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Every time Wes Craven reinvented himself and reinvigorated his career, he seemed to stall within a movie or two. After he had made two of the most influential horror movies of the 1970s – Last House on the Left (1972) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977) – he disappeared into lifeless, interchangeable B-movies (apologies to the folks that inexplicably and unironically enjoy Deadly Blessing and Swamp Thing). Shortly after making one of the most influential horror films of the 1980s – A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) – he fell into another, albeit much less dreadful rut. By most accounts, he was pretty sick of being pigeonholed as a horror filmmaker, but held course. Scream (1996) was his vital contribution to the 1990s, but he began the process of redefining the look and tone of his work sometime around The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988). His next two studio projects, Shocker (1989) and The People Under the Stairs (made by Shep Gordon’s Alive Films and distributed by Universal Pictures) applied this slicker imagery to his more typical ‘70s and ‘80s themes and formulas.

Wes Craven Scream Factory Double Feature

Shocker


About to be electrocuted for a catalog of heinous crimes, the unrepentant Horace Pinker transforms into a terrifying energy source. Only young athlete Jonathan Parker, with an uncanny connection to Pinker through bizarre dreams, can fight the powerful demon. The two dive in and out of television programs, chasing each other from channel to channel through stunning scenes of disaster, game shows, and old reruns. (From Scream Factory’s official synopsis)

Shocker is very obviously Craven’s attempt at creating a new Freddy Krueger-type franchise, following a lack of prophets from the notoriously cheap New Line Cinema. On this level, the film is an unmitigated failure, largely because it simply isn’t frightening – neither in action or concept. Mitch Pileggi’s performance as Horace Pinker is delightfully hammy, but he amounts to little more than a thug seeking revenge against a very specific party. He’s like a Terminator. Robert Englund’s Freddy Krueger was an enigmatic threat that enjoyed scaring his victims as much as killing them. He also cast a wider net over his prey (‘every town has an Elm Street’) and his ability to enter dreams touches upon a very deep, subconscious fear of nightmares. Pinker’s electronic powers are more in line with a comic book supervillain, limiting his ability to frighten an audience beyond their visceral reaction to, well, shock. Perhaps more important is the fact that Pinker is a mortal man for the entire first act of Shocker. Aside from the opening credits (which Craven basically reuses, shot for shot, for Shocker), Krueger is introduced as a sort of boogie man/phantasm.

Of course, Shocker’s problems don’t end with the fact that it isn’t worthy of the Nightmare on Elm Street legacy. It’s actually pretty bad all-around and time has not been kind to its various shortcomings. Craven’s script is so by-the-numbers that I can’t believe he wasn’t as bored writing it as the audience is watching it. The predictable plotting steams through the motions, snagging plot points and clichés from familiar sources and occasionally sparking an accidental laugh via awkward melodrama. Worse yet, a slasher-fatigued MPAA forced Craven to trim the goriest content, bringing the bloodflow to a disappointing trickle. The one thing this movie has going for it is that it looks really sharp. The spit-polished production design, special effects, and direction surpass the majority of Craven’s rougher output, even the similarly-tuned Serpent and the Rainbow. It lacks the immediacy of The Hills Have Eyes and the driving creepiness of Nightmare on Elm Street, but is constructed in a way that served his right up to the present day. Craven’s music video-inspired surrealism and genuinely haunting use of dream logic becomes a practice run for New Nightmare (1994) a few years later (a more thoughtful, but similarly boring twist on the Nightmare on Elm Street formula). I do have to admit that the gonzo, nonsense climax is something of an unexpected treat, following an hour and a half of tedium – though, even here, Craven tries to force poignancy into a very silly concept.

It’s worth noting that Robert Kirk’s Destroyer (which is supposedly coming to Blu-ray at some point from Scream Factory as well) is essentially the same movie as Shocker, including a villain that gains supernatural powers after an electric chair execution goes wrong. Kirk’s film was released a year and several months before Craven’s and, despite its middling budget and limited locations, it’s probably the more entertaining of the two films. The body-jumping serial killer concept would crop up again in Brett Leonard’s Virtuosity (1995) and Gregory Hoblit’s Fallen (1998) – both of which curiously star Denzel Washington – but it’s likely that those filmmakers, not to mention Craven himself, were inspired by Jack Shoulder’s The Hidden (1987).

