Supernal Dreams: Wes Craven on 'glorifying violence' in "Last House on the Left"
I’m quite sure the new re-make of Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left will immediately raise questions about whether we really needed to re-visit this violent revenge story. I was certainly never a fan of the original movie, which I found to be nearly unwatchable, mostly due to its amateurish acting and camerawork, rather than for any of the graphic violence it depicted. In fact I was rather leery about checking out the new remake. However, I finally decided to go see it and was frankly pleasantly surprised at how well the Wes Craven produced remake has turned out. It is actually quite a stylish and suspenseful little movie that has far better acting and photography than the original — which as Craven notes, was his first movie and was made for only $100,000 back in 1972. In any case, it already seems to be generating more comments here at CFQ than any film in recent memory.
Does that mean that the remake will once again tap into the zeitgeist? I think it very probably will, because as Steve notes in his brief interview with Wes Craven, conditions somewhat mirror the unsettled times of the first film. Only now they are actually far worse. The current economic crisis continues to throw millions of people out of work and, understandably, this has many people very upset and bitter. They want to know why this is happening and presumably wish to blame someone. The most obvious person to vent their rage against, whether fairly or not, is the man who has been in charge of the government for the last 8 years, George W. Bush. Through either incompetence or corruption, our “elected” leaders in Washington have through their lack of action brought America to its worst financial crisis since the great depression.
Ironically, after the stock market crash in 1929 and the ensuing depression, horror cinema rose to the very pinnacle of artistic success. So while there may have been a great depression in the country, from 1929 until 1936 horror films enjoyed their golden age. Could such a renaissance be a by-product of our current economic malaise?
Who knows? In any case, this new version of The Last House on the Left is directed by Dennis Iliadis, a talented young Greek who explains, “This film is based on a very archetypal and primal story, which is a great foundation. I wanted to keep all the shock value and the power of Wes’s film but develop the story in my own way.”
Iliadis also realized that working closely with his actors would be a key, since they would be required to do extremely violent scenes. “You must discover the characters with the actors,” says Iliadis. “We rehearsed for a month-and-a-half on my first film, Hardcore. We got to a place where we could shoot very difficult scenes very quickly, because we had developed the characters in rehearsal. All the extreme scenes came out naturally after that.”
As a result, the remake can easily be seen as a powerful statement about violence and revenge in today’s society, where just a few days ago 10 people where shot dead by a crazed psychopath in Alabama, for no apparent reason. Thus, this new remake might provide a much needed catharsis for the growing number of unemployed. Wes Craven expounded on some of these same themes when I talked to him for Cinefantastique back in 1999.
These first three paragraphs are taken from the movies press notes, wheren Craven talks about making the original film with producer Sean Cunningham:
WES CRAVEN: Last House on the Left was very much a product of its era. It was a time when all the rules were out the window, when everybody was trying to break the hold of censorship. We were all very anti-establishment at that time. The Vietnam War was going on, and the most powerful footage we saw was in actual documentary films of the war. In Last House, we set out to show violence the way we thought it really was and to show the dark underbelly of the Hollywood genre film. We consciously took all the B-movie conventions and stood them on their heads.
When Sean and I made The Last House on the Left, our attitude was that we were going to do this tiny little film, and it was only going to be shown in two or three theaters. Nobody was ever going to see it, and nobody was ever going to know we did it. So, we essentially said, “We’re going to show things that people have never seen before on a movie screen. We’ll pull out all the stops and just do whatever the hell we want.
Because the original had been produced on such a minuscule budget, there were many aspects of the story I simply couldn’t afford to explore. Fortunately, the new version has a much bigger budget, so we were able to greatly expand the production’s scope and take more time and care in shooting it.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: How do you feel about the possible danger of a brutal and violent movie (such as The Last House of the Left) inciting a copycat killer?
