Sometimes, the best horror filmmakers are the ones who never wanted to be horror filmmakers. A filmmaker who wants to make great drama, thrilling suspense, or penetrating comedy can often bring elements of those genres to a horror film that elevate it above the expected entry in the genre. Jack Sholder always said that he didn’t set out to be Wes Craven; he wanted to be Jean Renoir. And although neither of those is true, because he is very much his own filmmaker, there are elements of both within his work.
Beginning his career as an editor with a very young, pre-Oscar Weinstein Brothers working on “The Burning,” and that early collaboration led to his directorial debut in the horror genre. Though his first few films would stick to that genre, it wasn’t long before he was flexing his muscles in other genres, from war films like “Vietnam War Story II” and “By Dawn’s Early Light” to TV movies that cover the gamut from a remake of “The Omen” to an early X-Men comics adaptation called “Generation X.”
He had other entries in the horror genre as well, directing the second film in the “Wishmaster” series and an episode of “Tales From the Crypt,” and his efforts to repair the ill-fated and confused Walter Hill science-fiction film “Supernova,” a project that was eventually taken over by Francis Ford Coppola and released to bad reviews and little earnings, is an amazing behind-the-scenes story of a film project gone terribly wrong.
In recent years, Sholder has become a professor at the School of Stage & Screen at Western Carolina University, teaching a new generation of young filmmakers an appreciation for the work that inspired him. Hopefully Sholder will be returning to direct another film, as he has arguably directed two great independent horror films from the 1980’s, and also been involved in one of the great horror franchises of all time.
Sholder’s film debut is a surprisingly sure-handed and thoughtful entry into the lunatics attack/siege film sub-genre. Boasting a cast of impressive talent, from Jack Palance and Donald Pleasance to Martin Landau and “A-Team” cast member Dwight Schultz, the film focuses on a psychiatrist and his family as the central focus of an attack by escaped mental patients during a massive power outage. Touching on interesting themes such as the de-evolution of humanity in crisis and the evolving idea of what insanity is in modern times, “Alone In the Dark” is a fun classic film from the early days of the slasher genre.
After having worked a bit with Robert Shaye at New Line Cinema during the production of the original “A Nightmare On Elm Street,” Sholder was brought in to replace director Wes Craven for the sequel. Notorious for its gay-themed content (which all the filmmakers still say was primarily inadvertent), “Freddy’s Revenge” is the interesting black sheep of the “Nightmare” family, but one that takes risks and breaks the rules of the franchise. Almost more a story of possession than one of nightmare violence, this second film was a huge success, and proved that there was a franchise within the concept just waiting to be milked for several more entries. NOTE: This was the second film in a row of Sholder’s to have a cameo from a member of the Shaye family; New Line CEO Bob Shaye was in this film as a bartender, and his sister (and “Insidious” actress) Lin Shaye was a receptionist in “Alone In the Dark.”
In a crowded year that also hosted other sci-fi action films like “RoboCop,” “Predator,” “Running Man,” and “Masters of the Universe,” it is unfortunate that one of the best entries of the genre that year has not had the staying power of some of those other titles. “The Hidden,” a sci-fi action-horror about a police officer teaming with a body-hopping alien from another planet to stop a rampaging alien of the same race from creating havoc on Earth while hopping from victim to victim, is the rare action film that uses its action scenes to build character rather than just excitement. The performance from Kyle McLachlan, as the alien police officer, is excellent and unsettling, and this has one of the great car chase scenes of the 1980’s. Well worth a look, and more deserving of being better remembered.