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Obscure Craven Night

13th Aug 04

And so it came to pass that Zombie Club devoted a long-overdue night to none other than Wes Craven, who, alongside John Carpenter and David Cronenberg, helped shape the horror genre from the 70’s onwards. We all know him for his career-reviving film Scream as well as the Freddie Krueger movies, but Craven also made lesser known films Swamp Thing (1982) and The People Under the Stairs (1991). Swamp Thing is a great adaptation of the DC Comics story starring the lusciously breasted, big haired Adrienne Barbeau and a man in a crap green rubber suit. The People Under the Stairs (TPUTS) is Craven’s stab at making a social comment, focusing on ethnic minorities in the ghetto and taking us on one hell of a roller-coaster ride. Could we go wrong tonight with this meaty double Wes Craven sandwich? Was the last Zombie Club at Rawshark’s Acton Pad going to deliver the goods?

Swamp Thing The People Under the Stairs 


Swamp Thing (1982)

Plot
A scientist spills green goo over himself, becomes a Swamp Hulk-Thing and saves Adrienne Barbeau (a lot).

Zomblee
Hey! It’s Ray Wise AKA Leyland Palmer from Twin Peaks (the first of the evening’s Twin Peaks connections!), the villain from Octopussy, David Hess from The Last House on the Left, and last but certainly not least – Adrienne Barbeau! Let’s cut to the chase. I wonder how many times Wes Craven actually said “and at that point, we’ll cut to the chase. Another chase. Then they can chase her over there and Swamp Thing can roar mightily and save her again! And…ACTION!”

I think what I’m trying to say here is that Swamp Thing is a chase movie – a lot of running through the swamps is taking place here, but that’s ok, because it is mostly Adrienne Barbeau getting chased. Taking into consideration the location, she falls into the water and generally gets wet quite often, so if the sight of a wet Barbeau running a lot sounds good, that’s because it IS. And if the idea of her bathing outdoors, completely topless, sounds like the thing I’ve only been able to imagine for a great many years, then…”Thank you, Mr. Craven. You will go down in history as the director who showed us Adrienne’s great barbeau’s”.

Errrrr…back to business. Once all the chasing is out of the way, the narrative knuckles down as ‘the plot thickens’ when Swamp Thing is captured by his nemesis Dr Arcane (Louis Jordan), who steals the formula to call his own. He soon realises that the formula does not have the same effect on everybody and when he ingests it be becomes a putrid mess of evil in an even worse monster costume than the Swamp Thing. “You can tell it’s a shit mask when the eyes don’t work” (Jim) – and he’s got a point. The thing is, it’s actually very easy just to enjoy the crap costumes for what they are – it’s a COMIC book adaptation made in 1981, so we have to give Craven some allowances here. Genre fans may be disappointed with Swamp Thing. It is not what has come to be expected of Craven. Hard to believe that he made Last House on the Left ten years prior to this piece of ‘light entertainment’.

This film has some amazing photography, but the pace is questionable, the quality of acting inconsistent, the dialogue pretty uninspired and the suits very rubber-looking. All in all, this film is a bit like Darkman crossed with The Incredible Swamp-Hulk. Among friends, this is good for laugh although I may run into trouble having enough patience to sit through this alone. Except for just one bit about halfway through…

“Like a brilliant chess player he anticipates every move.”

Jim
Darkman's a good comparison, as is the new Hulk movie, but another point of reference could easily be Romero and Carpenter's Creepshow. All these movies use intentionally melodramatic comic book cuts between segments, but Creepshow also has Barbeau (the Carpenter connection - weren't they married after The Fog and Escape from New York?) as the bitch wife who gets eaten by the weird monster under the stairs. Remember that? Cool movie.

Anyway, Adrienne Barbeau pretty much called the shots for me in this movie mainly because for once we had the kind of heroine that does what you shout at her to do. When the bad guys turn up we scream 'Smack the bastard!' and she does... 'Grab the gun and shoot the creep!' and she does... 'Hide the notebook!' no problem... 'Get your boobs out and bath in the swamp!' funny you should mention it... (Note - Adrienne Barbeau does indeed go topless in this movie and it's the only movie I can think of where she does. Zomblee, a life-long Barbeau worshipper, went suitably ballistic...)

So - tragic heroism, topless heroines, rubbish rubber monster masks - what more could you want? Swamp Thing is obviously well made and is a lot of fun, but is just that little bit too silly to be watched too often. And if like me you can't place the actor who plays Arcane then here it is - he's in Gigi, that famous 50s musical which is, err, one of my Mum's favourites...

