#7 in my ranking of Wes Craven’s filmography.
After the boring slog that was Summer of Fear, Wes Craven comes back with a much more put together film that, while it doesn’t work completely, offers more atmosphere and a cohesive sense of horror and tension that works in the film’s favor. It also ends up spinning its wheels after a certain point before revealing itself to be “Red Herring: The Movie”, which is kind of frustrating. The effort to be unpredictable to an audience always just kind of bugs me because it almost always gets in the way of telling a good story. And then there’s the very ending, which I absolutely loved. I mean…I loved it so much. It’s a mixed bag, but it’s also probably Wes Craven’s best film up to this point.
Martha (Maren Jensen) and Jim (Douglas Barr) are a newlywed couple living on a farm next to a severe religious group called the Hittites that Jim was forced to leave when he went to college and met Martha. The Hittites are led by Isaiah (Ernest Borgnine), Jim’s father, who has another adult son John (Jeff East), and there is extreme friction between the Hittites and all their neighbors which includes Louisa Stohler (Lois Nettleton) and her daughter Faith (Lisa Hartman). One night, Jim’s tractor seems to turn on and off on its own before crushing him to death. To console Martha, her two friends from the city Lana (Sharon Stone) and Vicky (Susan Buckner) come to spend a week or two to help her at her darkest moment. When the simple-minded Hittite William (Michael Berryman) gets knifed at Martha’s window by an unseen person, it’s obvious that more is afoot.
The opening was a good bit awkward, and I feel like it would have been better served if the film had simply skipped Jim completely, beginning with his funeral since he doesn’t actually matter as a character. It’s a lot of characters getting introduced in short order, mostly told in fairly weird dialogue. There’s also an over-scoring problem where James Horner’s soundtrack, while perfectly acceptable as music on its own, is slathered on thickly to the point where it makes the spooky intention so obvious to nearly the point of parody.
However, once the girls arrive, the focus turns towards character more fully, and I was actually getting pretty invested. Lana is consumed by fear in this new place, particularly manifested in a spider that she keeps seeing and dreaming about (is this another Bergman nod from Craven?). Vicky, while out running, comes across John and the two strike up a sweet little 20th versus 18th century romance, complicated by the fact that John is already promised to a Hittite woman Melissa (Colleen Riley) and a relationship with an outsider would be disapproved of anyway by Isaiah. At the same time, Martha is on the receiving end of a steadily building set of scares, including a snake in her bathtub that Craven would later recreate to more iconic effect in A Nightmare on Elm Street. This section probably drags for five to ten minutes more than it really needs to, but it’s surprisingly solid from Craven.
Then the red herrings start popping up, and it’s pretty endless until the movie comes to a stop. Who could the killer be? Could it be Isaiah, the leader of the sect that screams about incubuses to everyone around him? Could it be John who obviously wants some distance from his father and perhaps yearned for the life of his father? Could it be Melissa who is fully onboard with the sect and grabs a knife before all the killing of the finale starts? Could it be Louisa or Faith? Who knows? There’s no way to predict how this goes, and it ends up going in a weird direction that doesn’t connect with really much of anything. Well, I suppose I can imagine how, but it takes so many false turns to get there that any semblance of a point or connective tissue has been rent apart. Still, for an unpredictable thriller, it’s amusing enough.
I was feeling a bit more down on the film, and then the final act of violence happened, and I loved it. Completely and totally loved it. It validated things that most of the audience had dismissed for the entire runtime in such an unexpected, blunt, and colorful display that I have to give the film serious props for it. I really wasn’t expecting that, but in a good way.
It’s not some lost masterpiece by Craven, nor is it nearly as unwatchable as Summer of Fear. It’s a somewhat acceptable mixture between a character piece and thriller with an ending to write home about. Maybe this Craven fellow does have some ideas and will make something special in the horror genre.