The Wes Craven Horror Collection:
Calling this three-movie package a 'horror collection' is extremely redundant, as far as Craven is concerned. Over his almost-40-year career, Music of the Heart is pretty much his sole non-horror effort. The three repackaged films collected on these 2 single-sided discs aren't even his most successful efforts, though they all have their charms. As with most triple-packs, there's a bad film, a good film, and a middling one - it's like some sort of mathematical constant. None of the features include extras of any kind, but at about 15 dollars retail, maybe five bucks a flick isn't such a bad deal - as long as you don't already own any of them.
The Serpent and The Rainbow is arguably one of Wes Craven's best films. Yes, I know he's done a few others: A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Hills Have Eyes and Scream spring to mind. But he's also directed or 'presented' a number of middling to rock-bottom affairs (see below, and movies like Cursed for example). Yet somehow Serpent seems an excellent blend of Craven's populist tendencies, mind-warping, dream-based terror, audience-friendly drama, and special-effects hucksterism. Arriving in 1988 - the apex of animatronics-and-latex spook shows - Craven's effort matches Bill Pullman's everyman likeability with xenophobic Haitian voodoo terror. Loosely based on a book of the same name, the hints of reality that form the backbone of this film complement Craven's genre mastery to provide fear a mass audience could get behind.
Pullman plays Dennis Alan, a researcher sent to Haiti to find a new, potent anesthetic for synthesizing, the vary potion used to turn people into zombies. Complicating matters is the brutal regime of 'Baby Doc' Duvalier, in particular Dargent Peytraud, (the terrifying Zakes Mokae) an executive of the Tonton Macoute, the paramilitary organization used to inspire terror and keep citizens in line. Peytraud also happens to be an evil Houngan - a high priest - who happens to enjoy zombifying folks to be his slaves. As Alan becomes more of a nuisance, Peytraud sets up more zombie action, with Alan as the target! Alan has a friend in good Houngan Lucien, (the excellent Paul Winfield) but will it be enough to save him from the underworld?
Having not read the book upon which this is based, I can't speak to how far it veers off course, but of course Craven has the perfect out in that most if not all otherworldly elements can be fobbed off on hallucinations. Corpse brides wander about, mummified hands streeettch out from cages, and large insects crawl from people's mouths, among other horrors. (The 1980s was a literal free-for-all as far as bugs coming out of mouths is concerned.) All of these things work remarkably well, as they're played without any of the snarkiness or self-reference with which Craven cursed the horror world. Voodoo mysticism delicately treads the line of third-world demonization, too, as Craven treats the subject, and Haiti's political troubles, with a steady hand. Among tense and disorienting scenes of zombie drugging and "I'm an American citizen" political paranoia is Mokae's performance of pure evil. Working with a face that fairly bleeds contempt, Mokae turns a lipless sneer into an object of terror.
Serpent doesn't exactly merit awards for diplomacy or documentary realism, but it takes those concepts just far enough in creating an atmosphere of tense realism that imbues Craven's macabre dream imagery with extra punch. It's a popcorn movie that really pleases.
Shocker baffles on multiple levels. Off the bat, there's the whole question of 'what the hell was everyone thinking'? Such a question is quickly followed by, 'why hasn't this movie spawned a cult-drinking-game phenomenon'? We may never know what Craven had in mind with Shocker, since the movie seems to have fallen off the map. It's the movie no one writes about, no one has seen, and no one even knows what it's about - except for the fact that the dude on the cover is getting juiced in the electric chair.
That dude of course is Mitch Pileggi, most widely known as taciturn Skinner from The X-Files. Herein he plays a drooling maniac psycho killer who's managed to wantonly slaughter dozens of entire families in the course of a few weeks, by using the old break-in-whenever-the-hell-you-want-and-chase-screaming-kids-around-for-as-long-as-it-takes method. Deep cover isn't his style, plus he has a limp. When finally captured by a dream-using psychic teen 20 or 30 minutes in to the movie (shades of A Nightmare On Elm Street) Pileggi gets a real charge out of the electric chair, which turns him into a being of pure evil energy, able to body-swap and travel around through people's televisions.
