most iconic role, Dwayne Wayne.
Remember, I did say that when an actor impressed Craven, he made sure to be loyal to that actor. Just ask W. Earl Brown, who appeared in this film and may or may not appear later on in this blog series. Isn’t that right, Kenny? Now get off my windshield.
Even though it wasn’t the complete break from horror that Craven had longed for, this still was probably the first of his films to integrate other-than-horror elements into the story blatantly (rather than subtly, as Craven had often tried to do with other films) without getting blow-back from producers or the movie company in charge. Of course, the movie didn’t even make back what it cost to make it, so I’m sure that wasn’t the resounding success that Craven had hoped for with his first non-horror horror movie.
Guess there was really only one way to go at this point. Back to horror…
Remember the time that Wes Craven decided to make the most absurdist, Lynchian, unhinged, over-the-top, satirical, this-is-your-acid-on-acid social commentary in the guise of horror movie? No? Clearly, then, you have not seen his 1991 classic magnum opus to all things WTF, The People Under the Stairs.
Oh, yes. I have been waiting to reach this film in Craven’s oeuvre. And while a couple of films that I held in fond remembrance didn’t really survive the light of reality that my re-watching shone upon them (sorry, Kristy,Bill, and Mitch, but your movies did not hold up well at all), revisiting the Robesons and their freakish clan beneath the stairs did not disappoint.
For those needing a refresher: We start by meeting our protagonist, Poindexter “Fool” Williams, who lives in the L.A. projects with his mom and sister and his sister’s kids. His mother has cancer but barely enough money to pay their rent…which doesn’t matter at this point anyway, because the landlord of Fool’s building has evicted them. Fool’s sister’s boyfriend decides to draft Fool on a…fool’s errand to rob the landlord of a rumored coin collection as a means of helping Fool and taking back some of what the landlord has been taking from the tenants he is summarily evicting from all his properties.
Once Fool is inside that house, though. Oh, that’s when Craven just lets it all go. The shit? It gets supremely real.
I feel as though this film was Craven finally returning to and accepting the fact that, for better or for worse, he was a master of the horror genre…while also introducing into his regimen even more of his sublime gallows humor as well as some incredible allegorical outlook on the state of affairs. Craven, who had made a career of examining the most uncomfortable truths about humanity, clearly decided to do this once more. However, the horror scene had shifted its dynamic away from the intense and inescapable realism of those late 70s films that Craven and his counterparts had made. As I wrote in my review of Shocker, shock had given way to schlock by this point. Making a film akin to Craven’s early offerings would have been a death knell to a story that Craven obviously felt was important enough to get out there. So, rather than fire his missive directly at viewers, Craven took it over the top.
WAY over the top.
He also had a great deal to say about the state of affairs at that moment in our history. We were coming out of the era of divided decadence known as the 80s, where the Haves ruled the realm while the Have Nots slipped further and further into the class chasm that Reaganomics helped excavate. We’d just gone through the Persian Gulf War at the beginning of the year this movie released. In fact, if you check out the televisions running throughout the house that Fool breaks into, you’ll notice they’re showing footage from that war. Oh, and did I mention that the house belonged to two supremely demented and disturbingly inbred people who are hoarding loads of money and harboring even more secrets within the confines of their home? But we’ll get further into that in a moment.
Oh, and clearly Craven found the public’s televised participation in warfare horrific in its own right. This was the second movie in a row into which he integrated televised images of war and destruction. Whereas this film made it part of the background motif, Shocker brought it well and truly to the forefront, with Craven having his protagonist and antagonist fight each other while running through some of the more infamous images broadcast from war zones. I’ve talked about this before in various places, but the televised impact of the brutality of war helped to shift the focus of horror in many ways. While for some horror makers, the actual participation in war was what shaped their ideas, others like Craven only witnessed what was shown to them via news reports from the front lines. And that was more than enough.
Now, back to our review, already in progress.