"Save it for your wife..."

Rawshark
Knowing quite a bit about the Swamp Thing legend (especially Alan Moore's take on the ecological super-hero), I had been looking forward to seeing this film for absolutely ages. Craven, obviously wanting to try something different from his earlier visceral efforts (Hills have Eyes, Last House...), has still conjured up an enjoyable film with many great moments, but it still never quite hits the heights of his extreme genre efforts.

There's so much to enjoy in this film, from the opening 'comic-book' swipe film edits (betchya Ang Lee saw this flick before directing The Hulk), great production design, green goo (a la Re-animator) and of course Adrienne's swamp-bathe.

But also there is so much that is annoying. A boat chase drowns itself with over-use of cliche - (a slow motion flying boat crash stunt, slow motion hand grenade explosion, followed by, yes, you've guessed it, a slow motion triple boat crash explosion). The monster fight at the end is just ridiculous (although the Bruno-munchkin-man is a joy), and too often the actors don't really know what they're supposd to be doing there. Hess is wasted as a heavy who runs away at the first sign of danger, and his death scene (head squeezed until blood comes out of his mouth) is an unglorious end for the evil bastard of the two nasty House movies.

All in all, Swamp Thing is a perfectly enjoyable TV movie which suffers from being poorly cast (exception being Adrienne) and a lack of an intelligent script. Perfect sunday-afternoon no-brainer fun though...

"Does it Hurt?" "Only when I laugh."

Swamp Thing

Director
Wes Craven

Cast
Louis Jourdan
Adrienne Barbeau
Ray Wise
David Hess
Nicholas Worth
Don Knight
Al Ruban
Dick Durock

Rating
Zomblee
Jim
Rawshark

Runtime
91 mins

Available From

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Click on the icons above to purchase this title and support Eat My Brains!


The People Under the Stairs (1991)

Plot
A black kid called ‘Fool’ gets chased by the landlords from hell around a creepy house…but gets help from…The People Under the Stairs.

Zomblee
Ten years after Swamp Thing, Craven wrote and directed this gem. Opinions and views on this film are very strongly divided but its fair to say that the views of Zombie Club delegates were anything but divided. In fact it’s safe to say that we all loved TPUTS. I can’t believe people have issues with this film! What the hell do they want? It’s not like Craven was going to keep on churning out films as good as The Hills Have Eyes forever, just as John Carpenter wasn’t going to deliver more Halloweens, David Cronenberg more Scanners, etc… What Craven did was to discover the potential for comedy elements within the horror framework. This film revels in being OTT, from plot to acting and this is why it makes you laugh so much. Ever see a Rottweiler get punched in the face by the 12 year old kid it's chasing? You have now!

TPUTS delivered the evening’s second Wes Craven / Twin Peaks link too – remember Big Ed (Everitt McGill) and his crazy wife with the eye patch (Wendy Robie) in Twin Peaks? Well, here they are again, in all their glory, acting like they are a married couple until we actually find out later they’re supposed to be siblings. I wonder if they come as a package – “No way, Mr Craven, you don’t get one without the other – that’s the way it works. Can Wendy bring her eyepatch?” Their characters in this film are known simply as ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad’ and are truly, deeply and completely insane. They are what makes this film work for me. Everitt McGill is always a pleasure to watch, in any film, but he really goes for it here, shouting “Burn in Hell!” and variations thereof pretty much constantly as he rampages through the house, dressed head to toe in a rather wonderful gimp suit (which we all approved of) and shooting holes through walls. Pure madness. A great aspect of the plot is that this house is so impenetrable! Once you’re in, you’re REALLY in and can’t get out. The house in TPUTS is a character in itself, much like the Bates’ house in Psycho and the Hewitt house in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The passageways and boobytraps make for a kid’s ultimate funhouse, and I use the word ‘ultimate’ in its purest form, in that it would be a kid’s LAST funhouse, because only one kid is getting out of here, and that’s Fool.

Relentless in execution and innovative in style, Craven should still be making ‘small’ films like this. Extremely satisfying.

“Can’t get out. No-one ever has!”

