*. A pre-title credit announces “A film by Wes Craven.” And yes, he was the writer-director. But wasn’t “A film by Wes Craven” four-flushing it? All that Craven had previously done was The Last House on the Left.
*. He must have known he was going somewhere. Or else maybe this was a movie that he was particularly proud of (even if he hadn’t been keen on making another horror picture, and only did it for the money). If so, that pride hasn’t taken a check. On the DVD commentary he remarks “I have not watched this for years and years and I’m struck by how strong it is. It’s pretty damn good.”
*. I think the only way it counts as pretty damn good is by taking into account how it was made on a shoestring. Thematically it’s very similar to Last House on the Left: the terribly decent family (they even get together for group-prayer sessions) that has to descend to savagery in order to defend itself. For some reason this idea fascinated Craven, and whatever else you want to say about it, it does register on a primal level. It pushes buttons.
*. Like a lot of very simple and not very original concepts though it allows for a great deal of further interpretation. Tracking its sources, it draws on various folk motifs, with Craven saying that the Sawney Bean story was the main inspiration. More than that though I think it’s basically riding on the coattails of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The group of normal people who, after stopping for gas (this would become an obligatory scene for many imitators, to the point where Roger Ebert would dub a whole sub-genre Wrong Gas Station movies), end up in a bad neck of the woods. The warning “Y’all stay on the main road now, you hear! Stay on the main road!” goes unheeded, as it would in horror films for decades to come. They are then hunted by a cannibalistic family of murderous degenerates.
*. Craven admitted to being influenced by Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and indeed wanted Gunnar Hansen, the actor who played Leatherface in that film, to be in this one. Hansen turned him down. But Robert Burns, production designer of Texas Chain Saw Massacre, signed on and apparently re-used some of the props he’d made for Tobe Hooper’s film. I also think the use of the broom may have been another nod or homage.
*. Aside from these sources of inspiration, near and far, I’m not sure there’s a whole lot more worth flagging. Some critics see the conflict between the two families as representing a kind of class struggle. Well, obviously the Carters are “bourgeois” in the sense that they own a nice trailer, go to school, and have jobs. And the feral family have none of these things. So when Jupiter snarls at the head of Big Bob Carter “You come out here and you stick your life in my face,” it’s a great line, reeking of semi-articulate class resentment. But there’s nothing else in the movie like it. Nor do the Carters seem much like colonial settlers, wiping out Native Americans or the Vietnamese. I’m not opposed to these kinds of readings, but I just don’t feel like there’s much basis for them here.
*. Here’s another critical point of view, from Kim Newman: “Craven’s obsessive theme is the depiction of antagonistic groups, usually parallel families . . . more or less representing the forces of destructive anarchy and normative repression. The only possible contact between the two is psychopathic violence, and Craven wittily has the carnage stem from each group’s desire to emulate its mortal enemy.” This is nicely expressed, but is it true? How are the Carters or the Collingwoods (the family in Last House on the Left) repressed? How does the violence result from the evil families wanting to emulate normal people, rather than just preying on them? Newman is a great critic, but he seems typical here of people wanting to read more into Craven than there is there.
*. The religious angle is also only slightly touched on. The aforementioned family prayer goes unanswered, and Bob ends up being crucified before becoming part of a communion dinner. It’s hard not to read that as some pretty serious sacrilege. But what of it? Craven getting back at his Baptist upbringing?
*. The marketing was effective. Craven didn’t like the title, which I’ll admit is a bit obscure, but out of the hundred possible titles lined up it tested well with audiences. Oddly enough, Craven also thought The Last House on the Left was a terrible title, but it tested well too, despite not having much to do with the movie. And he also preferred Scary Movie to Scream.
*. Sticking with the marketing front, more misleading was the glowering face of actor Michael Berryman (Pluto) on the film poster. Definitely iconic, but Pluto is not the main villain in the movie and indeed is played as a bit of a goofball. But Jupiter and Mars didn’t have such great faces.
*. You have to feel for Berryman. Along with a long list of other health issues he was born without sweat glands, so filming in 49-degree Celsius temperatures was a real trial. But it paid off, as he’s probably the one character in the movie everyone remembers.
*. Who else is here? Dee Wallace is Brenda. At the time she was on her way to becoming a scream queen (she’d go on to appear in The Howling, Critters, and the belated sequel Critters Attack!). Probably best known for her turn in E.T. All I can say is that I’m glad we were spared more screaming. Brenda’s screaming fit at the end of this movie is hard to endure. This was only Wallace’s second movie and I wonder if anyone would have seen her in it and thought she’d go on to have such a long, productive career.
*. I don’t think it’s a good movie at all. It isn’t scary. It has a cheap, made-for-TV look to it that I hated (which is weird given how much I like the work Burns did on Texas Chain Saw Massacre). It’s surprisingly tame when it comes to showing any actual violence. The threatened baby is kind of edgy, but it’s only threatened (Craven had wanted to kill it until the cast rebelled). There’s a basic idiot plot. The dog is actually a lot smarter than the Carters, at least until we get to the ridiculous Wile E. Coyote trick that Brenda and Bobby MacGyver-up to catch Jupiter.
*. That said, looking over the notes I made on this movie a few years ago, I think I liked it a bit better this time. I still find it raw and dumb and not well turned out, though the grounding in primal fears and folktales pays off. But when the great wave of twenty-first century resets or remakes of the horror classics of this period hit, I have to say that Alexandre Aja’s 2006 Hills Have Eyes (produced by Craven) was one of the few that I found to be an improvement on the original. This movie may be a landmark, but it’s not one that you need to visit very often.