Hess on horror

Iconic star David Hess reflects on his career.

by Jennie Kermode

The star of over 30 films, he's a horror icon who can still pull in the crowds, and he's also directed, produced, and enjoyed a successful career as a musician. But who is the real David Hess? Energetic and mischievous with a quick wit and never any shortage of things to say, he's a man who seems perfectly suited to show business. I met him in Glasgow where he was promoting his new film, Smash Cut, at a screening of the infamous and hugely influential The Last House On The Left.

His first feature, this once banned 'video nasty' still makes an impression today. Back in 1972, he made a devastating impression on audiences as psychopath Krug. So I start by asking him the obvious question: what was a nice guy like him, who wrote songs for the likes of Pat Boone and Elvis, doing in a film like that?

He laughs. "I think it's my natural intensity," he says. "I don't hold back on anything. So the concept of playing a bad guy always appealed to me because you get to play against who you really are. When we were making the film, back then, I used to play a lot of rugby - they called me 'the mad Hessian' - and I was in a rugby tournament at the time, so I think a lot of what I was doing on the rugby field came out in the film." He sees the story as, in many ways, a reflection of what was going on in Vietnam at the time. "We were all pretty upset with that situation. I was past the draft age but Marc [Sheffler, who plays his son in the film] wasn't at the time. I think that was the beginning of a feeling of helplessness, and that helplessness exploded onto the screen."

What he remembers most fondly about making the film is the sense of camaraderie involved. It was Wes Craven's directorial début, and apparently Wes didn't really give much direction to the actors, which suited him fine because that way he got to do his own thing. Since all the actors agreed on roughly what they wanted to get out of it, there were no problems. There was also, he notes, quite a bit of on-set humour, which might seem inappropriate but which was the only way they could get through some of the more gruelling scenes. Not only were scenes of abuse potentially difficult for those playing the victims, but he had a few scares of his own when being threatened with a chainsaw. There was no CGI in those days, and in the scene where the chainsaw comes through a door rather closer to his back than it was supposed to be, his startled reaction was quite real.

Of the remake, made last year by Dennis Iliadis, David says with a shrug "Yeah, I thought it sucked. But I'm not a big fan of remakes to begin with."

I point out that he has appeared in a few remakes, but he isn't phased by this; he's pragmatic. "As an actor, you have to take the roles that are offered. In the middle Eighties I had three young kids and a mortgage to pay so I did whatever came along. And I think I've been pretty lucky, really. I mean, I make films and music - what could be better?"

David does more of his own work in this area than most actors. At one time or another, he's been involved in almost every aspect of the business. This helps him as an actor, he says, because he knows what he needs to do, "but although I'm not hard to get along with I'm hard to work with because I don't know how to compromise. I'm really not cut from the Hollywood mould. I think that has affected how my career has gone. I've worked with some amazing actors - people like Lee Marvin, Robert Shaw and William Holden - and they always saw me as on a level with them, but they were also great teachers. I think the man who influenced me more than anybody else was John Garfield. He had a sense of how to explore than unknown region so as to get into a character." He has also worked with some great directors. "I was supposed to do another film with Pasquale [Festa Campanile, director of Autostop Rosso Sangue]," he recalls fondly, "but then he died, so it was hard to get him to direct."

In light of all this, how does he feels about the stigma attached to some of his work? Recently the allegations relating to Jamie Bulger's killer John Venables have raised the old (unsubstantiated) rumours about that murder having been inspired by a violent video, and there have been renewed calls to ban some horror films. Being an American, David isn't familiar with the case. When I explain it to him he shakes his head sadly; as a father, he can clearly imagine the horror of losing a child, but he's also depressed about the state of society.

"We live in a world of zombies," he says. "This attitude, this censorship, is ridiculous. Everybody's looking for something to point a finger at. People don't think any more. It's almost as if they've given up on the right to live. We've created a slave economy and most people just go to work, they come home, they watch TV, they fuck their wife or they fuck their husband, they go to sleep and the next day they get up and do it all over again, and they never think beyond that. Films and art depict that, they need to show that and to show what's wrong. People stop trying to get more out of life."

What has continually driven David to get more out of life, he reveals, is his first love: music. "There are all sorts of ways you can look at the world, and then there's music. It's an energy, it's like a language, it's larger than who we are, and everybody can relate to that in some way. Music is really the most important thing to me. It's where I start as an actor. I like to think of a sort of musical line for a character, like a classical motif, and that helps me discover who they are."

So what drew him to his most recent film, Smash Cut? "I just loved the script," he says. "To me, dedication is more important even than talent, and there were some really interesting people involved. You're always under the gun if you have a large budget, so I don't mind working on low budget films if there's a good team. What I look for is how well the team know themselves. I also found this part intriguing - I get to play a director, and it's a comedy, which is fun."

He also has another project in the pipeline which he grudgingly reveals, displaying the usual artist's reluctance to discuss a project in detail when it's still under development - yet he is clearly enthusiastic about this one. "I've just finished writing the script," he tells me. "it's a psychological thriller called As Evil Does. I think at this stage I've managed to raise the money. I have a role in it myself of course - not the main role, but I needed to do something so we could get the money. We plan to shoot it in Canada or perhaps in the Bay Area."

As we shake hands and conclude the interview, David asks me what I'm doing the next day. He's planning to head back to the cinema to see more horror films and meet some old friends. It's clear that he's still having great fun making films. "The most important thing you can do on a set is not take yourself too seriously," he says, grinning, "but I always have a clear vision of what I want to do with a film. It's always intense."

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