Wes Craven’s 2 Nightmares

Shocker & The People Under the Stairs (Scream Factory, Blu-ray)
 

By Scott MacDonald

The Films (2/5, 3/5)

   Wes Craven has over the 40+ years developed a name as one of the so-called masters of modern horror cinema. He staked the claim early on with his vicious early pairing The Last House on the Left and the Hills Have Eyes.  However, Craven's career has been largely hit or miss with more misses than hits, and while some of his films are very good they are few and far between. 1984 brought quite possibly his ultimate classic with the legitimately scary and memorable A Nightmare on Elm Street, but in the same year he produced The Hills Have Eyes Part II, a film that if it were not for the Exorcist Part II would probably be the worst horror sequel ever made.

     Nightmare on Elm Street brought Craven into the popular consciousness, and he became a face of the horror genre for fans and non-fans alike. Though Craven was an established director by the time he directed the first Elm Street film in 1984, he had to arrange a deal with New Line Cinema that allowed them the rights to make sequels and merchandise in order for him to direct the first film in the sequence. This put Craven in a very odd position, he had created an iconic character in Freddy Kreuger, but his hands were tied as far as using him in future films (he would go on to co-write one NOES sequel, and direct Wes Craven's New Nightmare in the mid-1990's, but for New Line). In response to this he created one of the 2 film's Scream Factory is releasing to Blu-ray this summer that bears his name, Wes Craven's Shocker.

   Shocker follows a serial murderer named Horace Pinker(Mitch Pileggi) who after a long string of brutal murders  is finally caught by a Detective Don Parker(Michael Murphy), and the detective's son Jonathan(Peter Berg), who dreamed of the killer's identity.  He is sentenced to die in the electric chair, but does not die. Rather, he becomes powered by electricity, and is given the ability to hope through TV channels, and other people's bodies. It is up to Jonathan who somehow has a connection to Pinker to follow him through power and TV itself to stop the sadistic killer.

   There is that saying that lightning doesn't strike twice(analogy purely accidental), and in the case of Craven trying to recreate his Nightmare success with Shocker it certainly applies. Craven tapped into something that universally terrified people with the first Nightmare... film, that not the Nightmare sequels, nor Shocker could tap into again. It could be said that dreaming is a universal experience, and that while most people watch TV or use electricity, it doesn't quite have the same connection to our own internal fears of being out of control of our own minds. Of course, if that were the only problem with Shocker, it could be excused as a fun B horror film.

   My biggest problem with the film is its over the top nature. It actually feels like the films your parents were worried you were watching, when you said you were watching slasher films as a kid (if you were a kid who grew up as a horror fan in the 80's and 90's), not to say that is a typically bad thing, but the film feels all off, as if Craven wanted to put together a buy the numbers 80's horror film with violent deaths every few moments without any build up or suspense. Even when he tries to make us care for the characters like Jonathan's girlfriend early in the film, they are in the film such a short period of time that we don't get a chance to care about their fate before they are sent off to it. Also, Craven's use of heavy metal on the films soundtrack makes Dario Argento’s metal usage from the same period look almost mild in comparison. Of course, like the film itself, the soundtrack feels like an attempt by Craven to cash in on a trend at the time. Whereas a film like the original Nightmare on Elm Street built up mystery and suspense around the identity of Kreuger and the goings on around Elm Street, Craven decides to throw his Shocker audience into the story head first, and it really just makes it seem like a slasher-porn free for all. It might work as a simple popcorn horror film, but it might not be good enough for even that.

   1991's the People Under the Stairs sees Craven jump back into more serious themes such as poverty and child abuse with his usual bi-polar flare.  The film involves a family receiving an eviction notice based on late rent. Rather than try to contest it, the youngest son, Fool, the daughter's boyfriend Leroy, and his friend Spenser decide to rob the home of the allegedly eccentric and rich landlords who sent the notice over. They have heard on the streets that their building will be bulldozed and turned into condos, but they don't want to give up the home without a fight.
  

   Upon entering the home, things aren't exactly what they seem. The house from the outside looks wretched, on the inside things are nicer, but not exactly luxurious, and on top of that the house is loaded up with traps, security devices, gates, secret passages, and a vicious guard dog. This, coupled, with the fact that the landlords are a pair of insane and violent people who keep abused and neglected (and slightly mutant-ish) children in the basement makes this one robbery that's going to be very difficult to pull off.

   I originally saw the People Under the Stairs on it's theatrical release in 1991, I was 9 years old, and my Dad took me, he took me to a lot of films that weren't exactly age appropriate. At the time, I remember being freaked out by the film, the kids, the crumbling house, the man in the leather outfit with the gun. I haven't seen the film since it's theatrical run, and on this viewing I just found myself bored.

   Let me reiterate in case you didn't catch the middle of the last paragraph, the villain of this movie runs around in a leather gimp suit, and fires around a shotgun, and yet I found myself bored to tears. If something like that happens in a film, boredom should not be a reaction. The People Under the Stairs takes elements from Craven's earlier the Last House on the Left with a group of criminals invading a home, and getting quite a surprise. It also shares elements with the background history of Nightmare on Elm Street in the sense that the neighbors are at least slightly aware of how evil the landlords are, and that killing them, like killing Freddy might be an act of vigilante justice. Towards the end the film picks up the pace, and gathers a bit of suspense, but it has a rough start, and then in the middle Craven tries to populate the film almost like an amusement park ride, rather then a horror film, showing off the bizarre, and the shocking, but for me it doesn’t quite work. The People Under the Stairs had potential to a serious and disturbing horror film, but in the end it just felt average.

 

Audio/Video (4/5, 4/5)

   Scream Factory brings Wes Craven's Shocker to Blu-ray in an excellent 1:85:1 1080p AVC encoded transfer that looks really excellent. You might see me come down on Shocker, but it's a film I grew up watching quite a few times, it was on TV and I did rent it a number of times and at one point found a lot to enjoy in the film, and compared to those viewings (and even without those in mind) the Blu-ray is an absolute revelation. Colors pop, detail is excellent, and black levels are deep, I did not notice any crushing or DNR present on the transfer.

   The People Under the Stairs comes to Blu-ray from Scream Factory in a 1:85:1 1080p AVC encoded transfer preserving the films original aspect ratio. Like Shocker the film looks quite excellent with bright and natural colors, excellent detail, solid blacks, and accurate flesh tones. I did not detect DNR usage, and was pleased by the visual presentation overall.

   Both Blu-rays feature DTS-HD MA 5.1 and 2.0 tracks in English. Dialogue in both films is excellent audible as are both films scores. They also create a suitable ambiance for the features.

 

Extras (5/5, 5/5)

   Both Blu-rays are fully loaded and feature 2 commentary tracks each, interviews with the cast and crew, behind the scenes featurettes, trailers, TV spots, galleries, and more.

 

Overall

     Wes Craven in my view of horror is a director with a very on again, off again career. The man has a few masterpieces, and other films that make you question his reputation. Shocker is one of the latter, while People Under the Stairs offers some of the potential that Craven tends to offer, but falls a bit too flat in the end. The good news is for fans of  both films Scream Factory have unleashed stellar special editions of both, they look and sound fantastic, and are loaded up with extras.