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Week of Wes: “THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT” / “THE HILLS HAVE EYES”

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Personally speaking, this writer feels that Wes Craven simply does not get enough credit for his versatility as a director. Many think that because several of his high-concept horror films were also notorious failures (sorry, VAMPIRE IN BROOKLYN and CURSED) that Craven is best known for being the savior of the slasher genre… twice. However, a mere look at his filmography can provide any fright fan with an ambitious, incredible filmography of truly different films: DEADLY BLESSING, THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS, SHOCKER, RED EYE; even the SCREAM quadrilogy feels different each entries’ cinematic voice.

Yet there’s no better example of Craven’s range as a director than to look at his final works while keeping in mind that Craven was once one of the hardest hitting directors working in independent cinema. While H.G. Lewis and George Romero shocked audiences earlier, the former indulged in camp to off-set his gore FX while Romero leaned a bit too heavy on the fantastic and theatrical in his early works. But Craven not only found a macabre marriage between horror and exploitation, but approached the films with an unwavering eye and realistic cinematography, creating cinema that was truly harrowing.

How harrowing, you ask? Well, one needs to not look further than THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, a film that was not only a commercial hit but also rocked the independent film scene, especially when the bans and censorship notices came pouring in from overseas. The film, which was originally intended on being partially pornographic (and I’m sure some horror fans would apply that term as is), brilliantly used sensational marketing to lure in audiences outside of the exploitation circle. While some praised the film as a legitimate work of art, others reacted with vehement hate, to the point that some audience members stole prints of the film for the sole purpose of destroying them so they could never be screened again.

All of that from the directorial debut of a man who didn’t really watch horror movies and would later go on to direct an inspirational PG-rated movie about Meryl Streep bringing the gift of music to an inner city school. The same man who would later go on to say “Horror films are not me, or they’re not all of me. They’re a very thin slice of me.”

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Yet Craven was surprisingly protective of LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, even if he would be the first to admit that film went a bit too far with its graphic content. Craven would defend the film’s merits and social commentary ad nauseum for the next 40+ years, and even made sure to shepherd the 2009 remake of the film into equally nasty, disturbing territory, although that one had an added studio polish in a post-torture porn Hollywood. And of course, Craven rode the wave of success from LAST HOUSE to direct THE HILLS HAVE EYES, another film that established Craven as a horror provocateur.

While THE HILLS HAVE EYES was not quite as controversial, the film still received a fair share of heat from the masses as well as the MPAA. Multiple scenes of the film were trimmed or cut to get an R-rating after a poor X-rated run resigned the film to porn houses, and even that didn’t save the audiences from watching cannibalism and shocking murder. Of course, the film would take on new life in its R-rated cut, and launched the career of Michael Berryman who would parlay the role into iconic horror territory. However, THE HILLS HAVE EYES’ legacy isn’t quite in the same light as LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, as Craven returned for a sequel he would later disown and the property remained dormant until a 2006 remake from horror auteur Alex Aja as his Hollywood debut.

In the bigger picture, these films laid down the visceral groundwork for Craven’s career, and in terms of HILLS HAVE EYES, would do for deserts and campgrounds what JAWS did for the ocean. But Craven knew he had greater, more imaginative stories to tell, and ones that didn’t quite require such grim bleakness as well. And ultimately, even their success made it difficult for Craven to parlay his talents into the studio system, eventually making 2 made-for-TV movies, a critical and commercial failure (DEADLY BLESSING) and a mildly-received DC Comic Book adaptation (SWAMP THING) before eventually cementing his legacy with a NIGHTMARE.

Yet it’s effortlessly interesting to think how different Craven’s legacy would be had New Line never gambled with NIGHTMARE. Would we have seen Craven as a king of shock, more or less a gritty horror equivalent to the likes of John Water? Would we have seen Craven as a master of horror even at all, considering those films were much closer to exploitation and many exploitation directors of the time died penniless and forgotten? Or would Craven had brought the same fearless aesthetics to the studio system in one way or another, perhaps in a time after the jaw-dropping work of David Cronenberg and Clive Barker? No one knows, but what we do know is that throughout the ’70s, there was nary a filmmaker as visceral or transgressive as Wes Craven, and we know that because we still watch THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT and THE HILLS HAVE EYES through our fingers to this day.

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About the author
Ken W. Hanley
Ken W. Hanley is the Managing Web Editor for FANGORIA and STARLOG, as well as the former Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine and a contributing writer to YouWonCannes.com. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he received an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on screenplays, his debut novel "THE I IN EVIL", and various other projects, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.
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