This is a shocking film, even by today’s standards. (I still cannot believe this can be bought in ASDA, how can it not still be on the DPP list?) It’s harsh and brutal in cinematic style, content and delivery. Hideous even. So why would you actually want to watch this and why is it respected throughout the cinematic world, as one of Wes Craven’s finest moments? I’ll try to explain.
The plot involves two girls, heading into town for a night on the tiles. The parents are concerned letting their daughter lose on her 17th birthday and they’ve got every reason to be. There are a lot of weirdoes out there. It’s 1972, and America has gone through some changes. Summer of Love is over and a darker feeling has filled the country with a sinking feeling, the rise of murder, killings and abuse, and the search for the American Dream. So we have four dropouts, looking for fun and fighting against the system. Mari and Phyllis (Sandra Cassell and Lucy Grantham) fall into the wrong company and things start to go terribly wrong.
The psychos, Krug, Weasel, Sadie and Junior (David Hess, Fred Lincoln, Jeramie Rain and Marc Sheffler) are a nasty bunch, creating a realm of terror through humiliation, depravity and violence, but this is carried through dramatic performances, realistic, shocking and horrific which is one of the films strengths. It’s a film of characters, good and bad, but brutally real and at the time, this would have been ground breaking stuff.
Further strengths are the cinematography. Beautiful framed scenes, some which depict shocking images. The moment on the lake as Mari takes a gun shot to the shoulder is stunningly well filmed and edited with perfect music. The score is also a winner here. A mixture of American folk, Hillbilly and Psychodelia works well with the subject matter. Incidentally, the music was composed by the amazing David Hess, famous mainly for his brutal crazy character in this film, and also Deodato’s ‘House on the Edge of the Park’. He also wrote Speedy Gonzales. But it’s interesting, as within all of this extremity, aggressive characters creating highly disturbing viewing, we find ourselves watching the parents, and this is why this film works so well. The films aim is to focus the viewer on the uncomfortable situation that John and Estelle (Gaylord St.James and Cynthia Carr) find themselves in, dealing with unprofessional Police, the emotion of a missing daughter and later, facing the threat in the cold light of day and dealing with a revenge situation. This is their film and the performances are perfect.
There is also an odd balance here between the comic, quirky characters of the Sheriff and his Deputy, something of Russ Meyer feeling here, especially with the scenes with them hitching a lift. It’s a perfect balance against the brutality of the rest of the film. Lastly, let me point out the groundbreaking use of the chainsaw. This is two years prior to Chainsaw Massacre and what an impact it has on this film. Also, on that point, would that make this film the first in its class, paving the way for Chainsaw, Hills etc?
Brutal, harsh, ground breaking and totally mesmerising with charm. This is Craven’s masterpiece.