SWAMPS, SONGS AND SLASHERS by Dr Calum Waddell
SWAMPS, SONGS AND SLASHERS
The late David Hess, who sadly passed away in 2011, left a remarkable legacy in screen villainy - and 88 Films is proud to do his memory justice with our forthcoming special edition of Swamp Thing, which reunited him with the great Wes Craven! In this vintage interview, from the archives o Calum Waddell, the performer remembers his often outrageous career!
David Hess could have won an Academy Award for every single year of his post-1972 life and he would probably still be best remembered for playing Krug Stillo in Wes Craven’s classic exploitation shocker The Last House on the Left. As a result of his thoroughly believable psychopathic turn in the Craven picture, meeting the actor was something of an intimidating experience - although yours truly was lucky to have struck up a friendship with David, finally arranging to have him visit Scotland for a personal appearance in Glasgow in March 2011. Of course, with The Last House on the Left, Hess offered audiences a performances so raw, and even unhinged, that it was initially hard to separate the person from their character onscreen. Moreover, given the fact that Hess opted to do the crazy-rapist thing two subsequent times (in 1977’s Hitch Hike and 1980’s House on the Edge of the Park), one could be forgiven for having the impression that he might not be the most charming of dinner company. Thankfully, nothing could have been further from the truth and, in person, Hess really was an extremely sweet human being and any notions that the man might be just a tad on the insane side are quickly put to rest.
In his final years, Hess was a family man and a recording artist and not (repeat: not) someone who wanted to be reminded about his turn in The Last House on the Left. For all accounts, the actor felt like he had said all he wanted to about the movie. And when I last spoke to him, at the Cinema Wasteland expo in Cleveland, Ohio in April, 2011 - shortly before he left us - he was most enthusiastic about hyping his comedy, Smash Cut (2009) and bemoaning the slut-shaming of star Sasha Grey, the ex-adult star who was attempting to break into the mainstream at the time. David really liked Sasha - and the two had become fast friends. As a liberal gentleman, residing in San Francisco, he also wanted to make sure fans did not confuse him with his maniac persona from film's past. This was so blatant that, at one point in our recorded interview, he turned to me and said, “God Calum, do we really have to still talk about The Last House on the Left?” Yup, the shadow of Krug Stillo still cast a large shadow over the performer’s career and life - right up until his final breath...
“I didn’t really find out that they had banned The Last House on the Left and The House on the Edge of the Park until the first time I came to Britain on a tour in I think 2001 or 2002,” admitted Hess. “I mean, I already knew that people could not get them in the UK and that they had to order them from Holland but I had no idea it was some kind of official thing - like video nasties. As the web proliferated I remember reading about British fans trying to get these movies on DVD from abroad so there was clearly a black market for these two films. I laughed my ass off about it. I would love to meet some of the parliamentarians that debated this thing - I would like to debate them!"
Clearly, then, Hess is not one to support censorship. “I have never been able to see why any film, unless it was patently bad, would cause uproar,” he laughs. “But, yeah, sure I can see why these two movies, in particular, would be considered controversial – but why keep that out of the public eye? I think controversy is good for the marketplace. I think that no film should be cut – but banning is a grey area. I do ask myself - do I want a six year old watching The Last House on the Left? Or something that is contemporary like Chaos? You know - that stupid fucking film they tried to release in the United States a few years ago? That was a take-off on our movie with Sage Stallone in it and it was just awful, horrible and overboard. The acting is patently bad and the production is scaled right down. Now, do I want a six year old watching that and being influenced by it? No I don’t - of course not. But is it incumbent upon me to keep it out of their reach until a time, say when they are 13 or 14, when they are able to digest it and watch it? Yeah. So I don’t think it should be banned. I think it is up to the parent or the community to raise their children. It has nothing to do with making movies.”
Hess doesn’t have anything bad to say about Wes Craven (Sean Cunningham was a different manner - Hess felt that he had come between his friendship with Wes, for some reason) and recalls an “intelligent and focused” filmmaker on the set of his early efforts The Last House on the Left and Swamp Thing (1982). “Yeah... these villains I played... there is a problem getting in and out of character but as long as you are treating it as an acting job then you know that this is not a real person,” he maintained. “Of course you are bringing some part of whom you are into the character and that is what makes you believable in the role – so yes and no is my answer to that. I have always had a short fuse anyway and that was easy to use (laughs). I hoped that I would get to work with Wes again after Swamp Thing - I thought we always got along pretty good. My favourite of his movies is still The Serpent and the Rainbow... that should have launched him before Scream. Obviously we went our separate ways, although I was a little surprised when the guy who played Krug in his Last House remake called me for advice. I told him to do it his own way and to try and not think of me!”