Oh yeah, it's that good. Somewhat sadly, there's not an ounce of real tension, suspense or fear to be found, but these things aren't exactly to be missed, especially since it's unclear whether Craven is directing a horror movie or a comedy. Pileggi's performance is boundless in its power to destroy scenery; it's like they offered him a drool-based bonus. Other perfs are equally gleeful in histrionics. This makes it seem completely natural when the history-obsessed killer and his hunter find themselves pulled into the TV, tumbling about in video-form through historical footage of the Vietnam War and whatnot. If you're thinking about Zelig mashed up with Sorority House Massacre you're on the right weird path. Shocker isn't close to being a good movie, it's spectacularly dunderheaded. As a fairly gory horror film it misses all the marks, while hitting far too many ridiculous ones. Even as a comedy it fails, but as an hilarious misfire ripe for group mocking it really satisfies.
The People Under The Stairs proves that even directors for whom lightning strikes twice spend a ton of time on the stormy golf course waving their 5 irons around in vain. You'd almost think this weird R-rated fairy tale was aimed at kids, if it weren't for all the cannibalism, sadomasochism and incest flying around. Nevertheless, pint-sized protagonists, a distinct Brothers Grimm setting, over-the-top performances and plenty of jokes certainly skew towards the 12-year-old demographic. Maybe that's why for director Wes Craven this entertaining cult-wannabe oddity was ultimately a flop.
A straight Saturday Morning Adventure plotline finds young tenement resident Fool forced into a robbery scheme in order to pay back rent to the standard evil slumlord. Oh yeah, Fool's mom has cancer, too, so when the friendly neighborhood bank robber enlists Fool to rob those selfsame landlords, it seems like a perfect way strike back at the man and save the mom as well. Yet, as with all noble robbery schemes, a shotgun-wielding maniac in a zippers-and-leather geek suit, and a bunch of cellar-dwelling mutants get in the way. Life is indeed complicated in Craven's world, but beyond tons of cinematic circumstantial transgressions it's probably not much of a question as to whether Fool will be able to enlist the help of the virginal trapped princess while shoving the evil witch stepmother into the oven, or thereabouts.
Yes, no one really knows what old Wes was thinking when concocting this brew - especially in matters concerning the heroic 'Daryl Hall Mutant' - but it's certain there are a few too many ingredients to make it gel. Elaborate set design, tense set-pieces and at least two wholly-committed whack-job performances - plus gross-out elements and barely concealed subtexts that make exploitation fans drool - mean The People Under The Stairs won't disappoint genre fans. (In fact, it stands up remarkably well to infrequent repeat viewings.) But since there's nowhere for any particular viewer to truly grab a hold - ghetto-centric-comedy-horror-fairy-tales-for-kids-and-adults tend to be on the disjointed side - this movie can never lead to a completely satisfying viewing experience.
All three films are presented in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen ratio, and all are about equal in appearance. Image details are acceptably sharp but not exactly super crisp, and all of the films show some grain, which just imparts a theater-going feel. Colors are all fairly rich and natural looking as well.
Shocker and The Serpent and the Rainbow come with Dolby Digital Stereo tracks, while The People Under The Stairs boasts a Dolby 2.1 mix. In general, all are acceptable, you'll have no problems discerning dialog, you won't be able to detect any distortion, and you won't even be troubled by overloud screams or shock sound effects.
Zero extras are presented in this three-pack, which comes in a standard sized keepcase with a flipper and slipcover. Wait, there is one 'extra', a 5 Dollar Candy Coupon which expires November 30th, 2009.
Bare bones, no-frills, how else can you describe this three-pack repackaging of some of Wes Craven's less notable efforts? The Serpent and the Rainbow is arguably the best film here, presenting a sincere blend of drama and Haitian horror. Shocker is ludicrous and zesty, good for cheap thrills and laughs, while The People Under The Stairs makes a more concerted (and thus more confusing) effort at blending humor and horror, with really weird results. If you just want to boost your movie library total on the cheap, and you don't already own any of these films, you may want to pick this up. Otherwise, Rent It for a Halloween triple-feature.
- Kurt Dahlke
~ More of Dahlke's DVD Talk reviews here at DVD Talk I'm not just a writer, I paint colorful, modern abstracts, too! Check them out here KurtDahlke.com