Monday, 17 October 2011

A Tribute to David Hess

David Hess died recently at the age of 69. By way of tribute I wanted to look at the part he played in the original Last House on the Left both as actor and composer. Of course, playing the role of ‘Krug’ was something of a mixed blessing for Hess. Although it was the big break in his acting career, he was to become typecast as a psychotic killer as a result (notably in House on the Edge of the Park), and his musical achievements have been somewhat overlooked.

Hess was first and foremost a singer- songwriter. He had begun his professional career under a pseudonym, David Hill, writing and performing “All Shook Up”, which Elvis Presley later made a hit.

Wes Craven hired him not just to act in Last House on the Left but also to compose the soundtrack. In interviews and commentaries on the film, Hess emerges as the collaborator who comes closest, with Craven, to understanding the moral complexities of the film, and this is evident, not just in his extraordinary portrayal of Krug (“a character just like anybody else…who just happens to kill people sometimes”) but also in his approach to creating the soundtrack.

The soundtrack to Last House on the Left is in itself lyrical, memorable and beautifully composed but it is in conjunction with the film that the full power and meaning of the music comes across. The same can be said about the film: the soundtrack and film are symbiotic.

What Hess detected in the screenplay was its sense of moral contradiction, its absurd violence. He is, for example, one of the few, who understands the ironic counterpoint of violence and buffoonish comedy in the film (“absurd violence – absurd comedy”) and his music for the film counterpoints the on-screen action in the same way, at first confusing the viewer’s responses but ultimately leading to a deeper engagement with the moral complexities of the film.

One of the most extraordinary scenes in Last House on the Left is Krug’s moment of self-revelation after raping Mari by the riverbank. It is both profoundly disturbing and strangely moving because - while Krug has committed the vilest of acts – the violation and humiliation of another human being – we cannot entirely distance ourselves from him. His reaction to what he has done – and the best way to describe it I think is to say he is shocked at himself, at his own depravity – elicits sympathy – however fleeting - because we suddenly see his vulnerability, and it forces us to recognise the aggressor in ourselves.

It is a beautifully edited scene by Craven – made up of gazes averted, fingers picking dirt from hands, clothes being straightened, but the moment is given its full disturbing power by Hess’s ballad which counterpoints the scene. The song – deeply ironic – is tender, plaintiff and speaks of loneliness and the search for comfort in a loveless environment (“Now you’re all alone, feeling that nobody wants you, and you’re looking for someone to hold your hand, someone who understands.”) - but its counterpointing with the scene brings out the full horror and sorrow of what has just taken place: the feeling of alienation, powerlessness and isolation that violence creates in both the victim and the aggressor - and also in the observer.

I remember when I first realised (after having seen the film) that the actor who played Krug and the singer-songwriter whose gentle voice graced the soundtrack were one and the same. I couldn’t believe that one man could portray such brutishness as an actor and at the same time create such poignant music - in the same film!

That, perhaps is the true testament to Hess’s achievement: his ability to encompass the moral contradictions of Last House on The Left (‘The duality of man’ as Jung said). While Craven has to an extent, distanced himself from the film over the years, following the effect it had on his personal reputation in the 1970s, Hess embraced the film, discussing it with insight during his appearances at conventions since its re-emergence on DVD in the late 1990s. His contribution to this most disturbing and haunting of films cannot be overestimated.


Wes M said...

A fine send off for David Hess, Jon... He was great in Hitch-Hike as well, squaring up to Franco Nero is no small thing. If memory serves me right Wes Craven cast him in Swamp Thing as well - shame he didn't appear in Hill Have Eyes - he would have definitely brought something to that film. There's a very good meaty interview with Hess on the US House on the Edge of the Park DVD

Jon T said...

Many thanks, Wes. I must check that interview out. Interesting what you say about Hills Have Eyes. Now I think about it the actor who plays the cannibal-father bears more than a passing resemblance to Hess...