Genre fans will remember David Hess for his roles in such shockers as Wes Craven's classic Last House on the Left (1972), the brutally cold thriller Hitch Hike (1977), Ruggero Deodato's House on the Edge of the Park (1980), the comic book sci-fi horror Swamp Thing (1982), and the backwoods slasher Body Count (1987).
Hess is also a consummate musician, having composed popular singles for Elvis (yes, the one and only) and scored a variety of soundtracks, from the original Last House, to Cabin Fever (2002) to Manhunt (2008).
(Did we mention he directed the 1980 Christmas slasher To All a Goodnight?)
Hess was gracious enough to sit down with us and discuss highlights from his last four decades working in the film business.
The Terror Trap: David, thanks for taking the time to talk to us.
David Hess: It's my pleasure.
TT: You’re unique in that you’ve had two careers that have run parallel to each other, and at times have interwoven into each other. You’re an accomplished musician/composer and an actor/director.
Which is your first love?
DH: I’d say the music. That’s my essence. I always tell people, “Don’t make me choose because you won’t get me in anymore films!” (Laughs.) Of course, that’s not realistic because nobody forces you to choose…you choose yourself.
Essentially, I’m a musician. Always have been. When that darkness comes, I always resort to the music to try and get myself back into a positive state of mind.
That’s not to say that making films, writing or acting, isn’t important to me. It’s very important because it’s another way of telling people how I feel and who I am.
What’s your connection to “All Shook Up,” the classic song so closely associated with Elvis?
DH: It was my idea. I have to give credit to Otis Blackwell…he took the song and made it something. I was lucky enough to record it first.
My idea, Otis wrote it.
TT: And then you went on to write some songs that Elvis ultimately recorded, correct?
DH: Yeah, seven songs in total, I think.
TT: How did you go from a career in music in the fifties and sixties to getting involved in film in the seventies?
DH: I just kind of fell into it. My sister was living at the time with an actor named Marty Kove, who was also beginning and in the early stages of his own career in New York.
I was doing Off Broadway stuff. Writing music. I was also playing rugby. I had just been chosen for the national team and elected to be the captain of my own team. I was focused on much more of a physical thing.
Marty had come to some of my rugby games and he saw what a “take no prisoners” player I was. He thought I would fit really great into this film that he was up for…
TT: That would be The Last House on the Left?
DH: Right. They asked him to do the comic relief because the film was originally written as a porno film.
DH: He sent me in for it and really played a trick on me, I gotta tell you.
TT: How so?
DH: It was the middle of the summer and he said I wasn’t big enough. So he started shuffling through a closet and pulling out sweaters. He loaded me up with 3 or 4 sweaters to make me look bigger.
We drove in my sister’s car down to where the auditions were being held in Manhattan. It was HOT and I was sweating…and so I just lost it. I ran up the stairs and I screamed at the top of my lungs, “I’m here…now what the fuck do you want me to do?!” This little girl hid under a desk and everyone looked at me like I was nuts. (Laughs.)
I didn’t even have to read. I got the role because I was such a crazy man. That’s how I got the role in Last House.
TT: Were any of the other cast principals at that audition?
DH: No. Just us and Sean Cunningham (the producer). And the girl who I scared half to death. (Laughs.)
TT: When you got the role, was the fact that you were going to write songs for the film part of the deal? Or did that come later?
DH: Unbeknownst to me, Wes Craven had been kind of following my career as a musician.
I performed locally but never wanted to go on the road. I kind of toyed with the idea but never really wanted to leave town. Locally, I was pretty well known and Wes had heard some of my recordings.
I guess he liked them. I kind of came out of the Woody Guthrie/Pete Seeger era and did my own thing.
TT: You composed all the music for Last House, correct?
DH: Yes, that's right.
TT: What’s your recollection of composing that soundtrack? Was it easy? Difficult? Did it take a while?
DH: It never takes me long. I mostly write in my head. I studied at Juilliard so I know music. I know the language.
When I wasn’t in front of the camera, I would just kind of absorb where we were shooting - the scenes, the locations, etc. - and try to make them fit into some kind of a music platform.
TT: The songs are really solid. Was the soundtrack ever pressed into an official release?
DH: Yes, we eventually just pressed our own CDs. You can get a hold of them. If people go to my website - davidhess.com - I can get them off to people.
TT: Cool. We really like your work on that.
DH: It’s fun, isn’t it?
TT: It is.
Using the first thoughts that come to your mind, describe the character of Krug Stillo. What do you think motivates him and what is the source of his anger?
DH: (Long pause.) I think socially, he never had a chance. And so I believe that it fomented that build-up of resentment. It’s not so much anger as it is resentment. And he acts out physically with his resentment.
He resents everybody that’s never given him a chance. And because of that…I don’t want this to be misunderstood…but there’s a certain vulnerability that comes off him. That was always my belief. I always look for the goodness in people. I would say that’s what motivated him more than anything.
And then getting caught up in that particular moment that’s happening…it’s like a blood lust. We’re not too far removed from the animal kingdom. They don’t have a memory of life or death but they certainly act out on their emotions.
