Repression Runs in the Family: The Early Films of Wes Craven - Dread Central
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Repression Runs in the Family: The Early Films of Wes Craven

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Before we get into the meat of this article (so to speak), it has to be said that it’s not 100% confirmed that Wes Craven is Abe Snake, the pseudonymous director of the 1975 porno film Angela, the Fireworks Woman. But he’s listed on IMDB as both the film’s writer and director, and Brenan Klein made a great case for Craven’s authorship over at Blumhouse.com: “Immediately,” he writes, “one of [Craven’s] his most common themes rises to the fore: the dark side of the American family unit.” The closest he came to admitting it, which is good enough for me, was in 2014 in an interview with Simon Abrams of the Village Voice, when he said with a kind of wink, “I might have directed [a porn film]. But apart from that one, I didn’t make any others.” So for the purposes of this article, we’re just going to assume that The Fireworks Woman is one of Craven’s films.

As others have pointed out, Craven’s upbringing has a lot to do with the themes that would later emerge in his cinematic work. His father died when Craven was three, but the man’s extreme anger left a deep impression on his son. And his mother, a strict Baptist, kept him under her thumb, reminding him that hell was waiting for him if he indulged in any of his baser instincts. So Craven saw firsthand the consequences of both expressing and repressing one’s animalistic instincts, and the damage that each extreme could cause. As a result, the characters in his first three movies fluctuate between these extremes.

The Last House on the Left (1972), an idea Craven admitted to lifting from Bergman’s Virgin Spring, begins and ends with characters who experience both extremes. The movie opens as Dr. John Collingwood (Richard Towers) discusses a local murder spree that he’s reading about in the newspaper and then asks his wife Estelle (Cynthia Carr), what’s for dinner. Here we have the suburban disconnect that Craven will explore off and on for the rest of his career. Suburbia is a place where violence is supposed to happen “out there” somewhere in the uncivilized wider world. Murder, the Collingwoods feel, will never come to their house, and they will never have a reason to commit murder themselves. Of course not. Right. Well, okay, but that all changes when the Collingwoods’ daughter Mari (Sandra Peabody) and her friend Phyllis (Lucy Grantham) go to a rock-n-roll concert and are abducted by the very gang that the good doctor had been reading about in the paper earlier. (There are a lot of weird, sometimes silly coincidences in this movie. A lot of Wes Craven’s charm comes from his being something of a brilliant hack.)

The group, consisting of three men and one woman take the girls to the woods (which, in another bizarre coincidence, happens to be near the Collingwoods’ quiet suburban house) where they’re tortured, raped, murdered, and their bodies abandoned. In another just-barely believable coincidence, the group is offered shelter for the night in the Collingwoods’ home. You might suspect where this is going. The Collingwoods, naturally, find out the identities of the people staying with them and when they discover their daughter’s corpse in the woods outside their house, they shed every hint of their middle class civility, something that once had seemed to shelter them from the outside world’s savagery, and become feral. A penis is bitten off, a throat is cut, a guy is goaded into shooting himself to death, and the good doctor hacks a man to death with a chainsaw. Well, now, that’s how you end a movie, eh?

Admittedly, the transition from repressed middle-class gentility to violent killers seems, well, the word abrupt puts it mildly, but Craven’s point is made. Though the Collingwoods’ phones aren’t working, the audience knows that the local police are on their way. But one gets the feeling that the police were far from the Collingwoods’ minds anyway. Their violence was the result of an overpowering impulse beyond their control. The movie suggests that if this kind of violence is latent in such genteel, civilized creatures such as the Collingwoods, it damn sure means that the rest of us are capable of going to such extremes. A scary thought, indeed. Or maybe not, depending on how you view violence as a solution to injustice, how much you really believe in an eye for an eye.

Angela, the Fireworks Woman (1975) deals with the same basic theme, but in a wholly different way. Well, as you might expect. Since this is porn. Hardcore porn. Naturally, the movie is mostly about sexual repression, though there is some violence, because this is Wes Craven we’re talking about.