Yes, there are elements of class warfare and racial warfare. The Robesons are White while the majority of their tenants are…not. The Robesons are extremely wealthy. The kind of wealthy that exists for those privileged enough to be born into the (debatably) right family. They inherited wealth and property and the ability to abuse those with less than them because of this privilege. They also inherited some supremely deteriorated genes thanks to the family clearly not allowing outside guests into their gene pool.
Yeah, the Robesons, who refer to each other as “Mommy” and “Daddy” are actually siblings. And apparently years (decades?) of inbreeding have left them unable to have their own kids (evidence that there might actually be a deity out there, balancing out the universe), so they steal children and try to mold them into suitable heirs. Unfortunately, that obstinate vein of free will that humans possess and cherish so deeply leads to inevitable failure with nearly all the kidnapped kids. So what do the Robesons do? First, they eradicate the “problem” areas (Have a habit of talking back? We’ll just lop off that pesky tongue!). Next, they lock the children up.
Under. The. Stairs.
This ain’t no Harry Potter fairy tale, kiddies. And this ain’t no drill. There are literally people under the stairs. Placed there by this dynamic duo of debauchery:
Genre fans will instantly recognize these two as Ed and Nadine Hurley, those crazy kids-in-love from Twin Peaks. Well, maybe not instantly…unless Nadine were wearing her eye patch and working on her completely silent drape-runners.
[Loba Tangent: Damn, I need to re-watch that show.]
Craven specifically sought out actors Everett McGill and Wendy Robie to play Daddy and Mommy. He could not have been more on-point, as both McGill and Robie brought with them the quirky chemistry they had developed together during their tenure in Twin Peaks as well as a frenetic, unstable energy and an ability to devour the scenery around them in massive, heaving gulps. Simply put, it’s primarily because of McGill and Robie that Craven’s story played with the level of success that it did. Not to say, of course, that the rest of the cast didn’t bring their A games as well. Brandon Adams was wonderfully cast as Fool, it was great getting to see an early era Ving Rhames, A.J. Langer brought a certain degree if discomfiting fragility to her role as Alice, Sean Whalen amused as Roach (although I wonder how this would have played out had Hilary Swank won the role instead), and it was fun to see Craven pilfer from an NOES sequel for Kelly Jo Minter.
Still, McGill and Robie. Those two relinquished all pretense for their roles in this movie and the end result was magic. In fact, I would rank The People Under the Stairs as one of Craven’s best offerings to the horror altar, thanks in large part to their delivery of his story to audiences. Solid insanity, every step of the way. May they burn in hell. Forever and ever in hell.
And while their performances are almost beyond absurdist, there always is a level of fear and danger to their characters’ actions that keep them rooted to the truth that these two are the villains of the day for more than just horror-related reasons. They are what is wrong, not just with the deteriorating neighborhoods surrounding their gated, secured home, but with everywhere and everything. Craven’s commentary? IMHO, it’s that the greed and deranged decadence of the preceding decade had deepened the class and race divides to an unbelievable level. No, the wealthy were not eating their victims or getting away with debaucheries that would make Buffalo Bill blush, but they were getting away with a certain degree of disconnectedness to what the rest of the nation was enduring. Craven’s Mommy and Daddy epitomized the dearth of sympathy that swelled within the hearts of those who had no idea what it was like outside their enclave of entitlement.
Sadly, this all still sounds disturbingly familiar…perhaps even more so now.
Mommy and Daddy might have been satirically unhinged, but not by much. Neither possessed compassion for those with lesser means. They instead viewed them as threats to be contained or eliminated. Out of sight, out of mind. They hoarded their wealth and cared only about acquiring more…simply for the purpose of having it. Not spending it. Not sharing it. Just keeping it locked away. They behaved with utter assumed impunity, which local police reinforced simply by reason that these were well-established, upstanding (read: wealthy and White) members of the community; and don’t forget that Daddy oozed a sexual predatory nature that left no doubt that young Alice was most assuredly not safe in Wonderland.