Shocker has never been released on Blu-ray until now, but had made HD appearances on television, as well as digital HD formats, like iTunes and Vudu. This 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer is a sizable upgrade over DVD releases and more or less identical to the Vudu stream (based on a small sampling). The details are tightly structured, elements are sharply separated, and the palette is quite vivid. However, this Universal-supplied transfer also glimmers with the hallmarks of the studio’s worst output. It’s chief issue is the overuse of digital noise reduction, which smoothes out the finest textures, eliminates natural grain, and creates waxy build-up. Some shots are caked in a sheen of digital noise and, because they’re darker scenes, often shot in the elements, I suspect that they were originally quite grainy. Though contrast levels are well-balanced, the gradations tend to have issues with posterization effects. Still, it’s much better than the gritty DVD releases

Scream Factory has included two uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio options – the original stereo and the DVD releases 5.1 remix. In this case, the 5.1 remix is probably the preferred track. It’s a tasteful expansion of the stereo track that moves dialogue to the center channel and gives the ridiculous hair metal soundtrack a solid LFE boost. Occasionally, rear channel echoes and awkward attempts at directional movement fall flat, but the overall effect is slightly preferable to the 2.0 track, where dialogue/incidental effects are stretched between the stereo channels. Volume levels are consistent on both tracks, but Michael Bruce’s unique and busy synthesizer/piano score gets the bigger boost when spread for 5.1.

Extras include:
  • Commentary with Wes Craven – This archive track has made the rounds on UK, German, and Scandinavian DVD releases, but makes its US debut here. The soft-spoken director runs out of steam pretty early, but does his best to find new things to talk about as the film drones to its conclusion, including behind-the-scenes anecdotes, locations, the soundtrack, and experimenting with special effects.
  • Commentary with Cinematographer Jacques Haitkin, co-producer Robert Engelman, and composer William Goldstein – This brand new track is a lively and fun collection of interviews conducted by Red Shirt Picture’s Michael Felsher (who did the same for several Scream Factory releases). Obviously, the content isn’t screen-specific, but it is a consistent collection of information.
  • Cable Guy (17:40, HD) – A new interview with main villain Mitch Pileggi, who recalls his over-the-top role very fondly.
  • Alison's Adventures (17:10, HD) – Lead actress Cami Cooper discusses her influences and her work as a ghost for most of the.
  • It's Alive (12:00, HD) – Another new interview, this time with executive producer Shep Gordon – the legendary talent agent and subject of Mike Myers’ documentary Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon. Gordon’s brief film distribution career is barely touched upon in Myers’ film, so this featurette makes a nice companion piece. For the record, Gordon’s Alive Films produced Craven’s Shocker and The People Under the Stairs, as well as John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness and They Live.
  • No More Mr. Nice Guy (26:10, HD) – A series of interviews with the people responsible for Shocker’s soundtrack, including music supervisor Desmond Child, Bruce Kulik (of KISS), Jason McMaster (of Dangerous Toys), Kane Roberts (of Alice Cooper), and Dave Ellefson (of Megadeth). It includes footage from the music videos.
  • Vintage EPK featurettes that include interviews with Wes Craven (8:50, SD)
  • Trailer and TV Spot
  • Radio spots
  • Storyboard and still galleries


 Scream Factory Shocker

 Scream Factory Shocker

 Scream Factory Shocker

 Scream Factory Shocker

 Scream Factory Shocker

 Scream Factory Shocker

 Scream Factory Shocker


Wes Craven Scream Factory Double Feature

The People Under the Stairs


Trapped inside a fortified home owned by a mysterious couple, a young boy is suddenly thrust into a nightmare. The boy quickly learns the true nature of the house's homicidal inhabitants and the secret creatures hidden deep within the house. (From Scream Factory’s official synopsis)

If Shocker is the Nightmare on Elm Street of Craven’s slick movies, The People Under the Stairs is the counterpart of Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes. All three films frame class issues in the context of horror films where family units battle each other. The People Under the Stairs is the first time Craven had cast the upper class characters as villains. For Last House and Hills Have Eyes, Craven wrote what he knew and put white intellectuals and nuclear families against ghetto criminals and rural rednecks. The drama grew from the fact that the well-meaning, affluent heroes were forced into violence, which fit the ironic, post-cultural revolution American nightmare he was exploring at the time. In the post-Reagan era the roles would be reversed and the metaphor was inverted. Instead of inbred, manic hill people capturing and eating prosperous interlopers in their vast desert stronghold, Craven drew inspiration from real-world gentrification practices to create a situation where paranoid, inbred, wealthy capitalists make sport of trapping and imprisoning the poor families that surround their estate (and sometimes they eat them too). The allegory is often over-stated, but fits the EC comics mould that Craven was imitating.