WES CRAVEN: I could conceive that there might be a copycat killing, where a killer who is already completely nuts, might use a movie as his format or pattern for a murder, but I think that person is going to kill anyway. I think art is more important than worrying about that. If you are going to look at any single instance of something causing a death, then you’d have to eliminate 80% of the things in our society. People have been killed with pencils. We’re killed all the time by cars and airplanes, but we don’t stop using them, because they’re important, and it’s a very small percentage of deaths. The number of people getting killed by a copycat act is infinitesimally small, yet it’s been blown out of all proportion by the media. I think the reason why, is that some people are interested in stopping the message, which is that there is madness in our society, there is violence that’s out of control and unexamined. That’s why certain people hate these horror films. They want us to sweep it under the carpet, and act like everything is Disneyland, and it isn’t. It’s just like they want to control rock lyrics, or rap music. They want to act like there aren’t those passions and rages out there. Well I’m sorry, but they are there. Part of the reason they’re there, is because a lot of people are leading lives that cause a lot of other people pain and rage. The George W. Bush’s of the world like their nice lily-white world, but they live isolated away in country club enclaves.
Horror films are really primal theater. You are dealing with imaginary characters that are representing other elements. When you look at a movie that way, you can get around the very parochial idea, where people say, “‘Oh my God, you’re depicting teenagers getting slaughtered, and you’re a horrible person.” No you’re not, you’re talking about modes of being, whether some people can cope with threats, or some are oblivious to it. A lot of people ask me how I can do films that are glorifying violence. I always turn that around and say, “It’s not glorifying violence. It’s a film about normal people facing violence, and they’re horrified by it, but they learn to triumph over it.” That’s what life is about, especially as a kid. Facing your fears. I always try to look at the positive aspect. I don’t think Freddy Krueger is just a man with knives on his fingers, but it’s talking about an element that either kills innocence or stupidity. In Hindu mythology there’s Shiva, which is the goddess of death and destruction, but they’re not talking about the specific symbol as a reality. It stands for something else.
I think there’s plenty that’s done in the genre that’s at a low level, but it also has the capacity to accept a heavy load of content. It’s like the story of Cain and Abel. It gets down to those very basic and simple elements that say so much about the human beast; both the good and the bad sides. It shows the worse that human beings can do to each other, but it also shows how courageous and strong humans can be in the face of adversity. The genre lends itself to both the horrific and the heroic, in a really great way. I’m just glad that I read the Greek myths and was steeped in The Bible when I was growing up, because it’s all a very similar kind of drama.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Do you recall confronting any specific childhood fear when you were growing up?
WES CRAVEN: Well, I remember growing up in very tough and dangerous neighborhoods. I came from a broken family, with a father who was a pretty scary man. I was raised in a very fundamentalist family with all that sort of hellfire and brimstone preaching. I think those kinds of things certainly affected me. I mean telling a little kid he’s going to burn in hell forever, that’s a pretty scary concept. There was a lot of talk of the Devil, spirits and all that kind of thing.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: One of the only ways children have to escape a bad situation is through dreams. So I imagine you had some vivid dreams as a child.
WES CRAVEN: Yes, I always had very powerful dreams and as a kid I would be wondering, “What is that world and how do I deal with it?” So I certainly found Surrealism and Dada to be very interesting art movements. I especially liked the way directors like Luis Bunuel would go in and out of a dream state. I think as a filmmaker, it was a niche that was very interesting to me, and somewhat unexploited.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Which reminds me of something Christopher Lee told me: “We all love to dream. We all love to escape.” And weren’t you actually hoping to use Christopher Lee in a movie?
WES CRAVEN: Yes, we wanted to use Christopher Lee in Swamp Thing, for the part Louis Jordan played, but he turned us down, because he didn’t want to turn into the monster at the end. He just always wanted to be himself, so that was the deal-breaker. He would have done it otherwise. It would have been fun to work with somebody so identified with genre films in Swamp Thing.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: After the first two Scream movies came out, there was a series of random high-school shootings and a renewed attack on Hollywood movies that dealt in extremely graphic violence. Did that make you re-think any aspects of the violence you were depicting when you made Scream 3?