With this film, Craven was castigating the upper classes for their lack of compassion while reminding the rest of us that things would only change if we became more aware, stopped turning a blind eye to one group or judging another because of appearances and assumptions. Neither is a true bellwether. Craven’s talent in getting this message across with these characters was in being able to make us laugh at their behaviors up front, but to cringe as the reality of their existence and actions settled into our brains. These were deplorable monsters, made that much worse by their attempts to hide their insatiable deviance from an outside world that, honestly, wasn’t really trying all that hard to spot it because of their assumed upstanding positions in the community.
Conversely, young Fool proved his merit by returning to the house he barely escaped, to save Alice and the other children hidden within, thus tipping all assumptions right on their ass. And that moment when Mommy gets ready to launch a racially explicit invective against Fool’s family, who have come to find him and help him, and is instead forced to face the residents she and Daddy were summarily sticking it to on a regular basis? That’s such the perfect encapsulation of Craven’s wish to force a similar face-to-face between the wealthy and those they have disenfranchised. And her subsequent “eat the rich” moment would have made Steven Tyler so very proud.
It had been a slow slope downward in Craven’s oeuvre since A Nightmare on Elm Street, with Craven wanting to explore other cinematic genres and fighting unsuccessfully against a tide of consensus from critics, production companies, and fans alike to keep him locked into horror. However, I truly believe that this film was a successful return for him to that insightful prowess into the human condition that put him down the horror path in the first place. I’ve also realized that I don’t yet own this film. Thank you, Cravenous, for bringing this to my attention so that I can rectify it post-haste.
[Loba Apology: I nearly left this movie out of my Cravenous reviews. I honestly don’t know what happened. I guess I got so excited about getting closer to The People Under the Stairs that I lost my focus. Oversight rectified. You’re welcome.]
Sorry for the miniature nature of the poster art for this film, but this was all I could find. With as misogynistic as the imagery is on the artwork, though, I’m kind of okay with this being the largest version I could find. Also, that’s pretty risque for a made-for-television film, eh?
That’s right, after the three-in-a-row lackluster performance of Wes Craven’s theatrical offerings, he decided to head back to television. Maybe he thought he could find his mojo there. Maybe he enjoyed working on those Twilight Zone episodes so much that he wanted to recapture some of that. Or maybe he just wanted a break from being bullied and berated by critics, producers, and fans. He wanted something easy. A palate cleanser, so to speak.
Whatever the reason, we ended up with 1990’s MFTV movie Night Visions. I almost didn’t end up reviewing this film, as it’s unavailable for rent anywhere I looked. However, as luck would have it, someone has posted it to YouTube. Oh the lengths I’m willing to go for a review series.
The bonus we get with this film is that not only did Craven direct and produce it, he also co-wrote it with Thomas Baum. Baum, by the way, was quite prevalent as a screenplay writer back in the day, writing The Manhattan Project, several episodes of Deadly Nightmares (originally called The Hitchhiker), and Nightmare Cafe for Craven. My OMG moment from his credits is that he wrote the screenplay for The Haunting of Sarah Hardy, which is one of my favorite Sela Ward movies and also can be found in its entirety, much to my girlish delight, on YouTube. Prophets bless YouTube.
But I digress. What else is new, right?
The most telling thing about this movie is that you instantly know two things: Who the killer is and what the purpose of the movie is. The former was painfully obvious to me and led me to believe that it was secondary to and in support of the primary purpose: This was meant to be an introduction to a television series. Given that Craven would try again in a couple of years to launch a different series with Nightmare Cafe, I think it’s safe to assume that he really was growing weary of making movies. He wanted to do something different. Maybe just produce for a little while, with the option of writing and/or directing if he chose to.
Unfortunately, this was not going to be the E-ticket that he wanted it to be. There were simply too many questions unanswered and not enough fresh intrigue about either of the main characters for this to incite the interest needed to convey it from MFTV movie to series. Even Craven’s directing was on-point but mostly predictable with this film. It just felt like a paint-by-numbers effort on his part and another indication that this was definitely a point in his career when he was struggling with what he wanted next.
That being said, this was still better than Chiller. I’m telling you, Chiller is going to end up being my least favorite of all his films, denizens. I can feel it.
