Judge Bill Gibron was shocked by the rainbows living under his stairs.
Our reviews of The People Under the Stairs (1991) (Blu-ray) Collector's Edition (published November 2nd, 2015), Shocker (published April 25th, 2001), and Shocker (1989) (Blu-ray) Collector's Edition (published October 28th, 2015) are also available.
Three times the terror. Three times the titles. Three times the tepidness.
Pity poor Wes Craven. After spending years in underground b-movie exile, making up for delivering the exploitation explosions known as Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes on an ill-prepared fright film fanbase, he was looking for a way out. Tired of tepid TV movies like Stranger in Our House and underappreciated efforts like Swamp Thing, he took the story of young Cambodian children who were unexpectedly dying in their sleep (some claimed that their "dreams" were trying to kill them), linked it to the then hot button issue of child molestation, and came up with demonic pedophile Fred Krueger. The result? The massively successful Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. Naturally, with popularity came pressure, Craven's boneheaded move to sell his scary film outright to New Line costing him a mint in residual (and sequel) monies. So from then on, the director tried to find a way to duplicate said success. The three films represented as part of this basically barebones collection illustrate the various approaches he took—serious (The Serpent and the Rainbow), social satire (The People Under the Stairs), and sloppy straight ahead rip-off (Shocker).
Facts of the Case
All three films here couldn't be any different. One is actually based on a famous work of non-fiction, while another was inspired by Ronald Reagan and the "Morning in America" brand of socio-political jingoism. Tossed in between was an obvious attempt at creating another classic creepshow character ala a certain burn victim with a ratty sweater and razors for fingers. Individually, the stories shared deal with familiar macabre elements—zombies, serial killers, and psychotic loners who keep cannibalistic creatures in their crawlspace. More specifically, here are the plotlines presented:
The Serpent and the Rainbow
Dennis Alan (Bill Pullman, Lost Highway) is a Harvard anthropologist who is approached by a major pharmaceutical concern. They want him to travel to Haiti and look into the use of a powerful drug called tetrodotoxin. They hope it will act as a replacement for standard anesthesia. Upon arriving, Alan learns that the country is in chaos. Political prisoners are being taken while the government uses the threat of "zombification" as a means of inspiring terror. Our hero meets Dargent Peytraud (Zakes Mokae, Cry Freedom) the head of the Tonton Macoute, the nation's notorious secret police. He is threatened and told to leave. When that fails to work, he is tortured, framed for murder, and sent back to America. Haunted by visions of death, he returns to Haiti, falls victim to the "zombie drug," and confronts Peytraud for a battle over his very soul.
Young teen football sensation Jonathan Parker (Peter Berg, The Kingdom) suffers a slight concussion during a practice and suddenly, he starts seeing visions of notorious serial killer Horace Pinker (Mitch Pileggi, The X-Files) and the horrific, bloody crimes he commits. With dozens of deaths under his belt, he has the entire town on edge. Convincing his foster father Lt. Don Parker (Michael Murphy, Manhattan) that what he sees is real, the policeman reluctantly investigates Jonathan's claims. While he eventually catches Pinker, the two men lose several loved ones to the deranged murderer. During his execution, the murderer uses some bizarre black magic to transformer his "essence" into pure energy. This allows him to possess the bodies of others so he can continue killing. Realizing that only he can stop the rampage, Jonathan decides to use TV and technology to "trap" Pinker forcing him to play within the rules of the "real" world.
The People Under the Stairs
When Fool (Brandon Adams, The Sandlot) Leroy (Ving Rhames, Pulp Fiction) and Spenser (Jeremy Roberts, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country) break into the creepy old house of their heartless landlords, the brother/sister spouses (?!?) "Mommy" and "Daddy" Robeson (Everett McGill/Wendy Robie, Twin Peaks) they are unprepared for what they discover. Not only are the couple crazy, but they have several of their "children" locked up in the basement. When the robbery goes awry, Fool ends up befriended by Alice (A. J. Langer, Meet the Deedles) a kidnapped young girl who is forced to be Mommy and Daddy's "innocent" daughter. Fool wants to help the poor kid. But Mommy and Daddy are relentless, and even after our pint sized hero escapes, he has a hard time convincing the police of the truth. So it's up to Fool to break back in and save the day.
Nothing undermines an otherwise talented individual quicker than desperation. Matching previous success is one thing. Watching control of it slip out of your fingers and then balloon into a decades-long phenomenon definitely puts one on edge. Wes Craven hated the fact that he lost A Nightmare on Elm Street to bad contractual negotiations (thus, his lack of involvement in the upcoming remake), and spent the better part of the next ten years trying to recapture lightning in a bottle. Granted, he had a right to think he could. He took the polarizing Last House to new heights of hype driven hysteria and then managed to make both The Hills Have Eyes and that notorious bastard child of a 1000 maniacs into equally celebrated macabre experiences. But there have always been two sides to Craven—the credible and the crappy—and the three films available here walk the fine line between this obvious aesthetic dichotomy. Two are tolerable. One is a groan inducing bit of career grave robbing.
