The Wes Craven Collection Review
While Wes Craven is described by many as one of the most talented and influential names in the horror genre, his track record has been inconsistent at best. While he has been responsible for some of the most successful and indeed innovative franchises of all time, including the first and seventh entries into the A Nightmare on Elm Street series and the entire Scream trilogy, he is also guilty of helming some of the most banal, hacked-out nonsense the genre has to offer. Therefore, while the man obviously has talent and can put it to good use when he applies it, I question the logic of anyone who mentions his name in the same breath as David Cronenberg, Dario Argento or Roman Polanski. This five-disc box set from Anchor Bay purports to feature four of the director's most groundbreaking achievements (as well as Adam Simon's documentary, The American Nightmare).
In practice, however, the collection is a little more spotty. While it includes the director's notorious debut, 1972's The Last House on the Left, as well as the phenomenally successful Scream (1996), on loan from Buena Vista, and his taut 1997 cannibal shocker The Hills Have Eyes, it also features Mind Ripper (1995), a little-seen TV movie produced by Craven but directed by Joe Gayton. Because all four titles have been reviewed elsewhere on this site, I have chosen to simply summarize each film and direct readers looking for more depth to these reviews.
The Last House on the Left
View review by Karl Wareham
Notorious for its overt sadism and the fact that it has been banned in several countries, including the UK, The Last House on the Left, Craven's directorial debut, has long been one of the most sought-after movies of his oeuvre. Indeed, it was only finally released in the UK last year, after suffering 31 seconds of cuts at the hands of the British Board of Film Censors (berate them at email@example.com). I can't tell you how grateful I am to the BBFC for protecting both myself and the rest of the British public, since these crucial 31 seconds would surely have turned us into sadistic killing machines (sarcasm duly noted, I hope).
That said, I am not entirely convinced that the missing footage would have drastically altered the film in any way. Indeed, having seen most of it myself on various occasions, admittedly outwith the context of the film itself, I would suggest that it is not worth getting worked up about. Of course, while I applaud Anchor Bay (and formerly Blue Underground) for going the extra mile and doing their best to get the film released uncut, the fact remains that this is a compromised version of the film, and I am not convinced that it will be of much interest to the movie's primary audience: hardcore exploitation movie fans.
Cut or not, I am of the opinion that The Last House on the Left is not a very good film (although my colleague Karl Wareham and countless others will happily disagree with me). Chronicling the abduction, humiliation, torture and murder of two teenage girls by a group of deranged sadists, Last House often shows glimmers of imagination and has a handful of scenes that, in a different movie, could have been genuinely gut-wrenching and horrifying, but these are few and far between and are generally negated by Craven's woefully misjudged insertion of comic relief, in the form of two inept police officers who charge about the countryside, getting involved in all sorts of slapstick antics while two girls are being abused a few hundred yards away. I also find the use of country/folk music as the film's soundtrack to be highly inappropriate, due to the sole fact that it undercuts what could have been horrifying material with an air of complete farce.
The Last House on the Left has plenty of defenders, and I am certainly glad that they are able to appreciate the film in a way that I am not, but to me this is clumsy and poorly-judged filmmaking, albeit with its heart in the right place.
The Hills Have Eyes
View review by Mike Sutton
Released five years after The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes is a far more assured and effective telling of a similar story. Craven once again puts everyday middle class Americans against savages, and explores the lengths to which the former will go to protect and/or avenge their loved ones. The protagonists in question are a family who become stranded in the desert, preyed upon by a tribe of ruthless cannibals.
It is extremely interesting to see how much Craven has improved as a filmmaker in the space of five years. Whereas Last House was clumsy, messy and amateur, Hills, while still obviously made for an extremely low budget, is directed with competence and assurance and, perhaps more importantly, the script is excellent. The family is presented in a likeable manner, and we are allowed to get to know and develop a bond with them before they run into danger. The screenplay does have moments of comedy but, unlike Last House, the humour is used to develop the characters and make them seem more appealing rather than as a crass attempt to lighten the mood. Indeed, once the bad stuff starts happening, the mood is consistently bleak and tension is maintained right to the very end.
Arguably one of the best films of Craven's career, The Hills Have Eyes remains a powerful horror movie a quarter of a century after the fact, backing up its grisly violence with genuinely intelligent look at what happens when a terrible situation brings out the best (or worst, if you like) in people.
View review by D.J. Nock
Mind Ripper is a silly and completely pointless little TV movie, produced and co-written by Craven's son Jonathan and directed by Joe Gayton, whose only previous credit is a film called Warm Summer Rain. Released in the US as The Outpost, I can only assume that it was retitled for the UK market in a half-hearted attempt to trick customers into thinking the movie was worth purchasing. The story deals with the chaos that breaks out in an underground laboratory in the desert, where an experiment to create a superhuman being goes wrong. The creature escapes and starts killing people, and Lance Henriksen gets in on the act. He is the only classy element in this otherwise turgid affair, which combines bad acting and bad sets with a duller-than-dishwater script and mundane direction.
Clearly intended to cash in on the success of tense sci-fi affairs like Alien, Mind Ripper looks positively embarrassing in comparison and is one of these films that really should not have been released. I found it a chore to sit through, and wouldn't wish the experience on my worst enemy. If you decide to pick up this collection, I recommend skipping this disc entirely.