The People Under the Stairs is also the ultimate expression of Craven’s long-running obsession with booby-traps. In Hills Have Eyes, a Rube Goldbergian device is set to kill a hill person and, in Nightmare on Elm Street, the heroine captures Freddy with a similar device. In this film, the entire house is rigged with trap doors, trick stairs, and hidden passageways. The young hero, Poindexter ‘Fool’ Williams (Brandon Adams) ultimately uses the traps to his advantage. This brings us to the film’s central quality issue – it is basically the urban horror equivalent to Chris Columbus’ Home Alone, which had been released (almost exactly) a year before The People Under the Stairs. Craven merely flips the roles of the burglars and home owners. The concept of a hard-R horror adventure built around a plucky child protagonist isn’t problematic in itself (it’s actually a great idea), but Craven’s dismal sense of tone renders the experiment sour. Slapstick crotch-punches and head injuries sit side-by-side with grotesque mutilation and genuinely disturbing scenes of child abuse – all without any sense of irony or self-awareness. It’s very ambitious, but doesn’t quite work.

The People Under the Stairs was released on barebones, anamorphic DVD and 1080p Blu-ray by Universal, then on special edition Blu-ray by Arrow in the UK. It appears that this Scream Factory release is using the same transfer as the previous Blu-rays (as well as the HD streaming version). I don’t have access to the original Universal release, but Chris’ review of the Arrow disc had plenty of screen caps, so I’ve included some here for comparison. Besides slight discrepancies in framing, there are minor differences between the releases. The Arrow disc appears a smidge darker. This may be due to the fact that I uploaded the pre-compressed JPG images, instead of full-size PNGs, but, assuming it isn’t, I do prefer the lighter image. Unfortunately, the Scream Factory disc is also noticeably more compressed, specifically in terms of edge enhancement. It’s not completely obvious while the footage is in motion, but the widest wide-angle background details have some definate haloes. Other issues, like the prevalent noisy grain, is an issue with the original material that pops up on every HD release of the film. In better news, details are crisp beyond any SD version of the film and colour quality is vivid enough to punch out of the prevalent darkness. If you already own the Arrow version, it’s only worth upgrading for the new/different extras (see below).

The box art lists a DTS-HD Master Audio ‘mono’ soundtrack, but that is a misprint. Scream Factory has supplied uncompressed DTS-HD MA versions of both the original 2.0 stereo and 5.1 remix tracks. Again, I think the 5.1 remix is tastefully done and the better of the two tracks, because of the center channel dialogue. People Under the Stairs has a bit more ambient effects work (birds chirping during daylight scenes, behind-the-wall noises) than Shocker and the rear channel placement can be a little awkward, but big directional cues, like gunshots and barking dogs, more or less match. Don Peake & Graeme Revell’s musical score sounds warm with a slight edge in terms of LFE punch on the 5.1 track. There are weird discrepancies in volume where dialogue, effects, and music are concerned – i.e. sometimes one will overpower another in one scene and not the next – but these issues seem to match between tracks and are probably inherent in the mix.

Extras


  • Commentary with Wes Craven – This brand new commentary is moderated by Red Shirt Picture’s Michael Felsher, who keeps the director on track with a series of thoughtful questions. It’s superior to the Shocker track in content and consistency, though it isn’t usually as screen-specific.
  • Commentary with actors Brandon Adams, A.J. Langer, Sean Whalen, and Yan Birch – Another new commentary, though this time not moderated. All three actors seem to be in the same room at the same time, which leads to some amusing interaction, but the tone is anything but energetic and there is a lot of blank space where nobody talks.
  • House Mother (19:30, HD) – Actress Wendy Robie recalls her super hammy role as the film’s villainess, as well as other highlights in her career.
  • What Lies Beneath (15:00, HD) – Special make-up effects artists Greg Nicotero, Howard Berger, and Robert Kurtzman (of KNB) discuss the film.
  • House Of Horrors (16:10, HD) – An interview with cinematographer Sandi Sissel, who discusses her road to Hollywood director of photography.
  • Setting The Score (10:10, HD) – Co-composer Don Peake talks about his eerie themes and his varied career, including a stint with the legendary Wrecking Crew studio group.
  • Raw, video-shot behind-the-scenes footage (6:40, SD)
  • Vintage EPK featurette (3:40, SD)
  • Trailer
  • TV spots
  • Storyboard and still galleries


 Scream Factory People Under the Stairs
 Arrow UK People Under the Stairs

 Scream Factory People Under the Stairs
 Arrow UK People Under the Stairs

 Scream Factory People Under the Stairs
 Arrow UK People Under the Stairs

 Scream Factory People Under the Stairs
 Arrow UK People Under the Stairs

 Scream Factory People Under the Stairs
 Arrow UK People Under the Stairs

 Scream Factory People Under the Stairs
 Arrow UK People Under the Stairs

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray releases – Shocker and People Under the Stairs from Scream and People Under the Stairs from Arrow UK (bottom) – and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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