It had been almost 40 years since The Last House on the Left hit cinemas when Hess passed, and the people involved in the picture have all gone in different directions. Perhaps most notoriously, Krug’s old co-star - and also departed - Fred Lincoln went on to have a successful career in porn, which is something that Hess can at least have a laugh about. “I totally understand where Fred is coming from,” joked the actor. “He made a conscious decision to get it off and I made a conscious decision to keep everything on. Now I’ve been frustrated for my entire life.” That said, Hess himself stated on one of the supplements for the American DVD of The House on the Edge of the Park that he actually performed genuine on-camera intercourse with that movie’s leading lady Annie Belle. Get to know the actor, however, and it soon becomes clear that he is something of a joker. “I said a lot of things on that DVD, didn’t I?” smiled Hess. “But, hey, if I said it, it had to be true, right? (Laughs)”
One thing about The Last House on the Left that Hess remains very proud of is its soundtrack which is littered with soft country-ballads and blues numbers that the actor penned himself. Indeed, one of the reasons the movie is so haunting is down to the score - with the singer’s unexpectedly soft vocals and touching lyrics being used as juxtaposition to the onscreen horrors. It works far better than today’s genre habit of splashing loud heavy metal over scenes of splatter. “I have always thought that if you use music that is obvious you can’t mess with people quite so much,” explained the musician. “Like Jaws is one way of doing things,” he continues. “When you hear that ‘Dah dum’ sound you know that the shark is coming. But for me it is even more subtle, and even more frightening, if you counterpoint something horrific with something unexpected. So if you have a sweet lullaby going on over a brutal rape scene it confuses the audience and that confusion kind of rips apart that screen that everyone places in front of them because it is, really, only a movie, right? So if you are going to work on someone’s mind you should really work on it.” It is a trick that many subsequent horror flicks have copied. “I think that if I am recognised by one person for doing that then it validates me,” he would laugh. “I love scoring genre films. I do not know what I would do if I was to score a mainstream picture.”
One person that was obviously paying attention was Ruggero Deodato – he not only used a light, orchestral soundtrack to score his notorious gore-fest Cannibal Holocaust, in 1980, but he chose throwaway, Carpenters-like ballads for his own Last House rip-off The House on the Edge of the Park. Although the Italian psycho-sexual opus brought back Hess in front of the camera, it did not take advantage of his musical prowess (Riz Ortolani was the man in charge this time around). “I actually did have something to do with the score on The House on the Edge of the Park but I was in the background,” revealed Hess. “Ruggero and I talked about what sort of music should be used. That was important because it was an Italian film and they needed an Italian composer. They were lucky to be able to even use me in that film because they were tough on American nationals back then in Italy. It made it hard to get money from the government if you were using foreign actors. So I don’t know that he wouldn’t have used my music I just know that he had no choice. I would say that Ruggero is a visionary director and a very nice guy.”
The actor’s musical skills were resurrected again in 2003 when Eli Roth wanted a revamp of the old The Last House on the Left soundtrack for his debut feature Cabin Fever. “On that movie we updated some things – my kids did a cover version of The Road Leads to Nowhere from The Last House on the Left and then they had their own song in it too,” states Hess. “Eli Roth got in touch with me and said ‘I am a big fan and we would love to use you and pay homage to your soundtrack from The Last House on the Left.’ I said ‘great – then pay me – pay me for the homage [laughs]!’”
Another one of the actor’s more notorious roles was in Hitch Hike, the 1977 slasher-on-the-road sickie that starred Bond girl Corrine Clery and Franco Nero – the latter of whom smashed our man’s nose in a fight sequence that went awry. “Yeah, he broke my nose but it wasn’t really Franco’s fault,” Hess would recall. “We were in the mood of it and filming a fight in this rocky field. The director was a great guy and a real intellectual – he had a vision and he wanted to recognize his vision – but he wouldn’t step in when he saw something wasn’t going to plan. He didn’t work on the material very well so it was up to Franco and me to work the fight out. We had a stunt co-ordinator who kept on saying ‘no it’s wrong’ and getting us to do it again and again. Well, after 19 takes I didn’t hold back far enough and Franco slammed me right on the nose. It was an accident – even though Franco is an athlete (laughs). But I have to think about the stunt director on The Twilight Zone. I am pretty lucky – all I got was my nose broken, Vic Morrow got killed, right?”
What some Last House fans might not know is that Hess actually secured himself a stint in the director’s chair on 1980’s superior Santa Claus slasher flick To All A Goodnight. The memory is bittersweet for the actor because the picture is now all but lost and – despite predating the better known Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) series – failed to set the box office on fire. “I don’t know why that happened with To All A Goodnight,” bemoaned Hess. “It has kind of faded into obscurity now too - but it allowed me to direct and I love doing that. I want to direct documentaries now. I have a project on how music is the solvent of life – the glue that brings us together, you know?'
Speaking to Hess and it fast became apparent that music was the thing that was closest to his heart. “I got hit in the eye with a soccer ball when I was 12,” he would maintain. “They couldn’t operate on you back then because there was no laser surgery so I was flat on my back for 14 weeks because my retina was partially detached and they had to wait for the fucking thing to grow back, right? So my parents bought me this great record player and I kept asking for more and more stuff to play. I listened to music all day long back then for 14 weeks. I grew up with music – my mother was an opera singer.” However, this is not to say that Hess did not have good memories of his film career. “I would say that working with Hardy Kruger and Stephen Boyd on a movie I did called Potato Fritz is my favourite memory,” he revealed. “Hardy really taught me how to grab screen time. He told me everything he knew. Assuming that the camera loves you there are ways to make it love you even more. I have always been a student of film and they were great. I also loved working with Lee Marvin on Avalanche Express – Mark Rolston, the director of that, he was great but he was very sick. He died during the shooting. But, you know, I do not have any regrets - the fans remember me and I think horror movie followers are some of the smartest people you can find. I have some great fans. I'm very fortunate.”
- 88 Films