Wes Craven’s Chiller (1985): Ice to See You, to See You…

Matty revisits a satisfying made-for-TV horror flick from the late, great fright master. 

Made-for-TV horror flick CHILLER (1985) is as good as you’d expect considering the talent involved. It’s scripted by J.D. Feigelson, writer of arguably the best goggle-box frightener ever, Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981); exec produced by Richard Kobritz, producer of probably the finest Stephen King miniseries in existence, Salem’s Lot (1979); and directed by genre master Wes Craven.

At the time of its making, Feigelson had a three picture development deal with CBS. The network passed on two of Feigelson’s previous horror scripts but expressed interest in Chiller. Feigelson presented Kobritz with Chiller and he agreed to produce it for CBS on two conditions. One, he and Feigelson would co-own the finished film’s negative. And two, Feigelson had to deal with the boring stuff — specifically navigating the seemingly endless cycle of preliminary meetings that come with fashioning a TV movie. Feigelson obliged and, after much to and fro, handed Kobritz Chiller’s CBS-approved script in September 1984. As soon as he read it, Kobritz was incensed.

“It was soft,” the producer opined in the Fort Lauderdale News on 19th May ‘85, three days ahead of the film’s premiere. “A homily or moral lesson on every page, all dialogue, no action, very safe and unimaginative. A couple of weeks later, even J.D. admitted that but he wanted to get the movie made so he went along with CBS. I met with CBS and said, “Look — it’s a monster movie, a Frankenstein movie. It has three acts: he is born, he runs loose, they kill him. That’s it. And we get a director who’s good at this stuff, not some TV director who won’t know where to put the scares in”.” [1]

CBS had vexed Kobritz when they tinkered with Salem’s Lot. They cushioned the frissons by lowering the film’s soundtrack and electronically darkening several of helmer Tobe Hooper’s most frightening visuals. Kobritz was determined not to let anything like that happen again. Though he knew there’d be a little compromise due to broadcast standards and practices, he sure as hell wasn’t prepared to sacrifice quality in exchange for it. Luckily, Kobritz had a trump card. In between Salem’s Lot and Chiller, the former Warner TV executive graduated to features and helped John Carpenter — with whom he’d teamed on small screen thriller Someone’s Watching Me! (1978) — bring a King yarn of his own, Christine, to the big screen in 1983. His newfangled prestige as a film rather than a TV producer bought him a cachet he parlayed into creative control.

Boasting the unique distinction of being the only producer in history to work with five canonised American horror masters at a key moment in their career [2], Kobritz recruited Craven after the Father of Freddy wrapped A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). Then, Craven was seen as a write-off. Craven’s last pictures, Deadly Blessing (1981) and Swamp Thing (1982), were box office flops; the troubled Hills Have Eyes Part 2 (1984) was sitting on a shelf; and A Nightmare on Elm Street was an unproven entity. Kobritz was unfazed. Having watched The Hills Have Eyes (1977) and Craven’s preceding TV creepers, the agreeable Summer of Fear (1978) and Invitation to Hell (1984), all the producer cared about was the horror specialist’s evident ability to adapt his style for televisual consumption. When Chiller started shooting in Los Angeles in February ‘85, the fact that A Nightmare on Elm Street was on its way to monumental profit, critical acclaim, and pop culture prominence was a fortuitous bonus; a boon that Kobritz and CBS could — and would — use to tout the film.    

Craven’s legacy as a horror giant cannot be disputed. But what’s usually forgotten when his remarkable output is discussed is that his relationship with the genre was often strained and uneasy. Irrespective of his natural affinity with the material and near constant innovation, Craven was uncomfortable with his reputation as a horror filmmaker for many years — particularly throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s wherein he simultaneously loathed yet repeatedly found himself needing to embellish the infamy afforded to him by his debut, the harrowing Last House on the Left (1972), for the sake of further employ. When he finally embraced his notoriety — or, more accurately, when he graciously accepted his fate in the wake of the disastrous Deadly Friend (1986) — the ex-English professor’s fiercely intelligent and analytical approach to the genre led to accusations of pretension and pomposity from critics and horror fans alike.