We begin at a kind of Bacchanalian party with plenty of naked men and women frolicking bare-assed in the open air with Craven (yeah, he cast himself in his own porn movie) encouraging it all. He’s the devil, more or less, a strange supernatural presence that appears every now and then.

The main characters are Angela (Jennifer Jordan) and Peter (Eric Edwards). They’re siblings, but they’re also lovers. Very close family, I suppose. They have all sorts of sex with each other until Peter decides that what they’re doing is wrong (I mean, yeah…) and so he decides the only solution is to join the priesthood. (Okay, kind of extreme, but why not…) I guess if there’s no other way to avoid having sex with your sister, then the priesthood it is. So there you have your big, bold, repression dynamic.

For her part, Angela is perfectly fine with shedding social mores, seeing through the sometimes arbitrary nature of learned morality. She figures she likes having sex with her brother. What’s the big deal? So Angela spends the rest of the hour-long film moving from one sexual adventure to another while trying the entire time to get her brother to stop being such a fuddy-duddy and leave the priesthood so that he can have, like, all the sex with her. Along the way, she takes up with a BDSM couple, a swinger couple who enjoy fucking while they’re zonked out of their minds on acid, and gets raped.

The rape scene is so uncomfortable and weird that it pretty much gives away Craven’s authorship. A guy wants to rape Angela, but he gets hit over the head with a fish by another guy who takes Angela away and rapes her himself. This is a very dark scene, especially when you consider that it’s in a movie designed to arouse male viewers. Full penetration, a money shot, weird porno music. It’s as if Craven is daring his audience to like what they’re seeing. No doubt too many men did in fact like that scene.

This is all weird as shit, but it zeros in on the main point of the thing. Besides Peter, almost everyone else in the movie does what they want, indulging in their more base impulses no matter the damage that it causes. Though to be fair, only the rapist really hurts anyone in this film.

And in an ironic twist on the Hollywood happy ending, Peter eventually learns to embrace his true nature and he and his sister end up sailing off together, finally the happy couple they were meant to be. Yeah, even for a 70’s porn, Angela is weird.

So, then, onto The Hills Have Eyes (1977), Craven’s final movie of the 70’s. Here we have a (slightly) more nuanced view of repression and the consequences of giving into one’s instincts. I think it’s important to remember that while the family that gets attacked by the cannibal family are most certainly victims, they’re also intruders, invaders even. They’re warned away from the savagery that awaits them but go anyway, bringing a garish camping trailer, a tiny version of a suburban home on wheels. If getting stuck in the desert with a camper isn’t a metaphor for the attempt to tame savagery with civilization, then I don’t know what is.

As with Last House, Craven shows just how thin the veneer that separates so-called civilization from complete savagery is, and how little it takes to push ourselves to nearly unlimited acts of violence. It takes a lot for Bobby Carter (Robert Houston), his sister Brenda (Suze Lanier-Bramlett), and their brother-in-law Doug (Martin Speer) to resort to violence, but when they do, it comes out full bore.

Both Last House and Hills make the argument that sometimes, in order to save oneself or to make sure justice is served, violence is necessary. Craven is clearly not saying that violence makes people “no better” than the murderers and rapists they’re killing. Indeed, during the Hills director’s commentary, Craven constantly refers to the cannibal family as the “bad guys.” Likewise, Angela’s sexual liberation is in no way comparable to the man who mindlessly follows through in his desire to rape her. In this way, Craven does make the argument that liberation can be a positive thing if it has the effect of self-satisfaction without harming others or if it’s used in pursuit of justice.

The darker part of this point of view is its arbitrary nature. Whatever we think about people who break taboos or engage in vigilante violence, Craven argues that none of us are above such behavior, and everyone is capable of it. Violence is inevitable and repressed instincts will eventually manifest themselves with the proper stimulus. The best we can hope for is relatively positive results.

