He was something of a renaissance man, whose career began in music, and though it never totally left that arena, also took him to some very different places. In the end, David Hess, who passed away suddenly of a heart attack last month at the age of 75, will be remembered by millions of movie fans worldwide as an icon of exploitation cinema. An odd fate for a guy who used to write songs for Elvis...
Hess was born to a Jewish family in New York City during the depths of the Depression. From a very early age, he had already found his first calling. Songwriting came naturally to him, and he also enjoyed performing, as well. At age 19, using the Anglicized name "David Hill", he actually took a stab at recording a brand-new song called "All Shook Up", which wound up a #1 hit the following year for Elvis Presley.
Unbowed, Hess took his songwriting talents to Shalimar Music, where he would be a successful composer through the rest of the 1950s and into the 1960s. Ironically, he would compose a number of songs for Presley himself during this period, as well as the likes of Sal Mineo, Andy Williams, Pat Boone and others. Most notable was the novelty hit "Speedy Gonzalez," which Boone took to #6 in the U.S. and #2 in the U.K., selling six million copies worldwide. By the end of the 1960s, Hess had recorded two hit folk albums and found himself the head A&R man at Mercury Records.
Few could have predicted that during his tenure at Mercury, this successful songwriter, producer and recording artist would suddenly branch off into a very different area of show business. In 1972, he was asked to star in the debut film of a young director by the name of Wes Craven. That film was The Last House on the Left, which would become one of the most notorious pieces of exploitation cinema ever made.
It started out as a musical collaboration, as Hess was called upon to pen the soundtrack for the film. This he did, and songs like "The Road Leads to Nowhere" can be heard throughout the film, with Hess himself on vocals. But it would be as the brutal, sadistic, yet disturbingly charismatic Krug Stillo that Hess would make his greatest contribution to the movie, and become forever known to connoisseurs of the darker side of horror.
The leader of a band of vicious outlaws, Krug is one of the most terrifying psychopaths of '70s cinema, and that's really saying a lot. Hess is a natural in his first screen appearance, seeming to exude the perfect pitch of unadulterated sleaze and lowbrow humor that makes the character unforgettable. One wonders why it took so long for Hess to step in front of a camera. Last House is a flawed film, yet Hess' performance remains one of the best things about it.
Hess would continue to write music of all kinds for years to come, but his career was now set on a different path. The role of Krug opened the door to other lead parts in films like Pasquale Festa Campanile's Hitchhike and Ruggero Deodato's The House on the Edge of the Park. These were unrelentingly dark, grim pictures, in which Hess played unrelentingly dark, grim roles very reminiscent of Krug. Not to besmirch the man in death, but he seemed to have a knack for playing the consummate dirtbag, and it served him well in picture after picture.
He continued to act through the '80s, appearing in Craven's Swamp Thing as well as a slew of Italian exploitation flicks, and even tried his hand at directing. Both his acting and musical careers slowed down a bit in the 1990s, but in more recent years Hess had once again become very active. He recorded a few more albums and started popping up again in horror films like Zombie Nation and Smash Cut. Reminiscent of what he did on Last House on the Left, he even worked on some music tracks for a horror film, namely Eli Roth's 2003 breakout, Cabin Fever.
The iconic roles of his earlier years had gained Hess a whole legion of new, younger fans, many of whom he began connecting with at the conventions at which he started to become a fixture. His career was experiencing a bit of a revival, and ironically he had recently signed on to appear in the sequel to The House on the Edge of the Park, when he died on October 8.
A musician, an actor, a director, a producer--David Hess was all these things, but horror fans will remember him for playing some of the screen's most infamous lowlifes, particularly the implacable Krug Stillo. It's always the villains who get all the glory in horror, and Hess was one of the best.
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