Cravenous: Music of the Heart


There’s a funny little throw-away line from Scream 3, spoken by the director of movie-within-a-movie Stab 3, where he complains that he had to direct a horror film before he could do the classic love story that he wanted to direct. Even though Music of the Heart comes before Scream 3 in Cravenous chronology (and it’s not really a “classic love story”), I mention the line because the exact opposite is how Wes Craven ended up getting this film to direct. He basically went to Dimension and the Weinsteins and said that he would direct the third Scream film only if they gave him the opportunity to direct something non-horror.

When you have a director of Craven’s horror-cred caliber saying he’ll come back to direct another movie for one of the biggest financial boons in your production company’s history? And one that he helped to make so financially feasible in the first place? You kind of do what he asks. And that is how the Master of Horror ended up not only finally getting his wish to direct outside of the genre that he had helped redefine but also getting to direct Meryl Streep to her twelfth Oscar nomination in this decidedly non-horror movie.

Quick bits of trivia first: The film is based on the true story of violinist and music teacher Roberta Guaspari and her efforts to teach violin lessons to inner-city children in Harlem. The movie came on the heels of, and was basically a remake of a 1995 documentary on Guaspari and her students, Small Wonders. Craven saw the original documentary and found it so poignant that he wanted to make a film of it. Interestingly/sadly enough, at the time that he started making the film, Guaspari’s program had been yet again defunded. This film apparently helped reinstate funding through the attention it brought the program. Pamela Gray wrote the screenplay for the movie, which was originally titled 50 Violins. Gray hasn’t written a lot, but I would like to point out for my own geeky delight that she wrote the episode “Violations” for Star Trek: The Next Generation. It’s a rather dark episode, but it also prominently features Dr. Crusher, so thank you for that.

Believe it or not, Meryl Streep was not the original choice to portray Roberta Guaspari. Madonna was originally supposed to play her. However, she left the project over “creative differences” with Craven. At the time, she was said to be moving on to topline with Goldie Hawn in the movie version of Chicago.

[Loba Tangent: Sweet baby meat Jesus, I’m so glad that this version of Chicago didn’t happen.]

Streep agreed to pick up the role abandoned by Madonna and went on to learn how to play the violin for the movie. She actually learned to play Bach’s Concerto for 2 Violins for the film. And this is part and parcel of why Meryl Streep has been nominated for an Oscar 19 times.

The rest of the cast is familiar but relatively B-List in comparison with Streep, which is by no means a dig against any of the rest of the cast. Practically all of Modern Hollywood is going to come up B-List against Streep. The only one close to Streep’s level in this film is Angela Bassett, returning for her third role in a Craven production. Other familiar faces are Cloris Leachman, Aidan Quinn, Gloria Estefan (in her first acting role), Jane Leeves, Jay O. Sanders, Kieran Culkin, and violinists Isaac Stern, Itzhak Perlman, and Arnold Steinhardt playing themselves (along with a cavalcade of several other famous violinists and fiddle players for the big concert scene at the end). As for the children in the film, many of them were actual students from Guaspari’s classes. When I realized this, I was a lot more lenient on some of their stilted performances. Child actors are fine, but it’s something special to have kids from the actual story, who know how to play the violin and give pretty decent acting performances, all things considered.

I have to admit that when the film first started, I was struck and disturbed by its somewhat made-for-Lifetime feel. For a movie about beautiful music, the beginning refrain struck several sour chords with me. It took a good half hour for me to finally settle into the film’s groove, only to find that Craven and Gray switched chords in mid-performance. The movie is separated into two distinct parts: A first part that lays the foundation for the second, and IMHO, superior part of the film. The first part gets better and has small strengths and surprising moments of compassion and beauty, but the second half of the film is its strength. It’s also quite documentary-esque, speaking back to the origins of this film. Roger Ebert also noted this change in style in his review of this film, which was quite lovely, actually. My favorite part is what he said of Craven’s role as this film’s director:

The movie was directed by Wes Craven, known for his horror films (“Scream,” “A Nightmare on Elm Street”), and he may seem like a strange choice for this material. Not at all. He is in fact a cultured man who broke into movies doing horror and got stuck in the genre; he’s been trying to fight his way free from studio typecasting for 20 years, and this movie shows that he can get Meryl Streep to Carnegie Hall just as easily as a phantom to the opera.

Craven does, indeed, prove his worth as a director beyond the realms of the phantasmagorical and horrific. His style is direct, keenly focused on telling the story without ostentation, but instead with honesty and simplicity. The tale itself is wrought with enough emotion and pathos, and Craven had the wisdom to let that shine through on its own, without any additional embellishment. He also clearly had the wisdom to let his star shine on her own, knowing that Streep would bring truth to her role in her own inimitable way. In interviews about the film, Streep confessed that she had never seen any of Craven’s other films, and Craven stated that he had to have a “rather lengthy erudite conversation” with Streep to convince her to consider the role (and also that Streep called him out for the fact that her daughters had watched Scream and were afraid to sleep in their house for several nights…personally, I think that should have worked in Craven’s favor, speaking to his acumen as a master of his trade).

The bottom line is that this movie was a glitch in several regards. Die-hard Craven fans typically ignore it because it’s not horror. Non-horror fans typically overlook it because Craven’s name was so synonymous with horror that they must form immediate negative opinions about the film that ultimately are quite untrue. Yes, the movie tipples into saccharine territory now and again. Yes, it proves stereotypical at times, but it also moves beyond the stereotyping to showcase the diversity of life in the Harlem neighborhoods in which this tale occurs. Craven started his own career in the heart of New York City after he divorced his first wife and pursued his dream of becoming a director. He knew that beneath the gritty facade of the city, there was a depth of diverse beauty to be found if one looked closely enough. With Music of the Heart, Craven took us in for that deeper look and what he showed us was an unanticipated masterpiece.

Cravenous: Vampire in Brooklyn

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.

In addition, we see several actors who played parts in previous Craven films, including Wendy Robie, fresh from playing Mommy in The People Under the Stairs; Mitch Pileggi, who was Horace Pinker in Shocker; Zakes Mokae, who played Dr. Zeko in The Serpent and the Rainbow; Nick Corri, Rod from A Nightmare on Elm Street; and, even all the way back to Joanna Cassidy from Invitation to Hell!

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…