Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Film Appreciation - It's Only a Movie: In Memory of David Hess

Cody Hamman visits The Last House on the Left (1972) to pay his respects to David Hess in this installment of Film Appreciation.

In Sweden, there's a ballad called "Töres döttrar i Wänge" or "Per Tyrssons döttrar i Vänge" which gives a backstory to why a church was built in Kärna during the 12th century. The story involves two young girls on their way to church encountering three highwaymen, who end up murdering them. The highwaymen then try to sell the girls' clothes to a couple who live nearby. Recognizing the clothes as belonging to their daughters, the couple get revenge on the highwaymen.

Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman used the ballad as the basis of his 1960 film The Virgin Spring, or Jungfrukällan, and when writer/director Wes Craven and producer Sean Cunningham were looking to make a film together in the next decade, Craven figured he could get a jump on getting a script written by taking the basic elements of The Virgin Spring and the Swedish ballad and using them to tell a story set in the modern day.

Craven's film tells the story of Mari Collingwood, a girl celebrating her seventeenth birthday by going to a concert with her friend Phyllis, who her parents disapprove of. Mari's upper class, her father's a doctor. Phyllis lives in the slums. Mari's naive and inexperienced, Phyllis has a bad reputation. But Mari says that being with Phyllis will be an advantage, she's from the neighborhood where the concert venue is.

As the girls drive to the city, they hear a news report on the radio. Two murderers/rapists/drug pushers have made a daring prison escape with the help of a woman and the son of one of the men. When they reach the city, the girls' first stop is an ice cream shop, which you'd assume was a Mari suggestion. Then Phyllis takes Mari out into the slums, which Mari finds disgustingly dirty, to score some grass. They ask a young man if he knows where they can get some and he takes them up to his apartment... Where the girls find themselves in the clutches of the criminals they heard about earlier.


What follows, the horrific abuse that the criminals inflict on the young girls, the realism of these scenes enhanced by the documentary style way the film is directed by Craven and shot by cinematographer Victor Hurwitz, has been disturbing audiences for nearly forty years. There may be some lesser elements elsewhere in the film - some questionable dialogue, some incongruous comic relief with the local police - but what plays out between the criminals and the youths in a serene forest is very powerful stuff.

As in the previous tales, Mari's parents eventually get their revenge, and viewers can totally get behind their plunge into violence due to the effectiveness of the scenes in the woods.

The acting of all involved is great. Fred J. Lincoln as the lecherous Weasel, Jeramie Rain as the "animal-like" Sadie, Marc Sheffler as the hopelessly beaten down Junior. Lucy Grantham and Sandra Cassell/Peabody are completely believable as Phyllis and Mari, by all accounts Peabody was legitimately terrified during the filming of these scenes. And one of the greatest elements in making this film as effective as it is is the performance David Hess delivers as Krug, the leader of the gang.

I hadn't planned to write an article about The Last House on the Left this week, it was the unfortunate event that occurred this past weekend which led to me writing this. On Saturday, the children of David Hess posted on his Facebook that he had passed away peacefully during the night. I was shocked, this wasn't news I expected to hear any time soon.

I had just seen Hess in person at the spring Cinema Wasteland back in April, in fact one of the best sights at that show was Hess and Michael Berryman, Krug and Pluto from The Hills Have Eyes, sitting on a panel side-by-side. Hess looked much the same as he did in The Last House on the Left, just with gray in his hair. He seemed fit and healthy, he seemed badass. In a great moment during the panel, in the midst of a discussion of the animal killings in Ruggero Deodato's film Cannibal Holocaust, Hess promised to kick the ass of anyone who purposely hurts an animal for no reason.

Hess has been a regular feature in my viewing rotation since early childhood. Long before I was finally able to see Last House, renting it from the new video store in town in '94 or so, Wes Craven's Swamp Thing was one of my favorite movies to watch as a kid, and Hess had reteamed with Craven on that film to play one of the villain's main henchmen.

A few years ago, when I started putting serious thought into what I would make as my first feature film, I had an idea that involved Hess being one of my top casting choices. When I wrote the script, I pictured Hess in my mind as a certain character. I never went through with that production, I never contacted him, but I still fully intended to work with Hess someday. Now I regret that I will never get the chance.

Beyond the acting career, which Hess had no interest in pursuing before Sean Cunningham recruited him into Last House to play Krug, Hess was a musician and a successful songwriter, penning and composing tunes for the likes of Elvis Presley, Pat Boone, and Sal Mineo. He composed the score and wrote songs for The Last House on the Left as well. The most popular song from Last House is the great "Wait for the Rain" ("The Road Leads to Nowhere"). The one that is perpetually stuck in my head is the jaunty "Baddies' Theme", "Weasel and Sadie, junkie and dad, quartet in harmony, barbershop bad." My favorite of the bunch is the beautiful and sad "Now You're All Alone", which is played a couple times, near the beginning of the woods sequence and at the end.


The second time "Now You're All Alone" plays is one of the greatest moments in the film. Krug, Weasel and Sadie have just spent the day sexually tormenting Mari and Phyllis and the violence has escalated. One of the girls has just been killed, gutted, and the other has just been brutally raped by Krug. As the girl stumbles away into the woods, briefly dropping to her knees to vomit and then pray, Krug, Weasel and Sadie just stand looking at each other and the blood that they're covered in. In this moment, they see through the fog of their actions. They truly realize what they've done and see what they are. They've lost their humanity and destroyed lives, and for a moment they're disturbed, maybe even remorseful. This is all conveyed silently, only through body language and facial expressions. Krug chokes a bit, sickened by himself and what's happened. The actors' abilities combined with Hess's song playing on the soundtrack make this moment absolutely devastating, heartbreaking.

David Hess may not have intended to be an actor, but he certainly had the talent for it. A talent that has probably been undervalued over the years. And it's a talent that has been taken away too soon.

Articles: David Hess, American Horror Film Actor and Songwriter, Dead at 69
David Hess - The Man Behind the Icon

1942 - 2011

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