Seriously, Night Visions was a good enough effort from everyone involved that I didn’t mind watching this film. I wouldn’t seek it out again, but I’m not going to slam people for the attempt. Especially James Remar, who seemed to be giving his all to what was unfortunately a predictable cop character. Loryn Locklin did her best, but her character was the less interesting of the two (which was strange since hers was the more damaged and more complex of the two leads; Craven again was showing his interest both in strong female characters and in the complex dynamics of mental turmoil). Also, it was great seeing Penny Johnson in another Craven film (remember, we haven’t seen her since her stint as Sue in The Hills Have Eyes Part 2) as well as Horace Pinker Mitch Pileggi, working on perfecting his hard-ass law enforcement official in charge of two rogue agents. Gee, wonder when that kind of expertise would ever work in his favor…
[Loba Tangent: I’ve skipped a couple of things from Wes Craven’s career that occurred between Deadly Friend and this film. First was the fact that New Line Cinema CEO Bob Shaye came to Craven and asked if he would come back to the Nightmare franchise for the third film, both to write and direct. Craven was still working on Deadly Friend, but was intrigued by the possibility of going back and redirecting the path of Freddy Krueger. He pitched the overarching idea of the “Dream Warriors,” stating in later interviews that he believed that a group would have been needed to defeat Krueger by that point because the dream demon’s strength had grown stronger from the souls he’d taken. Shaye and New Line liked that idea, and so Craven and Bruce Wagner wrote a script for the third film, which Shaye and New Line immediately put through a massive rewrite process with Chuck Russell (who was hired to direct the film) and Frank Darabonte. Russell and Darabonte rewrote probably 70 percent of the script that Craven and Wagner had penned (and which was, according to Russell, far darker and far more profane than either the original movie or the third film that ended up going to print), and Craven once more ended up on the outside looking in for his most famous original creation. Nightmare On Elm Street Films.com has more on this as well as Craven and Wagner’s original script plus the final version, if you’re interested.
Also during this time, Craven directed a few episodes of the rebooted Twilight Zone. I’ve probably seen them since I did watch the reboot of the series, but I honestly don’t remember anything from that series. Perhaps this will be something to look up for a future entry…]
There seems to be a theme starting at this point in Wes Craven’s career, and not the expected theme. Instead, we find ourselves faced with another movie that Craven didn’t set out to make as a straightforward horror movie. Instead, he wanted his 1988 film The Serpent and the Rainbow to be based more closely on the same-titled book on which Richard Maxwell and Adam Rodman based their screenplay. The book, written by Canadian anthropologist and ethnobotanist Wade Davis, details Davis’s experiences in Haiti while investigating the poisons used in making “zombies” during voodoo ceremonies. The book is far less titillating than the movie that ended up getting studio approval, playing out more like an academic journal piece than a horror movie (probably because it was more of an academic work than a gore fest).
Craven’s desire was to make a thoughtful drama/thriller with this film, something that I’m sure Davis wanted as well (he originally tried to sell the rights to his book with the caveat that it could only be turned into a movie if Peter Weir directed and Mel Gibson starred). Again, though, Craven was a gore master. Gore masters don’t get to choose “thoughtful” for their next project. We need scares, Craven! SCARES! Just look at the poster art for this film if you don’t believe me. Does this scream thoughtful to you? So scares arrived in the shooting schedule, appearing in somewhat discordant ways throughout what ended up being a stuttering, clumsily timed film. Oftentimes the more horror-heavy moments come across as shoe-horned in rather than organically planned, but they at least looked solid in comparison with the gore of Deadly Friend. Still, it’s depressing to realize that here was yet another film that Craven had such a different vision for but felt compelled to capitulate to the demands of those financing the film. I’m pretty sure by this point he must have been tempted to return to his more guerrilla early days as a filmmaker, scraping together funds in any way he could.
Don’t get me wrong: This is not a terrible film in its final form. It’s just not a great film. I hadn’t seen this movie in nearly 20 years, so my recent re-watch was a bit eye-opening as to how poorly paced the movie is, but also how great it could have been. It’s an interesting story in its own right, without all the forced, fake gore and scares. Also, I had forgotten that Bill Pullman sometimes fancies himself a serious actor. I’m so used to seeing him in silly or comedic roles; it was nice to be reminded that he also does drama and horror rather well.