Nowadays, common thinking on the rare occasions when Chiller and Craven’s other horror TV projects (which, in addition to Summer of Fear and Invitation to Hell, include several of the better episodes of the tepid ‘80’s Twilight Zone revival, backdoor pilot Night Visions (1990), short-lived series Nightmare Café, and 1998’s Don’t Look Down) are brought up suggests that the maestro was hindered by the inherent limitations of the form. However, unlike, say, the bombastic Hooper who — sterling job on Salem’s Lot notwithstanding — struggled a touch with subsequent TV gig I’m Dangerous Tonight (1990), Craven sports a greater degree of subtlety beneath his bloodier predilections. Ever keen to show his range despite the genre pigeonholing, Craven actually enjoyed plying his trade in television. Pragmatically, he thought a tube assignment an easy payday and far less stressful than trying to get a feature film off the ground, especially when a script was in place as it was with Chiller. Artistically, he relished the challenge of disturbing audiences without visceral jolts and gore. The kind of horror in a TV spine-scraper appealed to his sensibilities: it had to be subjective, suggestive, and, crucially, of the mind.

Adamant that Chiller wasn’t going to be ‘just’ another basic slasher movie, Craven happily reduced the exploitable elements of murder and chicanery in favour of mining terror from human drama and topicality, sinking his teeth into the film’s weightier themes of grief; science vs. faith; corporate America’s increasing callousness in the age of Ronald Reagan (Chiller arrived slap-bang in the middle of The Gipper’s presidency); and family (a Craven staple). Thus, CBS’ pushback dwindled. When they did raise objections, their requests were generally bizarre and nonsensical.

“We’re still limited by TV’s self-censorship which, frankly, you can sort of agree with,” said Craven during Chiller’s promotional trail. “You can’t have gore and violence coming into homes on network TV because little children might be watching, even at nine or ten o’clock… Some of the network guidelines are very strict. You can’t have a gun firing in the same frame as the person being shot, for example. And you better be aware of those rules going in… CBS were worried because after our lead character returns home, he goes after the young girl [future scream queen Jill Schoelen] who lives on the estate as his mother’s ward. Originally, she was meant to be adopted but Standards & Practices said, “You can’t do that because if she’s his step-sister, it’s incest”. So we made it clear that she’s not formally adopted, she’s a ward, Beatrice Straight’s character is just her guardian. Then they said, “She can’t be that either”. So we said, “Well then who is she?”. They didn’t have an answer for that so they left us alone!” [1]

Craven’s interpretation of the material resonated with the film’s star, Michael Beck (The Warriors (1979), Xanadu (1980)). A born-again Christian, Beck declined the role of Miles Creighton twice until he met with Craven and realised the erudite artiste in front of him was invested in telling a deeper story. Yes, Miles is a rampaging undead ghoul, thawed from a ten-year cryogenic suspension, and slathered in some stupendous — albeit coy — make-up FX by Stan Winston. But the zombified business tycoon’s devolution into a cold-hearted monster bereft of feelings — his soul vanishing at some point between death, freezing, and re-animation — was the scaffold on which Craven could pin a slyly satirical tale that elicited shivers through a Monkey’s Paw-esque scenario (Miles’ heartbroken mother, performed with theatrical panache by Straight, is a key component in the narrative) that bristles with relatable emotions pertaining to the scariest mystery of all… What happens when you die? Interestingly, Craven returned to the concept several times beyond Chiller, circling it in the likes of Deadly Friend, The Serpent and the Rainbow (1987), Shocker (1989) and My Soul to Take (2010), and stealthily using Chiller’s ace, world-expanding coda as the basis for his single novel, 1999’s Fountain Society (it too deals with wealthy folk attempting to cheat death). Comparison-wise, Serpent and Shocker are stronger offerings than Chiller as a whole, but neither contain a sequence as, ahem, chilling as the scene in which Miles destroys a pastor’s entire belief system with a tersely delivered monologue. “I’ll tell you what’s on the other side,” the besuited fiend hisses to Reverend Penny (Paul Sorvino). “Nothing. Absolutely nothing. You die and there’s simply darkness. No streets of gold. No harps. No halos. No angels and saints. It’s all here, so you better live it up, holy man, because this is all there is.”  