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New HEREDITARY Poster Morphs Into a Nightmare

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A few weeks back, we shared the weird as shit French poster for Hereditary starring Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, and Ann Dowd which will be hitting movie theaters across the country this June.

And speaking of The Scariest Movie Josh Has Ever Seen, today we have yet another freaky-ass poster to share with you guys. It features the film’s creepy kid seemingly morphing into Toni Collete’s creepy mother.

Subtle.

Check out the new poster to the right and then make sure to hit us up let us know what you think in the comments below or on FacebookTwitter, and/or Instagram!

Hereditary is written and directed by Ari Aster and stars Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Ann Dowd, Milly Shapiro, and Alex Wolff with Kevin Scott Frakes, Lars Knudsen, and Buddy Patrick producing. The film hits theaters nationwide on June 8th.

Synopsis:

When Ellen, the matriarch of the Graham family, passes away, her daughter’s family begins to unravel cryptic and increasingly terrifying secrets about their ancestry. The more they discover, the more they find themselves trying to outrun the sinister fate they seem to have inherited. Making his feature debut, writer-director Ari Aster unleashes a nightmare vision of a domestic breakdown that exhibits the craft and precision of a nascent auteur, transforming a familial tragedy into something ominous and deeply disquieting, and pushing the horror movie into chilling new terrain with its shattering portrait of heritage.

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Interview: Bear McCreary Showers Love on OINGO BOINGO on the Eve of Danny Elfman’s Birthday

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Fans of today’s best horror and sci-fi know the name Bear McCreary; the composer has built up an enviable resume working on popular shows like The Walking Dead and Battlestar Galactica and recent films like The Cloverfield Paradox and Happy Death Day.

Although he rarely gives interviews, we were able to snag Bear for a sit-down when he heard our main topic of conversation would be his idol, Danny Elfman (who turns 65 later this month). What transpired was more than can be absorbed in a single read, so we’ll be bringing you our conversation with Bear in 2 parts.

Read about Bear’s connections to the post-farewell reincarnation of Oingo Boingo and the roots of his appreciation for the music of Danny Elfman below. Come back next week to hear him weigh in on The Walking Dead’s dwindling viewership.


Danny Elfman

Dread Central: Let’s talk about our mutual love for Danny Elfman since his birthday is coming up on May 29th.

Bear McCreary: Where do you want to start?

DC: Are you an Oingo Boingo fan?

BM: [Long pause] Yes. That’s the short answer.

DC: I read your blog post where you said at age 10, you were watching a movie and as soon as you heard the score, you immediately knew it was done by Danny Elfman even before his name came up in the credits.

BM: That was the first time my mom looked at me and thought, “Who is this kid?”

DC: Did you already know Danny Elfman from Oingo Boingo or was your first introduction to him through movies?

BM: I found out about Danny through films; when I was a kid all I listened to were film scores. From age 5 until about age 15, I didn’t listen to pop music—at all. It was only when I found out that my favorite film composer had a rock band that I thought I would check them out. For a lot of people, Danny Elfman is their gateway from popular music to film music. For me it was the other way around: Through Danny Elfman’s film music, I found out about popular music. Once I got into Oingo Boingo, I started listening to Pink Floyd and Guns n Roses and Rage Against the Machine and Queen. I was like, “Oh wow! Popular music has a lot of great stuff!”. It all started with my discovery of Oingo Boingo (who I adore) which came from my appreciation of Danny’s film music.

DC: That’s exactly right. I’m from Southern California and Oingo Boingo were local legends in the 1980s, and it was my love of Oingo Boingo that led to my love of Danny Elfman’s film music. Danny Elfman has such a unique sound, it wasn’t long before I could instantly identify his film music too. What’s your favorite Oingo Boingo album?

BM: Man, Josh! That’s a tough one!

DC: I know!