I wish that Craven could have made the more serious film he initially intended to make with The Serpent and the Rainbow. Even more than Deadly Friend, which still holds pride of place as one of those fantastic horror movies that are fun to watch because of how bad/silly they are, I feel as though Craven could have made an exceptional thought piece with this film had he been given the chance.
As if we (and Craven) didn’t learn this lesson with Deadly Blessing, here comes another example of how outside involvement in one’s creative process is bad, mmmkay?
Funny that it would be with the second movie Craven directed with the word “Deadly” in the title (although the title was originally the same as the book on which the story is tenuously based). I speak, of course, of 1986’s Deadly Friend. Based on Diana Henstell’s novel Friend, Bruce Joel Rubin wrote the screenplay for this story about teenaged computer genius Paul and his robot BB, and how they moved to a new town, where Paul fell in love with pretty blonde Buffy the Vampire Slayer Sam, who ends up dead at the hands of her abusive father around the same time that Paul loses BB to a blast of rifle shot from the neighborhood hermit who was just trying to be hermit-y. So what does Paul do? Implants BB’s A.I. chip into Sam’s brain, of course. Hilarity…didn’t ensue. Just a whole lot of WTFery.
Oh, also, Rubin’s most famous other contributions to Hollywood are that he wrote Jacob’s Ladder and Ghost. That kind of lessens the sting of this train wreck. Although, again, this is all about the damage of outside demands.
So what happened with this movie? A whole lot of wrong. See, Warner Bros. was delighted to have snagged the director who had been riling up the horror crowd for more than a decade at this point and had just dropped Freddy Krueger on audiences to continuing success for New Line Cinema. They wanted to channel that power into their own pockets, which translated to they wanted Craven to deliver something as horrific or worse than A Nightmare on Elm Street into their movie collection (see the movie’s poster above, which claims that this movie was Craven’s “most horrifying creation,” which was kind of right, but for all the wrong reasons).
Craven, however, had a completely different idea. He was tiring already of being known only as a horror director. With this film, he was hoping to do something more like a sci-fi thriller/love story. Something sweet and intriguing, not disgusting and unsettling like most of his other movies. Neither Warner Bros. nor his devoted fans were feeling this. When he finished the first cut of this movie, which went through title changes from Friend to Artificial Intelligence to A.I. and finally to Deadly Friend, everyone but Craven was disappointed. Fans wanted gore. Warner Bros. wanted gore. Also, WB VP Mark Canton wanted an ending that makes absolutely zero sense but that ended up being the new ending because no one tells the emperor that he looks stupid naked.
Craven ended up going back in and adding a bunch of gore and a few minuscule scares throughout the film to satisfy the fan demand, and re-shot the ending to match the upper echelon request…and what we ended up with was what I would now categorize as the kind of movie that is enjoyable when you’re young, but that contains far too many plot holes and questionable decisions to continue to be enjoyable to an adult with a hyper-critical mind.
It actually surprised me in all the bad ways how much I couldn’t enjoy this movie anymore. Not really scary, not really sci-fi, extremely dated, and with tons of questionable choices, I at least can say that Deadly Friend is still fun to watch for two reasons: catching all the anachronisms and poor choices; and one of the greatest horror death scenes ever. Think basketball versus head.
Otherwise, I spent much of the movie, including the increasingly more ridiculous end half, asking all kinds of questions that detracted from the story immensely. Questions like why did Sam have to look like a raccoon after she died? Was there no budget for a decent make-up artist? Couldn’t Craven bring some of his crew from NOES to help him out on this film? After being spoiled by the makeup for Freddy Krueger, going to this movie’s idea of “dead” makeup was more than jarring. It was just silly. See Exhibit A:
Seriously, I could come up with a better corpse makeup than this. Then again, was she a corpse? Was the A.I. processor taking over the functions of a living entity? Or was it merely animating dead flesh. That was never really addressed, but something needed to be touched upon to explain this ridiculous makeup.