WES CRAVEN: Not really. We looked at the script very carefully to begin with and asked ourselves if we thought if anyone was looking like they were making violence look cool, or anything like that. We certainly had a moment of introspection, but we felt the script was pretty clear about who the cool people were and who were the losers. We felt we were well within the boundaries of a good murder-mystery and there is nothing that is going to incite any riots in public places.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Of course, the wave of high school killings that took place were mostly done by disturbed kids who use an arsenal of guns. In real life nobody seems to get killed by big hunting knifes, which makes the Scream movies a bit more removed from everyday reality.
WES CRAVEN: It’s funny, too, that in the latest incident, when this guy walked into a Baptist church in Texas and killed 6 people with a gun, there wasn’t the slightest hint of him watching horror movies or anything like that. But nobody bothered to mention that. It’s only when somebody brings that up as an excuse, you know if somebody has a house full of horror movies, that then we’re charged with causing all these things.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Since everyone is always looking for the reason why these things happen, isn’t it possible they are simply the result of mentally disturbed people with a pent-up anger and rage inside of them?
WES CRAVEN: Yes, there’s always that anger and rage, and its difficult being a human being among many, many others, in a civilization with such discontent. But the fact is that this nation is also incredibly heavily armed. That has a lot to do with it and it is a time period that for certain groups of people suggests certain extreme measures and actions. People might think I’ve been slighted, so I’m going to take my vengeance. That’s something that people can fall into during these times.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Do you think stricter gun control laws would help?
WES CRAVEN: That’s a tricky question, because there are a huge amount of responsible gun owners that are being unfairly pressured by all of this. But certainly a gun is a thing that can be used to cause death and I think it should be licensed and people should be given access to guns only after checking-out and passing some sort of test. We do that with cars, which also can be lethal and nobody objects to that. I think what is so bizarre about this country is that guns are so easy to get, and there’s this whole tradition of gangsters and the outlaw being cool. As a result of that, we have the whole gang culture and rap culture where every kid has a gun and they use it completely indiscriminately. They don’t seem to care if they hit anyone else, whether it’s bystanders or children. That’s a very dangerous situation, and it seems to me you’re not going to eliminate guns from this culture, but a really stringent enforcement about crime laws involving guns would make a huge difference. But nobody’s really doing much about enforcing the laws that are on the books. People tend to do things they think they can get away with. By and large people commit all sorts of crimes in our culture and get relatively light sentences. If it was made to be a felony to be caught with an unlicensed gun, and you knew you were going to do jail time, I think a lot of people would think twice about doing that. But guns are out there and people do not give up their guns. Gun owners are proud of their guns and like them. It also in a way stands for their independence. To give them up is to become vulnerable to the government taking over. There’s a lot of people who feel that to own a gun is to be empowered by the government, in a way that’s good, but that doesn’t give you right to use it against somebody who is not trying to harm you. So it seems to me, we should make the stipulation that you can own a gun, but if you use it to commit a crime, you will be put away in the slammer for a long, long time.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Nowadays, after all the horrible shootings that have taken place at schools like Columbine, Jonesboro, Springfield and Virginia Tech, I imagine many students are now much more fearful.
WES CRAVEN: Yes, I don’t feel kids have that same sense of invulnerability any more. It’s really scary now, and this killing in Texas happened when people were at a Church at a prayer meeting. How much more of an invasion of a sanctuary can you get than that? And it was apparently totally arbitrary. The guy just happened to get a flyer from the church earlier in the week.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: You have a Masters of Philosophy degree from John Hopkins University and early in you career you were a teacher. What subjects did you teach?
WES CRAVEN: I taught humanities, which was a survey of western civilization, art and literature. I also taught freshman English, creative writing and a course in modern drama.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: A lot of English teachers hope to write a novel, but usually don’t get a publisher.
WES CRAVEN: That was really my initial reason for going into teaching, so I would have time to write. From junior high school on I had been writing and after college I very much wanted to be a novelist, and was doing a lot of writing on evenings and weekends. So the fact that I’ve now written a novel, Fountain Society and it’s been published has been a longtime dream of mine.