BM: I don’t know that I can pick. Let me give you a few: What I always appreciate about Danny and Oingo Boingo is the way they explore new frontiers and new sounds. So there’s a number of gear-shifts in their output where we go from one gear to another, and those tend to be the records I really like. First of all, you have to start with Only a Lad which is where they’re transitioning from The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo and The Forbidden Zone, from being a weird performance art troupe in Venice Beach to being an actual rock band. There’s a lot in that record that’s pulled over from that more theatrical era but being shoved into this New Wave mentality.

I love Nothing to Fear, I love Good for Your Soul. Dead Man’s Party is another gear-shift for the band where they’re starting to explore some new sounds. For me, if I had to pick a favorite, I really might go with Dark at the End of the Tunnel or their final album, Boingo. This is probably because I got my first introduction to Danny Elfman through his film music, and those last two records, you could tell his film music was really influencing Oingo Boingo and not the other way around. I think there’s a maturity and sophistication and a narrative musicality in those two records that, for me, is super appealing.

It almost feels sacrilegious to say Dark at the End of the Tunnel is a better record than Good for Your Soul—I’m not saying that. I’m saying that for me personally, those last two Oingo Boingo records mean the most to me.

DC: I love your reverence for the band. I had no idea you were a true Oingo Boingo expert.

BM: Do you want me to blow your mind?

DC: Um—of course!

BM: Here’s something you don’t know about me: In 2005, Johnny “Vatos” Hernandez put the vast majority of Oingo Boingo together to do a concert. It was John Avila, Steve Bartek, Sluggo [Sam Phipps], Doug Lacy, and I was the MD; I did all the arrangements, I played keys. My brother [Brendan] sang lead vocals and so we reunited Oingo Boingo under the Johnny Vatos banner, and we did shows for 3 or 4 years in that configuration. We had strings and backing vocalists; my wife Raya [Yarbrough] was in there. And that ensemble is continuing today as The Johnny Vatos Oingo Boingo Dance Party. My brother is still the lead singer and they’re still playing a lot of my arrangements. And I worked with the Oingo Boingo guys when they played in Battlestar Galactica. They play on a lot of my film scores. Steve Bartek was a groomsman at my wedding. I’ve known these guys since I moved to LA; they’re my family.

Bear McCreary singing Jack’s Lament at the Greek Theater with the Johnny Vatos band in 2006

DC: Mind. Fucking. Blown. I was excited to interview you from the get-go, but I had no idea I’d be talking to a bona fide member of Oingo Boingo! This stuff isn’t on your Wikipedia page, man!

BM: Not only were Oingo Boingo a huge part of my life growing up, they are my family. I don’t know Danny that well, but Steve and Johnny and John and Sam and Doug: These are some of the closest people in my life and I talk to them all the time.

DC: Amazing.

BM: I’m a fan for sure, and all those guys influenced me immensely. In this post-1995 era, the band and associated musicians have all gone on to do their own things, but my brother and my wife and I have been able to be part of that post-farewell afterlife of Oingo Boingo. Steve Bartek told me that the first time he and Vatos and Avila played together since the last Oingo Boingo concert was when I reunited them to score a short film. I had met them all and was like, [nervous voice] “Will you play on my student film score?” They said “Sure” and from there, they did a few more scores on student films. So when Battlestar Galactica came up, it was my first job and I needed a guitar player. So I brought in Steve and brought in John and Johnny. And when I played the music of Battlestar Galactic in concert, Bartek, Vatos, and Avila all played on stage with me. So I’ve been on stage with these guys doing Oingo Boingo music and my own music.

DC: You said you were going to blow my mind and you did. Thank you!

BM: You’re welcome. That’s why when you asked, “Are you a fan of Oingo Boingo?” I had a feeling this would go well; I was like, “Where do I begin?”

Brendan McCreary, Bear McCreary, and Steve Bartek at an orchestral recording session for Battlestar Galactica

DC: With Danny Elfman’s birthday coming up, I think this discussion about Oingo Boingo and the band’s legacy will be really interesting for our readers.