While much of Chiller succeeds thanks to Craven’s appropriately icy atmosphere and flair for suspense [3], it doesn’t quite achieve classic status. The root of the film’s problem is Feigelson’s script. The ideas that the writer propagates are wonderful. Alas, they’re thinly sketched and impeded by passages of hoary prattle. Chiller is also lumbered with an intrinsically odd plotting choice that, once noticed, is hard to ignore. In a manner that sort of prefigures the obvious misstep at the heart of Craven’s meta opus New Nightmare (1994) which, curiously, never has Elm Street stalwart Robert Englund encountering his dream-stalking alter ego, Feigelson, Kobritz and Craven have their ensemble spend an inordinate amount of Chiller jabbering on about what a fantastic guy Miles was prior to snuffing it but we don’t actually see it. Instead, he’s pulled out the cooler and a bastard from the off. A similar issue plagues Bob Clark’s creepy anti-Vietnam parable, Deathdream (1972). Another riff on The Monkey’s Paw, Deathdream finds a formerly nice young soldier, Andy, returning home from combat as an aloof, claret-hungry zombie. A la Miles and Chiller, the stress this macabre resurrection exerts upon Andy’s family is somewhat flat, stunted and difficult to empathise with as all we’ve got are expository anecdotes to measure the extremes of his character against.  

Chiller premiered on CBS on Wednesday 22nd May 1985. “A tale of terror from the creator of A Nightmare on Elm Street!” boomed one of the network’s trailers [4]. Feigelson, Kobritz and Craven were set to reteam for a sequel. Sadly, disappointing ratings and muted critical response saw CBS hastily pulling the plug. Since, Chiller — now retrospectively christened with a possessory Craven credit — has become a perpetual grey market DVD release in bargain bins the world over, each of which reduce lensman Frank Thackery’s shadowy and evocative photography to unsightly mulch via piss poor third generation tape transfers. Maddeningly, it’s these versions currently available to stream, too. A shame; this hugely enjoyable nerve-jangler needs defrosting. 

Chiller‘s original U.K. VHS art

[1] Chiller Bends TV Rules by Bill Kelley, Fort Lauderdale News, 19th May 1985.
[2] Kobritz’s first collaboration with Carpenter was immediately pre-Halloween (1978), his second post the mass drubbing of The Thing (1982); and his hiring of Hooper for Salem’s Lot ostensibly kept the cigar chompin’ Texan in Hollywood when his career faltered following the tumultuous production of Eaten Alive (1977). The other masters Kobritz worked with were Larry Cohen and George A. Romero. Cohen, hot because of It’s Alive (1974) and It Lives Again (1978), wrote a draft of Salem’s Lot that Kobritz rejected, and Don of the Dead Romero was originally set to direct the King-based vampire epic until he jumped ship amidst creative differences and Hooper took over.
[3] Craven cited Alfred Hitchcock as his and Kobritz’s biggest aesthetic and tonal influence on Chiller. To cement the allusions, the director and producer shot the film under the working title ‘Frozen Man No. 59’ — a jokey nod to Elmore Leonard’s 1977 novel, Unknown Man No. 89, which Hitchcock optioned prior to his death in 1980. Incidentally, it was CBS who insisted the film be called Chiller when their marketing department decided it was reminiscent of Michael Jackson’s media-hopping 1983 hit, Thriller.
[4] Adjusted to “From the director of Scream (1996)” for a 1998 U.K. VHS release from an early iteration of Arrow Video (as Arrow Films). 

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