View review by Michael Mackenzie
(Note: this review covers the Australian release rather than the UK version presented in this set.)
From the beginnings of Craven's career as an independent guerilla filmmaker to his currect position as a fully paid-up producer of mainstream horror and something of a celebrity in his own right, it is absolutely fascinating to compare the differences between The Last House on the Left and his more recent work, such as Scream. In terms of tone and look, they could easily have been directed by two completely different filmmakers. Whereas Last House and Hills are raw attempts at capturing the uglier side of humanity, Scream is a bells-and-whistles Hollywood affair, complete with the requisite attractive cast, self-aware script (penned by Dawson's Creek creator Kevin Williamson rather than by Craven) and glossy Scope photography. Scream, however, is somewhat more than the copycat slashers it spawned. While not particularly original (Mario Bava was mocking the conventions of the horror genre nearly four decades before Craven and co. got in on the act), Scream is a well-made piece of stalk-and-slash fun with an excellent whodunit element and generally good performances from its young starlets. It is also surprisingly violent for a Hollywood movie and, while lacking the rawness of Craven's earlier efforts, does feature a number of scenes that definitely push the boundaries of what most mainstream audiences will accept. One climactic scene in particular, which evolves into two individuals taking turns at stabbing each other, actually manages to be genuinely shocking and goes beyond merely providing blood for entertainment.
The image quality varies across the different films, but is overall pretty mediocre. The weakest looking is, unsurprisingly, The Last House on the Left and, given the quality of the source materials, probably couldn't have been made to look much better. The Hills Have Eyes looks slightly better, and Anchor Bay did a pretty extensive remaster on it, but even so it lacks definition. The transfer used for Scream is the same acceptable but unremarkable non-anamorphic one that has been used since the film's first DVD release. It doesn't look too bad, but the anamorphic Australian release is much better. Mind Ripper looks blurry, and also appears to have been matted into "fake widescreen". Given its origins on US TV, the original aspect ratio was probably 1.33:1, and this 1.85:1 presentation looks incredibly cramped, with actors' heads disappearing off the top of the screen in a number of shots. It's a good thing that this is the weakest of the four films by far, but no movie deserves treatment like this.
A multitude of audio options are provided for home theatre aficionados, including DTS and Dolby 5.1 remixes of the first three films, along with their original mono (and stereo, in the case of Mind Ripper) counterparts. Scream includes only its original Dolby 5.1 track. The quality of the audio is generally tied to the age (and budget) of the material, with The Last House on the Left unsurprisingly sounding the weakest and Scream sounding the best. As usual, I am only considering the quality of the original mixes in my overall score, not the remixes.
Packaging & Menus
The 5-disc set is packaged in a hub inside a cardboard slipcase. A 12-page booklet is also included, featuring a brief discussion of Craven's filmography, as well as chapter stops for each film.
Each disc has its own menu design, and all are functional enough.
A large number of extras are provided, with The Last House on the Left and Scream receiving the majority (Mind Ripper features nothing more than production notes and a still gallery). Unfortunately, The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes were originally released separately as 2-disc special editions, and only the first (i.e. movie) disc for each film is included here. For The Last House on the Left this is not a major problem, since most of the important bonus materials were included on the first disc anyway, but for The Hills Have Eyes, all save the Wes Craven/Peter Locke audio commentary have been lost. The version of Scream presented here is a direct copy of the old Buena Vista disc, so it shares identical bonus material.
The fifth disc includes two documentaries, the first being a retrospective on Wes Craven's career which previously appeared on the US 2-disc release of The Hills Have Eyes. It serves as a nice summary but is rather lightweight in terms of substance, and repeats a lot of information that is probably common knowledge anyway.
Far more interesting is Adam Simon's The American Nightmare, an absolutely wonderful documentary charting the emergence of American horror in the 60s and 70s. As well as featuring a fair amount of interview footage with Craven, there is plenty of material involving George A. Romero, John Carpenter, Tom Savini, Tobe Hooper and, last but not least, the always lucid David Cronenberg, who muses about the relationship between body and society, fantasy and literalism. Being Canadian, his presence on a documentary entitled The American Nightmare might seem a bit odd, but his participation is more than welcome. Note that this presentation of The American Nightmare is slightly trimmed with regard to a clip from The Last House on the Left, although BBC2 seemed to have no problems with screening uncut when it aired a few months back.
Also included on the fifth disc are trailers for upcoming theatrical releases by Anchor Bay, including Tobe Hooper's remake of The Toolbox Murders, which stars Angela Bettis of May fame and Juliet Landau (a semi-regular on Buffy the Vampire Slayer).
Ultimately, Craven is a wildly uneven director who, every now and then, produces a film that is thought-provoking and genuinely powerful, yet has more misfires to his credit than seemingly any of the other so-called maverick American horror filmmakers. This box set could perhaps have benefited from the inclusion of one of his more important efforts in place of the dreary Mind Ripper, but on the other hand cheap farmed-out products make up a significant portion of Craven's catalogue, so its inclusion here is perhaps justified. If you don't mind the fact that The Last House on the Left is cut (and that Scream is the R-rated version rather than Craven's preferred unrated cut), this collection is potentially a great way to get into his films.