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Week of Wes: “SERPENT”, “SHOCKER” and “STAIRS”

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Following the success of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, one would expect Wes Craven’s prominence in the horror genre to lead to bigger and better things. However, as many independent filmmakers who lept into the studio system can tell you, it’s not surprising that Craven was met with immediate frustration. Of course, Craven is clever enough to play the system to their expectations, never passing up an opportunity to explore the genre he had been dubbed a visionary within.

However, it would take a poorly received TV movie (CHILLER, the first film to carry Wes Craven’s name above the title), a sequel he would disown (THE HILLS HAVE EYES 2), a sci-fi romance that fell victim to studio reshoots and edits (DEADLY FRIEND) and a franchise-ending sequel that backfired and rejuvenated the property to new heights (DREAM WARRIORS) before Craven would find his next piece of cinematic satisfaction. Craven, convinced that a studio would not let him direct a project outside of the horror genre after DEADLY FRIEND, decided that if he was going to make more horror, he would do it on his own terms. Therefore, Craven signed on to direct an adaptation of Wade Davis’ THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW, a non-fiction book about Davis’ experiences with Voodoo in Haiti.

Craven found THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW to be nearly the polar opposite than his last two features, working fairly “hands-off” as the film shot in Boston, the Dominican Republic and in Haiti, far away from Los Angeles-based studio executives. Craven also found a collaborative star in Bill Pullman, and was given a greater amount of creative freedom given the film’s low price point. But much to Craven’s satisfaction was that it was potentially his easiest experience with the MPAA to date, who awarded the film an R-rating with no cuts; while NIGHTMARE had gone through without cuts, that is largely because the film had tempered many of its more explicit material before cameras even rolled.

But what SERPENT did for Craven’s audiences was prove that the horror auteur worked beyond the confines of bloodthirsty psychopaths by targeting the fears we create. The fear of being out of control, buried alive, forced to do what is beyond our will, and being at the mercy of something beyond our understanding all came before the spilling of blood in SERPENT, and audiences were scared nonetheless. To this day, SERPENT remains one of Craven’s strongest films, only tempered by the fact that it doesn’t have an iconic villain to raise its status among idolizing horror hounds.

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The modest financial and creative success of SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW allowed Craven to be comfortable enough to return to the slasher genre for Universal, who bankrolled SERPENT, with SHOCKER. Fueled in part by spite in not having gotten proper residuals for NIGHTMARE as well as the producers continuing the franchise beyond DREAM WARRIORS, Craven and Universal pegged SHOCKER to lead a trilogy of films about undead serial killer Horace Pinker, especially considering the moderate budget needed for each film and Universal’s devotion to a heavy metal soundtrack. However, despite Craven having a positive experience filming SHOCKER, the film failed to resonate with audiences, presumably burnt out from a decade of slashers, and was mauled by the MPAA, leading Universal to scrap plans for a sequel. In the years since, SHOCKER has grown from into a bona fide cult classic, with fright fans clamoring to see a director’s cut (a request that sadly would be unfulfilled).

Following SHOCKER, Craven had one more picture in his contract with Universal and shepherded what was likely his most bonkers script to date, entitled THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS. A story of cannibalism, child abuse and class warfare, Craven used the genre to craft a tale with political subtexts about racial tension, colonialism and religious fundamentalism. But with that social commentary also came an absolutely insane tale of a leather-clad, shotgun-wielding father, a sadistic, knife-wielding mother, a tortured child and a legion of deformed cannibals they keep in the basement. And with a cast led by TWIN PEAKS power couple Wendy Robie and Everett McGill and a pre-PULP FICTION Ving Rhames, there hadn’t been much expectation for STAIRS outside of being the end of a creatively fulfilling and yet financially moderate partnership between Craven and Universal.

However, THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS was a breakaway hit for Craven, debuting #1 at the box office and grossing over $31 million worldwide on a $6 million budget. The film once again proved Craven was a dependable name in horror, and STAIRS fared much better among critics than SHOCKER, with many critics giving Craven credit for going into weirder, wilder places than they ever could imagine. For Craven’s career, STAIRS was a boon because it inspired New Line, fresh off the wild success of the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET’s supposedly final chapter, to settle their longstanding dispute with Craven and approach him to revive the property he started nearly a decade earlier. And in revisiting that franchise, Craven would find the angle that would inspire him to tackle a similar slasher property that would make him the most important horror filmmaker of the ’90s…

About the author
Ken W. Hanley
Ken W. Hanley is the Managing Web Editor for FANGORIA and STARLOG, as well as the former Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine and a contributing writer to YouWonCannes.com. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he received an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on screenplays, his debut novel "THE I IN EVIL", and various other projects, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.
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