Then there is the question of Sam’s robotic movements. BB’s A.I. processor was having difficulty integrating into her brain. He wanted to keep moving the way he remembered moving. However, he had no trouble integrating enough to use her legs to walk even though he shouldn’t have known how to use legs. Why, then, couldn’t he just as quickly figure out how to use her hands the way they were meant to be used? Because the pincer hands were a little distracting. See Exhibit B:
She just walked around like that for most of the time that the character was “BB/Sam,” until it was no longer convenient but literally made no sense that she started to function normally toward the end only to…well, we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Back up to the fact that, in addition to moving like BB, Sam also sounded like BB. Which meant that Sam sounded like a demented Roger Rabbit, because Charles Fleischer made the annoying noises attributed to the robot. Why? She only possessed BB’s A.I. processor. Not his vocal chords. Of course, they never really specified how BB made any noise in the first place. Still, there should have been no way that his voice could have come from her larynx. That was just silly, and made all the sillier when she then started to sound like herself at the end.
Even sillier than this? The ending. Ugh, the ending. So Sam meets her second ending from a bullet from a deputy’s gun after causing a whole bunch of death and destruction. Paul, still unwilling to let go of probably the only girl to ever show any interest in him (and for some reason not in a cell of his own for stealing a dead body and re-animating it for this death trek through this once-quiet town), breaks into the morgue to steal Sam again, only to find that somehow a robot has grown beneath Sam’s human skin, breaking through at just the right moment to start choking Paul before the film mercifully finally fades to black. Oh, but not before we hear that Sam once more sounds like BB.
This seriously was one of the worst endings possible for this movie. I don’t care if Canton was one of Warner Bros.’ VPs at the time. This ending makes NO SENSE. How would a robot grow? And what happened to Sam’s bones and organs and blood? Paul stole her body from the hospital before she could be embalmed or prepped in any way for burial. Everything was still there. Only now it transformed into robot parts. Never mind the fact that, right before Sam is killed again, she’s starting to show signs of returning to a more normally functioning human, with normal human movement and normal human speech (or that, when she’s shot, she bleeds and we don’t hear any tin ricochet noise or something equally ridiculous). What was that all about? How could she be going full human only to then turn into a robot at the end?
Logic, you are completely MIA from this film.
Still, with all the terrible, I’d still rather watch this than Chiller ever again. I’m not sure that’s saying much, but it’s all I’ve got at this point.
I’m honestly surprised that Wes Craven agreed to tackle a sequel to his 1977 movie The Hills Have Eyes, especially considering how adamantly against an open ending he was for A Nightmare on Elm Street. Then again, even though The Hills Have Eyes Part 2 came out after Nightmare, Craven started working on it before that film released. Perhaps his experience with this film was partially what drove his disinterest in leading another of his films down the franchise route.
There’s not really a whole lot to say about this sequel. True to most 80s horror sequels, it takes the original idea, guts it of value and back-fills it instead with more gore and more gratuitous nudity. That’s pretty much this film in a nutshell. The only original characters to return for this film are Michael Berryman’s Pluto (who gets royally shafted in this film), Robert Houston’s Bobby, and Janus Blythe’s hill girl Ruby, who now goes by Rachel. Oh and Beast, the German shepherd, who is probably the most interesting character from the entire film.
The premise is that Bobby is still severely traumatized by the events of the first film and when he learns that the motocross team he trains and has developed a high-octane fuel for is going to compete in the desert near where those events happened, he freaks and can’t go. So his wife, Rachel/Ruby, takes his place and leads his unknowing team of dirtbiking dudes (and their girlfriends) off into the empty terrain of her former home. Of course, they break down and the remaining cannibal clan find them. You’d think the clan would be led by Pluto (who, by the by, shouldn’t have made it to the sequel since it seemed pretty clear from the first film that Beast killed Pluto, but whatever). Instead, the leader is the Reaper, the brother of Jupiter, the leader from the first movie.
Now, that’s where the plot really falls apart for me. This introduction of the Reaper is painfully convenient, especially considering how important it was to stress how horrible Jupiter was in the first film