The Wise Rollercoaster
A film that I love — and which is hard to convince other people to love — is Wes Craven's Shocker. When, back in 1989, I filed my rave review of it for the 'entertainment' page of the magazine Business Review Weekly, I received a bitter complaint from my sub-editor: "I wasted twelve dollars on this trash because of you", he spat. "And I want my money back!"
I hold another memory — this time, of a gang of mainstream film reviewers — complaining about Shocker. They jeered: "There's a scene where the hero sees his girlfriend in the water — and he jumps like he's never seen her before in his life!" Clearly — they all solemnly agreed — everything had gone wrong in the scripting, direction and editing of this abominable movie.
That same year, I took the opportunity to ask Wes Craven — who has just died of brain cancer at the young age of 76 — about this type of 'displaced' scene that occurred frequently in his work: events that had clearly been shifted from their initial chronological point in the plot.
He took the bait, and explained to me, exuberantly, what montage, Craven-style, was all about. It was a true Masterclass. "There are no magic solutions; the essence of good editing is beating the shit out of the material. Just keep cutting it, and cutting it, and cutting it until it works, and never stop trying different solutions... Films are like enormous puzzles."
The point was clear: emotion, pace, structure, rhythm, form, surprise — these things matter more in cinema than strict plot logic or believability. This is certainly true of Shocker, a supernatural, serial-killer fantasy in which a villain who has survived death in the electric chair, and is thereby transformed into "pure energy", dives (during the incredible climax) into a TV set and tumbles through a cascade of zapped channels and programs, chased by the hero.
I admire this surrealist side of Craven's imagination, which revealed itself in many of his horror films (like the Nightmare on Elm St. series), and in stray assignments that came his way, like the Haitian voodoo story The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988) or the forgotten Eddie Murphy vehicle Vampire in Brooklyn (1994).
As I sensed while speaking to him, Craven was a complex, sensitive character. Critics like to celebrate James Toback for going from university lecturing to gambling addiction and then into the film industry, but Wes' path was even more extreme: from literature professor to pornographer to horror maestro — his 'official' career kicked off by the movies he described as his political "screams of rage", The Last House on the Left (1972) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977).
His conversation betrayed a fundamental split: between, on one side, his very literary sense of the serious themes he liked to address, such as "the individual versus authority" and "personal moral responsibility", and then, on the other side, the embracing of his role as a purveyor of popular thrills and "rollercoaster rides" for the mass public.
A canny businessman and producer, Craven held onto the power of his franchises: Freddy Krueger, and the Scream series, which ushered in the 1990s era of self-conscious, postmodern horror. He became, almost by default, a public figure in the 'Hitchcock Presents' fashion. Yet he also yearned to express himself in more purely mythological, Jungian terms — as in the elaborately convoluted Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994) — and managed to make a personal project in fully 'respectable' dramatic mode: Music of the Heart (1999) with Meryl Streep.
Was this a contradiction? "That's just my approach", he said to me. "I try to do it as an entire thing. It's like voodoo in a way: at one moment entirely visceral, down to people drinking blood, dancing in possession, falling down on the ground and rolling in dust; whilst other aspects of it are ancient and thoroughly thought through, very sophisticated and quite wise".