BM: It’s interesting though because, despite the fact that I know the rest of the band very well, I don’t know Danny that well. I’ve met him a couple of times and he’s a sweet guy. But to me, Danny Elfman is probably a lot like what he is to you. He’s this mythic figure; he is the person who created all this music that I adore. And, I think for the purpose of honoring him, as opposed to talking about all this shit I’ve done with his friends, it’s important to know that Danny inspires me. Even to this day, when I’m writing music and I’m thinking about the music I loved.

Like, when I was doing A Cloverfield Paradox, I thought, “What kind of music would I have wanted to hear at age 15? What would have made me go, ‘Oh my God, that was amazing!’” And that’s what I want to write. And I think about Danny at these time, what he meant to me and still means to me and his inventiveness. I don’t think it can be overstated what a profound creative impact he’s had on me. I’d like to think I’m taking that energy and paying it forward.

DC: Hopefully he’ll read this and appreciate your appreciation.

BM: That would be nice, but at the same time, he’s inspired millions of people. I don’t think there’s anything special about me in that regard. He’s created such an incredible body of work spanning all these genres; and it’s like you said, you always recognize his sound. To me, that’s the ultimate sign of musical genius. Maybe more than just genius; it really gets into craftsmanship. This is a guy who’s worked really hard. And that makes me admire him more. There are lots of people in life who are really talented and can get by on talent alone, but Danny Elfman is talented and he works his ass off. Every few years he’s reinventing himself and trying something new. He strikes me as the kind person who isn’t satisfied doing things he’s already wildly successful at because he wants to do something challenging, you know what I mean?

I admire that. In many ways, I’ve modeled my career in that way. When I really established myself in television, especially science fiction television, that became a world that was available to me. And I think, taking a cue from Danny Elfman, I thought, “Okay, what else is there for me out there?” Because I want to challenge myself. I want to do something I’m not known for; I want to do something that people don’t associate with my name. Like when Good Will Hunting came out, that came out of nowhere; and in hindsight, the same can be said about the first Mission Impossible movie. These were scores that you would not think, at that time, would be something Danny Elfman would be doing. And he did. He redefined himself. And that’s the artist I want to be. I’d also throw in Jerry Goldsmith and Elmer Bernstein as examples of musicians who would constantly strive to do new things.

Check back next week for the conclusion of our interview with Bear McCreary.

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Saban Acquires BETWEEN WORLDS Starring Nicolas Cage

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Saban Films has acquired U.S. distribution rights to writer/director Maria Pulera’s supernatural thriller Between Worlds starring Nicolas Cage and is planning a day-and-date theatrical/VOD release.

Saban Films’ Bill Bromiley said, “Nic’s talent and star-power is unparalleled. Having worked with him on a number of films such as The Trust and USS: Indianapolis: Men of Courage, we’re thrilled to be re-teaming with him and bring this to our audiences.”

Between Worlds has been a true passion project for me and I am thrilled to partner with Saban for the theatrical release of my film in the US market,” commented Pulera, the film’s writer, director, and producer. “The story is an unusual approach to the traditional thriller but appeals to the wider audience and dives deep into the themes of family, love, and betrayal. Nicolas Cage, Franka Potente, and Penelope Mitchell give their all in a magnificent performance. I couldn’t be happier with the end result. I can’t wait to share this film with audiences around the world.”

Are you excited to check out this Nic Cage thriller? Make sure to hit us up and let us know what you think in the comments below or on Facebook, Twitter, and/or Instagram!

The film is written and directed by Maria Pulera and stars Nicolas Cage, Penelope Mitchell, Franka Potente, and Hopper Penn. Eric Banoun and David Hillary produced alongside Pulera via their company Rise Up, LLC.

Synopsis:

Between Worlds follows Joe (Cage), a down-on-his-luck truck driver haunted by the memory of his deceased wife and child. He meets Julie (Potente) a spiritually gifted woman who enlists Joe in a desperate effort to find the lost soul of her comatose daughter, Billie (Mitchell). But the spirit of Joe’s dead wife Mary proves stronger, possessing the young woman’s body and determined to settle her unfinished business with the living.

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