TT: In many ways, Last House - as well as the later House on the Edge of the Park - are both stories of class conflict. Would you agree with that?
DH: Totally…with Hitch Hike being the third in what I consider a trilogy. It was always a study in sociopathology to me. Why? Well, what creates sociopathic behavior in an individual? Are they born with that? Or is it something that’s created by where they’re positioned within society? Society helps to create that. It’s always been my theory.
If you go back far enough, children were diagnosed as schizophrenic and they were institutionalized because they had this aberrational behavior. And then further down the line, closer to the present, they're diagnosed as bi-polar. And now, there’s a potential link to autism.
So we’ve got different definitions of the same thing all the time for people off the beaten path in terms of the way they relate to society. That’s what those three films are all about, as far as I was concerned…studying it from an adult point of view.
TT: Krug needed some serious Prozac.
DH: (Laughs.) Yes, no question about it!
TT: You’ve spoken in the past about how playing Krug was a “cleansing experience.” What do you mean by that?
DH: Well, we’re constantly during our lifetimes trying to cleanse ourselves of those things that are aberrational to us. And what do you do if you sit across from an analyst?
You open up and you dig as deep as you possibly can into that unknown territory that you don’t want to know about…and try to bring it up and look at it and understand why it is that you do these things.
If you’re able to act them out in locations and in scenes where it’s protected because you’re making a film…you’re not doing it in real life even though it looks real…well, there’s very much of a cleansing process. "Oh my God, this is what I did? Holy Christ. In other words, I can go to that degree?? Whoa…"
TT: Hardcore therapy?
DH: Exactly. That’s a very good way of putting it. It’s therapy on the job is what it is.
TT: How did playing Krug affect your life personally when the film was released to theaters? Here was a grindhouse film that in addition to Last House on the Left and Krug & Company, was also titled Sex Crime of the Century at one point. We mean, it wasn't exactly Disney entertainment.
DH: Other than the fact that a little old lady who’d seen the film used to go across the street away from me when I would walk in New York? (Laughs.)
I’m not sure that it affected me THAT much. I think I always had that persona. I just didn’t go out killing people. I’ve always been a tough guy. I’m not perfect but I wouldn’t mess with me, even now! (Laughs.)
TT: How did your friends and family react?
DH: They were kind of sheltered. Coming from an upper middle class family and growing up fairly wealthy because of that, they kind of treated it as it’s only a movie. "That’s not our David."
Well…you’re wrong! Some of that IS your David. (Laughs.) He’s just able to do it in a film as opposed to doing it on the streets and getting caught.
TT: What are some personal memories that jump to mind about the Last House shoot in terms of working with the two ill-fated girls, Sandra Cassell and Lucy Grantham?
DH: Lucy was incredible. She’s gone on to get her PhD so it wasn’t a career that she wanted. It was just something that happened. I think the only way to explain it is that there was some kind of organism that was going on that was leading the film and we were all just a part of it.
I would imagine that if Lucy and I got together tomorrow, it would be like there was no time in between. Sandra was a little different. I think she was more…vulnerable.
Memory-wise, there’s a visceral attraction to Sandra’s Mari in the film. Krug does that. And then the other thing is that he really feels kind of filthy, kind of dirty when he attacks this innocent. But he can’t help himself. He’s gone too far at that point.
And that’s the way we inter-related, even when we weren’t shooting. Sandra was an innocent and I held my character. She didn’t want to get anywhere near me.
TT: So she left you alone when you weren’t filming?
DH: She didn’t want any part of me. She thought I was a fucking monster.
TT: Was that because she was a really enthusiastic Method actress and she was creating that whole thing? Or was she actually really scared of you?
DH: I think she was really scared. She wasn’t what I would call a complete Method actress. I mean, I studied with Sandy Meisner and Stella Adler. I knew what the fuck I was doing. I knew how to maintain that character, even off screen. And for very good reason. I wanted that reaction from her.
TT: How about the actors who played your cohorts?
DH: Fred Lincoln and I did all the stunts together. We had to. You’d do things out of the moment. There was definitely something driving all of us.
Now if you talk to Fred about it, he hated the film.
TT: Why is that?
DH: I think basically he’s a non-violent person and he couldn’t handle the violence. He thought it was so gratuitous. I didn’t feel that way. I thought it was…
TT: A necessary evil in order to tell the story?
DH: Right. And the other thing is - don’t forget, the story comes from an old Norse Edda. Ingmar Bergman had filmed the story before, and the actual story is out of the fourteenth century if you really want to trace its historical roots.
TT: Had you seen Bergman’s The Virgin Spring?
DH: I’d seen it. I love Bergman. I was a film buff and an actor who had done Off Broadway, musicals, etc. So it wasn’t like I wasn’t in the loop just because I came from a music background.
TT: Whenever we watch Last House, we always think of an ancient Greek tragedy. Seriously! It's got all the same ingredients: the innocence betrayed, these unexplained evils, duplicities and identities that are revealed in the middle…and then at the end, it all has a very bloody retribution.