For many, The Serpent and the Rainbow shows Craven doing Altered States without any of Ken Russell's insane sexual religious iconography. It's fear without the fervor, an authentic take on the real "living dead" dealt several dulling deathblows by the director's desire to turn things into a battle between false fire and brimstone BS. Pullman is very good as the scientist trying to make sense of ancient religions, regional politics, personal concerns, and some very unusual occupational hazards. The first half of the film is more of a quest. The last half however goes loony bird, involving dinner party possessions and continuing night terrors, all of which bring our hero back to the scene of some horrific abuse, only to suffer some more. Sure, we want to see Peytraud pay for what he does (especially given Zakes Mokae over the top relish in doing such damage), but all visual wonder and F/X aside, the finale confuses more than it satisfies. While not the worst film offered here, The Serpent and the Rainbow is clearly one of Craven's most obvious underachievers.
The same could be said for The People Under the Stairs as well. It offers a delicious premise, including an incestuous pair who plays out perverted B&D scenarios while the mutilated remnants of their 'perfect family' trials lie rotting in the foundation, feasting on unsuspecting trespassers and other "missing" members of society. But Fool and Alice are an unlikely heroic combo—he's too cocky and she's too passive—and the introduction of "friendly freak" Roach doesn't inspire much monster movie confidence. Eventually, Craven simply gives up and lets the movie go gonzo. Before you know it, Everett McGill is running around in a leather bondage suit spouting epithets, while Ms. Robie is out nut-jobbing Nadine from that infamous David Lynch sudser. Every once in a while, when he tones down the tricks and lets the basic ideas of the movie play through, you can see what Craven really intended for this cruel, clever class warfare analogy. But this is dread mocked by its own self-awareness, a film that fails to realize when it's complicating its own clear path to victory.
Yet the worst of the bunch is the bungled Freddy reboot known as Shocker. You can sense the selfish need to exploit one's own popular past in every frame of this flawed flameout. It's as if Craven figures he could formula his way into another media craze, and retrofitted everything here to be his new Nightmare. Certainly, there are some high points—Pileggi's epic scenery chewing, the last act chase through various TV shows and equipment—but it's not enough to rescue the narrative. Indeed, it takes almost 45 minutes before Shocker gets going, Berg forced to emote like a dolt while Craven gets most of the origin story set-up in order. And then, it's a single visit to the electric chair and the movie resets, taking our carefully crafted understanding of the situation with it. By the time we get the channel surfing showdown, the novelty has long worn off. Craven has been known to create junk—anyone who's witnessed the wastes of space known as Vampire in Brooklyn or Cursed can confirm this—but it's never been as obvious as this. Shocker definitely lives up to its title in one regard: it's appalling how bad it is in the end.
Together with some tenuous tech specs—decent transfers, no bonus features whatsoever—The Wes Craven Horror Collection feels like a marketing tie-in that someone forgot to schedule properly. With the recent remake of Last House long gone from both theaters and DVD/Blu-ray queues, is there really a need outside the Season of the Witch to offer up such an unexceptional product? Granted, if all you care about is movie ownership, Universal provides the format foundations—1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen images for all three films, Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo for Serpent and Shocker (People gets the added .1 of its supposedly Surround mix). Two films are found on one disc, while the third takes up an entire second DVD. Overall, the pictures look decent and the aural elements offer up crystal clear dialogue and musical accompaniment. But without a single bit of added content to sway you toward Craven's way of thinking, this package becomes nothing but cinematic surplus.
So Scream finally saved Craven. He hooked his water treading talent to Kevin Williamson's wink and a nod series and saw his fortunes rise once again. And this time around, he didn't piss it all away, instead developing such interesting titles as the Meryl Streep "straight" drama Music from the Heart and the edge of your seat Rachel McAdams/Cillian Murphy thriller Red Eye. Next up for the aging macabre master—something called 25/8 and a few more remakes with Shocker seemingly the next one on the redux chopping block. Oddly enough, The Wes Craven Horror Collection definitely represents a selection of films that could easily be reinvented into something a little less mediocre. While these movies clearly have their fans, they have not aged well. More importantly, none of them achieved their intended goal. Three decades later we're still frightened by the horrific visage of Freddy Krueger. No one is losing sleep over what they saw in The Serpent and the Rainbow, Shocker, or The People Under the Stairs—unless they're the (ex) studio suits who greelit these films in the first place.
Guilty! People is tolerable, Serpent is acceptable until the end, and Shocker is just an embarrassment. Add in the lax luster digital presentation and this is one pre-Halloween haunt that fails to deliver the shivers.
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