#13 in my ranking of Wes Craven’s filmography.
Wes Craven came up to filmmaking through the thin line between exploitation and pornography, but he was approaching even his earliest efforts with an eye towards making them more than just splatter and T&A features. He wanted to say something. However, Craven, at this age, was either too young, too inexperienced, or simply working in a sliver of the film industry that was too disreputable for him to fully mine the ideas he seemed to be going for. Sidelining character for the pursuit of ugliness, he was struggling to find the sweet spot between some of his arthouse inspirations and the commercial needs of his producer, Sean S. Cunningham.
Heavily, obviously, and explicitly inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (my personal favorite film by Bergman), Craven strove to tell the story of a kindly father brought to the depths of depraved murder after the murder of his own daughter. The problem with Craven’s approach to the story isn’t that he’s trying to move the story from medieval Sweden to contemporary America, but that he has no real grasp of character in the film. Everyone is razor thin, a necessity considering how much of the runtime is dedicated to the evil acts presented rather than the people that they are being perpetrated by or happening to.
We begin with a quick scene of Mari (Sandra Peabody), daughter to Dr. John Collingwood (Richard Towers) and Estelle (Cynthia Carr), who is going into the city away from their remote rural house to go to a concert with Phyllis (Lucy Grantham), a friend. It’s very basic stuff, establishing Mari’s rebelliousness (she does not wear a bra) and the general good feelings between the members of the small family. With that established, she’s off to spend the afternoon with Phyllis by the nearby creek where they mess around and drink a bit. At the same time, Krug (David Hess) leads a small band of misfits after he is out of prison, and they’re looking for drugs to score and, at the behest of Sadie (Jeramie Rain), two more girls to add to the group.
Wandering the streets outside the venue (that we never see because this was a very, very cheap production), Mari and Phyllis see Junior (Marc Sheffler), Krug’s son, hanging outside their townhouse. He has no drugs to sell them, but if they come into the townhouse, maybe he can find some. Well, like idiots they go in and are immediately kidnapped and tortured. The next morning, Krug shoves the two girls into the trunk of his car and the four criminals head towards the country with their quarry in tow. Coincidentally, they stop the car right in front of Mari’s house and take the two girls into the forest to rape, torture, and kill them. This long section is the source of a lot of the contemporary controversy over the film, and it’s largely unpleasant stuff. However, it’s also happening to thin characters that we don’t really know, so it’s gruesome in a visceral way but unimpactful in any sort of emotional way. And that’s my larger problem with exploitation films. The emphasis is on the violence, not the people, and I don’t engage. I more often than not feel bored rather than disgusted.
The girls die, and the four decide to knock on Dr. John Collingwood’s door to stay the night after they’ve cleaned themselves off from the blood. Meanwhile, we get a whole bunch of comedic stylings of the local sheriff and his deputy who receive word that Krug has come their way and…run out of gas on their way to the Collingwood house. Craven, who edited the film himself, did some smart things with editing, especially early when he broke up a pair of long scenes involving different characters by intercutting them, preventing the film from just being a series of static shots for long periods of time, but the use of the comic side characters is, I think, evidence of his lack of experience. Sure, you don’t want your film to become too grim, so you offer your audience ways to deflate tension. However, when you’re in the middle of a horrible, extended rape and murder scene, the tonal clash of the grimness of the scene and the intentional (and not entirely successful) comedy bits pushing their way in at the same time doesn’t really work. David Lynch might have been able to find a way to do this and make it work, but thirty-two-year-old Wes Craven didn’t do it well.
The instrument that the father discovers that his visitors have been the brutes who stole and murdered his daughter is a bit weird: a peace symbol necklace that he gave Mari at the beginning of the film. It’s super generic, but at least it’s just the first bit of evidence that leads Estelle on a small quest to discover the truth. Still, how rare was the peace symbol necklace back then? A hand-knitted scarf or something would have been better. Estelle, having found the bloody clothes in her visitors’ luggage takes John out into the woods where they immediately find Mari’s body well up on the river bank despite the fact that Krug shot her while she was in the middle of the river. Oh well, at least the parent characters are sure of their daughter’s death and the guilt of the people in their house.
And then, it turns into a proto-Home Alone for a few minutes as John rigs up some traps. This drags a bit, up to and including him delicately smearing shaving cream on the floor outside the bedroom that Krug is sleeping in, a setup that gets just this side of no payoff. Then the violence starts, and I began to see the point that Craven was very inelegantly shooting for.
It’s the idea that the veneer of civilization is easily punctured and beneath the placid, safe surface of modern comfort rests a beast willing to come out and destroy when called for. Both John and Estelle become monsters in the pursuit of vengeance for their daughter including the use of a chainsaw and a castration by teeth. And yet, the same problem persists with the earlier rape scene in that these are barely characters so their fall into barbarity isn’t really felt. It’s a sketch of an idea, not a fully-fledged one. I give Craven props for trying to imbue his early film with something other than just sex and violence, but he didn’t succeed despite his best efforts.
I can see a certain, very rough promise in store for Wes Craven in his first film, but it cannot rise above its exploitation roots. He’s trying, but he’s not yet in a place where he can make it work yet.