It’s hard to believe it’s been a year since horror master Wes Craven, best known as the father of the Nightmare On Elm Street and Scream franchises, passed away from brain cancer, leaving behind a hole the genre has yet to fill. Unlike contemporaries like John Carpenter or David Cronenberg, both of whom have distinct visual and thematic styles, Craven’s filmography is all over the place, from highs like Elm Street and the savage original Hills Have Eyes (set to be released in a special edition from Arrow on September 27) to lows like Deadly Friend and Cursed, both of which — not coincidentally — were marred by studio interference and reshoots. Fortunately, three of Craven’s more idiosyncratic films from a late-80’s/early-90’s spell at Universal — The Serpent And The Rainbow, Shocker, and The People Under The Stairs — have recently been released on definitive Blu-Ray editions from Scream Factory, Shout Factory’s horror imprint.
1988’s The Serpent And The Rainbow came at a precipitous time for Craven, who, despite having created the Nightmare On Elm Street franchise in 1984, hadn’t been able to recreate an iota of the success of that film — save for executive-producing and co-writing the third film, Dream Warriors — with TV work (including episodes of the 1985-era “Twilight Zone”) and duds like Deadly Friend and the ill-fated The Hills Have Eyes 2. The Serpent And The Rainbow, a horror film/political thriller set in Haiti — and based on a nonfiction book by Wade Davis — is work-for-hire, but it’s one of Craven’s strongest films, a movie both naturalistic and deeply expressionistic when it comes to the horror element. Starring Bill Pullman as an anthropologist sent to Haiti by a pharmaceutical company trying to investigate a drug reportedly used to create zombies — less the George Romero kind and more the paralyzed and mind-manipulated Caribbean kind — the movie has its share of supernatural jolts, particularly as things go south for Pullman as he runs afoul of paramilitary leader Zakes Mokae, but the horror comes more from the real-life terrors of Haiti and Mokae’s Ton-ton Macoute, enforcers who use cruelty and torture as a means of rule. Scream Factory’s recent release bests the old Universal DVD with a bright, colorful scan from the film’s interpositive that captures the heat and humidity of the region and a largely satisfying DTS stereo mix. Extras are a little slim: a partial commentary with Pullman that ends less than an hour into the run-time — Pullman leaves abruptly to head out for a shoot, making you question why this wasn’t scheduled for a different time — a half-hour making-of documentary with patchy contributions by Pullman, special effects artists Lance Anderson and David LeRoy Anderson and, via Skype (!), Wade Davis himself. A stills gallery, the effective theatrical trailer and a TV spot round out the disc.
A year later, Craven entered into business with Alice Cooper manager Shep Gordon’s Alive Films, the same company who helped finance John Carpenter’s Prince Of Darkness and They Live from the same period. The first film in this deal was 1989’s Shocker, a fun-if-slight serial killer thriller that unfortunately not only treads the same ground as Craven’s own Nightmare On Elm Street, but also contemporary rivals like Prison and The Horror Show, directed by Craven’s former partner Sean Cunningham, both of which center on inmates executed via the electric chair who are out for supernatural revenge. Shocker’s hook is that Horace Pinker (played with gusto by The X-Files’ Mitch Pileggi) is able to reenter the world of the living through the electrical grid— using, in the film’s most clever sequence, television transmissions to go after Peter Berg high-school athlete, who has a psychic connection to Pinker. Craven, who also wrote the script, has fun with Pinker and his methods of using electricity to take over the bodies of his victims, but the actual story is a bit of a slog, more a riff on slasher/serial killer conventions than something particularly groundbreaking or new. Fans of the film will be pleased by Scream Factory’s packed-to-the-gills Blu-Ray, featuring a largely impressive transfer and an immersive DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track that will fill your home theater with the snap, crackle pop of Pinker’s electrical self. The voluminous extras include a terrific audio commentary with Craven; another commentary track with cinematographer Jacques Haitkin (who shot Nightmare On Elm Street), producer Robert Engleman and composer William Goldstein; interviews with actress Cami Cooper, executive producer Shep Gordon (who admits he doesn’t like horror films), and a particularly animated Mitch Pileggi; a featurette on the use of music in the film; the film’s theatrical trailer, TV and radio spots; a vintage making-of; and storyboard and still galleries.
The People Under The Stairs was Craven’s last picture with Alive, whose deal with Universal expired after this, and it’s too bad, because this underrated thriller is one of Craven’s most effective films, working both as an effective nail-biter and as sly social commentary. Young Brandon Adams — later to be seen in The Mighty Ducks — plays “Fool” Williams, an inner-city youth whose family is being evicted by the Robesons, a creepy couple who live in a suburban home that hides an ugly secret— “Daddy” and “Mommy” Robeson (played with unhinged fury by Twin Peaks alums Everett McGill and Wendie Robie) keep a group of feral children they’ve snatched from the neighborhood to use as child labor hidden in their basement. Craven does a solid job walking the line between stomach-churning terror and David Lynch-style absurdity and, even when the film threatens to fall apart at the end — a lot of weirdness happens for weirdness’ sake — we still find ourselves grabbed by Craven’s satisfying refusal, unlike with the more conventional Shocker, to take the easy way out with the characters and their increasingly grim fates. Already out as a special edition in the UK by Arrow Films — complete with different extras — and a largely bare-bones release from Universal, Scream Factory’s release features a solid transfer (essentially the same one from the Universal disc) and effective DTS-MD Master Audio 5.1 and 2.0 mixes, with the 5.1 giving the material a stronger sense of atmosphere as we hear the sounds of the children inside the walls from the rear surround speakers. There are plenty of extras on hand, complete with an audio commentary by Craven moderated by disc producer Michael Felsher; a second commentary with actors Brandon Adams, A.J. Langer, Sean Whalen and Yan Burg; interviews with Wendy Robie, cinematographer Sandi Sissel, and special makeup effects artists Howard Berger, Robert Kurtzman and Greg Nicotero; behind the scenes footage; a 1991-era making-of featurette; the film’s original theatrical trailer and TV spots; and storyboards and a stills gallery.
Craven’s theatrical career next moved toward the mainstream with his reentry into the Elm Street franchise with the very meta Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, the awkward Eddie Murphy vampire comedy Vampire In Brooklyn, and Scream, which launched him into the stratosphere as horror’s elder statesman. It’s too bad Craven, a soft-spoken academic whose past jobs included being a humanities professor and a pornographic director (!), never got the broader respect that his contemporaries did. But even after one career set-back after another, he still pushed on, cutting deals to helm non-genre movies like the Meryl Streep drama Music Of The Heart while still churning out effective thrillers like Red Eye. We’re lucky that, even when the film industry occasionally broke Wes Craven on the rack, he pushed on and never gave up. He will be missed.