David Alexander Hess was an American actor, musician and songwriter, best known for his appearances in a trio of extreme horror films in the 1970s, in which he played a variety of psychotic criminals.
Born September 19, 1936, in New York, Hess first had success as a singer and songwriter in the 1950s. Under the name David Hill, he recorded the original version of All Shook Up, later a hit for Elvis Presley. His own compositions from the era include Start Movin’, recorded by Sal Mineo, and several songs for Elvis, including I Got Stung, Come Along and Sand Castles. His song Speedy Gonzales was a hit for Pat Boone and Your Heart, Your Hand, Your Love was a popular Andy Williams number. Hess himself had two hit albums in the 1960s, and in 1969 became head of A&R for Mercury Records, where he co-wrote the successful rock opera The Naked Carmen.
His film career began in 1972, when he took the lead role in Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left. It was a controversial choice for a man with a successful, if low profile career in music, and would – by his own account – result in him losing an agent and more mainstream work.
The movie saw Hess playing Krug Stillo, the leader of a gang who kidnap and assault two teenage girls before themselves falling victim to the vengeful parents of one of the girls.
Hess was immediately impressive – with his own version of character acting, he put the fear of God into his co-stars and created one of cinema’s most memorable, terrifying bad guys. As he later commented, “little old ladies would suddenly cross the street when they saw me coming”.
In contrast to his onscreen persona, Hess also composed the acoustic, folky soundtrack to the film, which stood in contrast to the violence on display. This would become a sought after score, released on CD in 1999 and on vinyl in 2014.
Hess would play variations on this role in two Italian films. Hitch Hike (Autostop Rosso Sangue) was directed by Pasquale Festa Campanile and co-starred Franco Neo and Corrine Clery, both big name Euro stars at the time. Hess plays hitchhiker Alex, and escaped mental patient who terrorises the couple after they pick him up. It’s a less disturbing, more complex film than Last House, but nevertheless cemented Hess’ reputation.
In 1980, he appeared in Ruggero Deodato’s House on the Edge of the Park, a disco-era reboot of the Last House theme that was every bit as uncompromising as you might expect from the director who had just made Cannibal Holocaust. Hess, as Alex, teams with Ricky (Giovanni Lombardo Radice) to terrorise rich party goers in a remarkable and intense class war film that features some of the most outrageous moments ever captured on film.
Around this time, Hess had moved to Germany, where he worked in film dubbing, and acted in supporting roles in films such as The Swiss Conspiracy and disaster movie Avalanche Express. He also claimed to have written the English language shooting scripts for such German directors as Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Reinhard Hauff.
In late 1979/early 1980, he directed his first – and only – feature film, To All a Goodnight. This Christmas slasher film proved to be a rather mundane effort with poor exposition and weak direction.
Returning to acting, he was reunited with Wes Craven on Swamp Thing in 1982, and over the next few years had a solid career playing small parts and villainous roles in films and TV shows, including White Star, Armed and Dangerous, Knight Rider, Manimal, The Fall Guy and The A-Team. He also worked with Deodato again on the slasher film BodyCount in 1987, and appeared in Enzo G. Castellari’s 1993 spaghetti western Jonathan of the Bears.
Generally though, the 1990s were a lean time for Hess. It wasn’t until a new generation of filmmakers emerged, knowing his work from the past and appreciating both his abilities and his cult status, that he began to find more work in low budget horror movies. While none of these films lived up to the great films of the past, Zombie Nation, Zodiac Killer, Smash Cut and others kept Hess in work. He also began to appear on the convention circuit and in 2000 toured the UK with Gunnar Hansen, where The Last House on the Left – still banned in Britain but allowed screenings by Leicester City Council and at film club venues – was paired with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
He would also participate in documentaries and audio commentaries relating to Last House. Hess died of a heart attack on October 7th 2011.