DH: Sure. Things don’t change. We may be living in the 21st century but we’re still using elements of theater that really go back three or four thousand years. Theater is theater…
TT: You mentioned Fred. What do you recall about working with Jeramie Rain (Sadie) and Marc Sheffler (Junior)?
DH: We’re still very close friends. I visit Jeramie all the time. She lives in Idaho. I see Fred when we do conventions and we talk to each other because he lives down in L.A. And Marc’s been a bosom buddy for years…except he’s a pain in the ass.
DH: Yeah, that’s just the way he is. But he’s a fun pain in the ass. He always teases me. He never laughs at my jokes. Everybody else thinks I’m hysterical. He won’t laugh and he does it intentionally! He’s a fucking pain in the ass. (Laughs.)
TT: Would it be fair to say that Sandra is not in the picture these days?
DH: No, I don’t think she stayed in contact with anybody. I believe she’s totally out of the business in that respect. I think that was it for her.
TT: How about Lucy? Do you know if she turns up at conventions and that whole circuit?
DH: I think people have been in contact with her but I haven’t seen her at those things.
TT: When you were making Last House, did you have any inkling that Wes Craven would end up having such a career in horror?
DH: No. Not at all. He never even directed the film, as far I was concerned. He was a screenplay writer and still is. I mean, I think that he’s a better writer than he is a director. That’s my take on it. But look, who am I to say? He’s been incredibly successful and has made some really wonderful films.
TT: So you had no idea he would become this big horror guru?
DH: No…and I still wouldn’t consider him a horror guru. I don’t think he knows any more or any less than anybody else. I think we ALL understand the nuts and bolts of making a horror film. It’s the money people that put you in a position of power, not the creative people. The creative people are looking for the money so that they can do something creative.
Although if you think about some of the stuff that he’s done like Serpent and the Rainbow - that’s an incredible film. And it’s lost. If I mention that one, most people don’t even know that it exists.
Moral question for you: in Last House, Mari and Phyllis (particularly the latter) aren’t entirely innocent. They came to the city, they were looking for some pot - and they found you. Do you think the waters are muddied by the fact that they were out seeking a good time?
DH: I think it was intentionally muddied. There’s a certain nihilistic overtone to the whole film in that no one is perfect. And no one is bad. Look at the parents. In the remake, they took up the revenge aspect a notch and enlarged it.
There is that revenge motive that exists in the original. Why? Because if it doesn’t stop there, it becomes circuitous. You do something, and someone’s gonna do something back to you, and it explodes. It has to stop somewhere. That’s one of the unwritten, unspoken things about the film.
What would happen if the parents didn’t seek revenge? What would happen if they didn’t kill them…if they just wacked them on their heads and turned them over to the cops?
TT: Well, if they [the parents] had been hardcore pacifists and didn’t do anything…no doubt you'd have the sequel Last House on the Left Part 2 - where the killers just go out and commit more crimes.
DH: Yeah. Maybe. But is it morally or ethically correct to become your own vigilante?
TT: Sometimes, yes. That’s our personal opinion anyway. Do you think Last House is asking that question?
DH: Well, you’re looking at it forty years later. But certainly it’s in there. Everybody has blood on their hands. That’s one of the major statements the film made, and people have been trying to remake that concept for years and years. Even though there’s no such thing as perfection, how do you remake something in which the statement is perfect?
TT: You mentioned the 2009 remake. What did you think of it?
DH: I thought it sucked. I thought it was terrible. I saw it opening night because I couldn’t resist. I went with a friend of mine who knew the original, etc. We both came away shaking our head because it looked like somebody just wanted to make money. It was capitalizing on the popularity of the original. But that really speaks to the way we live at this point anyway in this country.
TT: Guerilla-style horror filmmaking seems to exist today just as much as it did back in the early ‘70s grindhouse drive-in circuit. Yet, most of the filmmakers today would kill for the kind of groundbreaking and redefining moment that Last House on the Left achieved in 1972. It shocked. It freaked you out. It broke barriers.
What did Last House have that it seems is nearly impossible to recapture today?
DH: Friendship. That comes to mind.
You see, we were all friends so we worked for each other. If you want to use sports as a metaphor, any good coach or team owner will tell you that the team that plays together is gonna always beat the team that has the stars. And I play at a high enough level to know that that’s true. By definition, the stars are selfish. And we weren't stars.
Another point is that I think there’s a “can you top this?” mentality with today’s filmmaking. If you think about it, there’s very little blood, for instance, in Last House. Or in House on the Edge, or Hitch Hike. I mean, there are spurts here and there, but you don’t see geysers of blood.
What you do is you feel the terror. So if you’re gonna show me a lot of blood, I won’t be terrorized. I’m gonna laugh. I’m gonna say, oh I know how that was made. That was Karo syrup and red dye #5. So it takes me completely off what the filmmakers SHOULD be trying to do, which is create terror.
That’s what horror films are about. Creating a situation of terror that keeps twisting the knife…and you can’t get away from it. I’ve been in theaters where I wanted to walk out and then something on the screen just held me in my seat. I didn’t want to see what would happen next. Holy shit! But I couldn’t leave…