Jim
Many would argue that glossy studio productions such as this one killed the independent horror genre in the early nineties and they might be right, but it's certainly not this movie's fault. By the late 80s nearly every horror to come out of the studio system was more of a horror-comedy so I see the problem, but do we blame 80s sensibilities, the done-to-death slasher genre or Sam Raimi for that? Personally, I think 'blame' is too strong a word - by this stage visceral hard-hitting horrors just weren't packing them into auditoriums any more and you have to move with the times to keep your head above water, especially in this business. That's exactly what Craven set out to do here, create an action horror comedy which really delivers, and he's succeeded

Mama and Papa's old house is cool (it being literally riddled with secret passages and all) and Papa's gimp suit is even cooler, but the real star of the show is Roach, the mute feral kid who lives in the walls and bares an uncanny resemblance to a young Bez (of Happy Mondays fame). The sequences of him being chased through the secret passages by a gimped-up shotgun-wielding Papa and his dog are worth the price of admission alone, and provide a lot of the over-the-top dark comedy moments. In fact, The People Under The Stairs contains some of the best manic steadicam-induced wall cavity chases since Evil Dead II - Craven and Raimi have always traded gags, usually by sneaking each other's posters into their movies, but I think this is the first time I've seen one's style directly mimic the other's. High praise indeed.

Keep your eyes open for the zombie hordes in the basement - there's a finale waiting to happen...

"You kids'll be the death of me!"

Rawshark
Wow! What a film. Ok, I'm slightly biased (I love every film that features a Rottweiler, especially one as good as this one), but there is so much imagination, innovation and pure enjoyment in this film, that is plainly and simply Craven's best-hidden secret.

There's so much to savour: an early appearance by Ving Rhames; great character names (who says Neo is the best cinema name ever - now way - it's gotta be Fool!), and a perfectly claustrophobic set-up that pretty much takes place in one location. The horror generally comes second to a 'Tex Avery' cartoon style of humour (albeit filtered through the minds of weirdoes), but then again there's always something very unsettling waiting just around the corner.

A lot of the unease is provided by 'Mom' and 'Dad', surely of two of the most despicable characters ever put on film, but they're sooo obviously cartoon characters that you just gotta go with it, even when they're gutting corpses, banishing their sons to the cellar and torturing their daughter (babe A. J. Langer was also in Carpenter's Escape from LA) in baths of boiling water. But they love their dog, so they can't be all that bad, surely.

Apart from the dog, 'Mom' and 'Dad', Fool, the zombies, and Roach, the real star of the film is the house itself, a fantastically labyrinthian collection of hidden corridors, collapsing staircases, sliding walls and trapdoors. Now I want a house like that!

TPUTS is very original, very funny (at times like an 18-Certificate Home Alone), very horrific and pure cult cinema at it's best. Go rent it, buy it, beg or steal it, and watch it again. Now. And keep your eye open for the Zombie who escapes at the end of the film. Pure class. Sequel please Mr Craven?

"I got'im, I got'im, I got'im, I got'im"

The People Under the Stairs

Director
Wes Craven

Cast
Brandon Quintin Adams
Everett McGill
Wendy Robie
A.J. Langer
Ving Rhames
Sean Whalen
Bill Cobbs
Kelly Jo Minter

Rating
Zomblee
Jim
Rawshark

Runtime
102 mins

Available From

Amazon UK
Amazon US
CD WOW

Click on the icons above to purchase this title and support Eat My Brains!


Conclusion
Obscure Craven Night went down well. Quality directors never go amiss in the undead haven that is Zombie Club. Perhaps the night should have been monickered Comic Book Craven Night instead of Obscure Craven Night? Swamp Thing kicked off the evening and was indeed an education in Craven's chance-taking approach. Cliches and bad scripting may abound, but at the end of the day, it did exactly what it said on the tin and little much else was really expected. In a word, fun.

The People Under the Stairs blew us away. It's Craven doing what he does best, i.e. working on a shoestring budget (like The Hills Have Eyes, Last House...) but this time employing a deft comic touch with crazily intense performances and some of the best one-liners ever. Everitt McGill is a man we don't see enough of. Seeing him again made me want to purchase Silver Bullet* again, then watch all the Twin Peaks episodes back to back, though I can't imagine he's EVER given a performance remotely like this one.

Most of Craven's oeuvre is a perfect combination of imperfections, but all in all, he's one of those guys who delivers and sometimes really makes up for his mistakes. Well done, Wesley. Now cast Everitt McGill in your next film please...

* in the time that elapsed between starting to write this conclusion and finishing it, I purchased Silver Bullet. Had to be done...


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